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Posts Tagged ‘quince’

It was a dark and stormy n—well, actually, it was pretty nice out. And it was Friday, I’d had a great day, but then, as it happens, the night suddenly took a turn.

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The culprit.

I’ll spare you any more details than this: I scratched my esophagus on my first bite of dinner*. A few years back I had an esophageal ulcer, and I’m guessing that spot in my food pipe is a touch sensitive. It felt as though there was a musket ball jammed in there. In the morning, after a scary and utterly unpleasant night, my ultra-kind, checks-her-voicemail-on-weekends doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory and told me what I could eat (mush) and what I couldn’t eat (anything with texture, spiciness, or Things That Are Hot and Cold; namely, everything else).

I froze the dinner I hadn’t finished along with everything in my refrigerator that wasn’t a condiment. Then I went out to eat. I stuck to mush for more than a week, and here’s what I learned. Come on along.

  1. Ripe avocados sliced and tossed with chunks of fresh mozzarella and a little salt does not look at all pretty, but it is wonderful.
  2. Ditto for Green & Black white chocolate. (Wait, this is pretty.) And especially appreciated by those of us who are Day 4 dark-chocolate fiends, and want treats on Days 1, 2, and 3.
  3. Store-made macaroni and cheese, even at fancy places, tastes like warm, delicately flavored glue.
  4. My local health-food store makes a very filling and oddly appealing peanut butter and jelly smoothie. It’s like slurping a sandwich.
  5. Most of the canned soups in the organic aisle that I tried don’t have much flavor.
  6. Yogurt is truly a comrade-in-arms.
  7. I goofed around with my favorite custard recipe and some of the quinces I picked, and made this for breakfast for a few days.
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Maple-bourbon custards topped with quinces poached in cinnamon. I felt better. Go figure.

*Which was such insult to injury. Here I was starving, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.

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When I tell people I pick quinces locally, they ask where. I smirk enigmatically and say, ‘I know a tree.’ Then I change the subject. For you, I’ll say a little more.

The tree in question surprised me last fall when I was driving down a busy highway. I spotted it near the entrance to an abandoned restaurant. And my heart started racing the way it does for some women when they see charcoal grey Manolo Blahniks at 1/3 off retail. Golden green fruit was hanging from the tree, so I figured it was either Golden Delicious apples or quinces.

I went back not long after with my stepladder. Even while I was picking them I still wasn’t sure what they were. But once I had them in the car I knew. Quinces have the loveliest fragrance—like their cousin the apple, but sexier. There was no longer any doubt what I’d found.

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This year I brought a bigger stepladder. It was my birthday. I had my long hair down, which I don’t recommend, because when you climb up into the branches your hair will get caught in eleventy-hundred directions, and you’ll have to pry it loose, and afterward go to Trader Joe’s looking like Annie Oakley after the second week of deer camp, not that I’d know anything about that. I picked maybe six pounds of fruit and took these shots in the early evening light.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous walking toward the tree with my stepladder, thinking—despite the fact that it was on an abandoned property—that the people wandering around the car wash next door would hassle me. Then I remembered this:

After people ask me where I find what I find, they often follow up with, ‘I drive down that road all the time and have never seen it. How did you?’ I’m not brighter or more skilled at finding wild edibles than anyone else. The shortest answer is that I’m looking. Consciously or unconsciously, you have to be looking. It has matter to you.

And it’s the same case with the people at the car wash. They didn’t see me because they weren’t looking.

I picked in peace…just the way I like. Happy golden green birthday to me.

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I’m one of those irritating tree-huggers who loves every season (at least at the beginning), but Fall and I go way back. Birthday and all. Piles of apples and squash at the farm. There will be cooking, my friends. Lots of it. This is how I get ready.

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On the wall rack:

Saigon cinnamon (there is no other), allspice, nutmeg (the whole little guys), cloves, ground ginger, hot red pepper flakes, cardamom, almond extract.

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I posted this last year on Facebook with a caption: ‘My pumpkin is going under the knife today. Please keep it in your prayers at this difficult time.’ For all of you who did, thank you. It was delicious.

In the fridge:

Local apples, grains, all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flours, Grade B pure maple syrup, almonds, walnuts, crab apple schnapps, bottle of vodka containing vanilla beans at mid-steep (in a couple of months it will be a killer, and far less expensive, extract than the teeny Foodtown bottles).

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Long-cooking tomato sauce from local, organic plum tomatoes. You can see it has cooked down by an inch—getting richer than Scrooge McDuck.

In the freezer:

Bread, whatever I baked for breakfast this week, preserves (right now mulberry, on the horizon crab apple), chicken stock, butter, tomato sauce, quince syrup, yeast, bread crumb bag (all of the crusts I don’t eat, blitzed for toppings), Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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Red quinoa, drying at the farm.

On top of the fridge:

Sugars (granulated, confectioner’s, dark brown).

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Quinces from a super-secret tree I found last year.

In the bottom of the armoire that I keep in my kitchen because doesn’t everyone:

Onions, garlic, potatoes. I keep them in a three-divided wooden unit that I found at the antiques shop downtown.

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Garlic.

In the closet I call ‘the garage’:

This is the coolest spot in my place. It houses winter squash. All kinds. Cheese, Luna, butternut, Cinderella. I line them up on the floor.

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Cinderella and cheese pumpkins, fantastic for pie.

Equinox, I’m ready.

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Today on Facebook I posted about the times last summer when my buddy would write to me, having just opened his box from his CSA*, and ask what in the name of all that is holy were these short green fuzzy things. He’d include a photo. (They were okra.)

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These are lumpy yellowish-greenish appley pear things. (Quince.)

Another time he told me about a whitish greenish vegetable with ferny things growing out of the top of it. I told him to slice off a tiny bit, then asked if it tasted like licorice. He did, and it did, and he was so excited to report back. (Fennel.)

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Smells a little like mint. (Because it is—wild mint.)

I find this kind of conversation very enjoyable, so today I extended my identifying services to everyone I know on Facebook. More and more people are buying into CSAs and their spectacularly fresh, local vegetables, but don’t always know what they’re looking at, let alone how to prepare it.

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Sort of squishy streaky purplish things. (Figs.)

In the case of the okra, I suggested he fry them, or make a stew and let them goop themselves out. You cannot thwart the okra when it comes to goop. As I must write, and take pictures of broken things I find on the side of the road, so they must goop. Might as well let it thicken your stew.

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Um, they’re long and covered with dirt. (Fresh horseradish.)

For the fennel, I suggested he shave it thinly with a mandoline and use it in salads. If I recall, he found success with both vegetables, though decided not to try the okra on his two young boys. Ate it up himself. I’m still not entirely sold on it myself. Maybe another year.

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Fat zucchini? (Close enough. Summer squash covers it. I used to know the name, but can’t find it!)

As I posted to my friends, I love the prospect of playing Julie McCoy and introducing someone to a new vegetable. I love helping people to give in to curiosity, and a new way to think, and a new way to cook.

But mostly I love feeling as though I’m giving people accessibility to what the earth gives. I’m such a nerd, I know, but I find it incredibly exciting to come across a new fruit or vegetable, especially if it’s local. And I know at least one other person who feels the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so jaded, with information powering at us from all sides, all day and night, and feel as though there’s nothing new to see.

I know digital information can and does make our world bigger, but to me…it’s almost always more rewarding to make it bigger not by looking at a screen, but down at the fertile ground.

*CSA: Community-Supported Agriculture—a great idea. People buy shares in a local farm, and get the spoils of that farm, all season long, as ripe and delicious as can be.

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I picked quinces from a lone tree on Route 35 yesterday, because this is what crazy people do in their downtime, and I have the oven heating up right now so I can bake my little tart crusts for them.

Let’s back up.

Last year around this time I took a jughandle* and ended up heading east on this same stretch of highway. Between two parking lots, one belonging to a repair shop and one belonging to a defunct Asian restaurant, I spied with my little eye a very weathered fruit-bearing tree. This is something that makes my heart race, and I have given up trying to figure out why. I didn’t know what the fruit was—it had a yellowish-green cast, so it was either pears, Golden Delicious apples, or quinces (all botanical cousins)—but by the time I had the opportunity to get back out there again, they’d all dropped and were gone.

Yesterday I went back, and they were so gnarled that even after I pulled them down I still wasn’t completely sure what they were. Either pears or quinces. Here’s 5-foot-3 me, jumping to grab equally gnarled branches to get a hold of the fruit as cars tear past me, their owners likely wondering what I’m smoking. I got six of them.

It wasn’t until they were in the warm car for a while that they gave me their name: quinces. (There they are above.) Swanky women in days past used to put quinces inside their dresser drawers; it was their version of potpourri. The quince and its cousins the apple and pear are in the Rose family. But unlike their cousins, the quince cannot be eaten raw.** You cook it in a sugar syrup with cinnamon, or in red wine. The flavor and aroma are exquisite, like an apple or pear that’s just returned from holiday on the Italian Riviera and is full of delicious secrets that it finally pens in its later years, then pokes into the fire. This is a fruit that most people haven’t heard of or seen, and it tends to be expensive. Oh, but not this time.

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Just ate one. Good stuff. I forgot to prick the dough (as you can see) before I blind baked them, so they came out more like flaky cookies than tart shells, but I can handle a flaky cookie.

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Next we have the fruits, literal and figurative, of a walk I took to the beach a couple of days ago. I have a modest apartment in the kind of town that manicures everything, even the lion statues that stand post at their driveways.*** Enormous 100-year-old seaside Colonials maintained within an inch of their lives. It’s nice, but I’m more comfortable with the rustic and unprettified. I found it without even looking, between two properties owned by summer visitors, just steps to the street. And that translates to The Apples Are Mine.**** They, along with the quinces above, are examples of unsprayed, unwaxed fruit—something else the average person doesn’t usually see. This is how fruit looked to our great-grandmothers.

And I was startled to find a bonus: a crabapple tree that had been grafted to this old apple tree.

Haven’t decided what to make with them yet, but they’re so fresh that I can take my time deciding.

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So there you have it: a blithe admission that I am not above foraging from abandoned or forgotten trees. Why should I be?

‘Wait, Maris—that’s it?’ says the observant reader. ‘You said three trees, and we know you’re crap at math, but…’

I didn’t forget. There’s one more: a persimmon tree, the only one I know of in my area. Today I went by to check its progress. Coming along nicely, don’t you think? 😉

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*It’s a way to turn around on NJ highways. Along with pork roll, makes out-of-staters scratch their heads at us.

**Maybe not ‘cannot,’ but if you did, you’d be sorry. It’s tough and astringent. Let’s say ‘you’re better off not.’ There.

***Maybe hyperbole, maybe not.

****And the deer’s. I was surprised to find scat under the tree, just a 1/2 block to the ocean. Amazing. Until about 3 years ago, I’d never ever seen a deer in my area, and certainly not so close to the beach. Times be changin’.

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