Last of the Quinces

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally I am running out of quinces. I have two trees, of the variety called Pineapple, and they produce more reliably than any of the apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees in my lowland orchard. So I always give away quinces, and this year I even sold some. Yet it’s January 20, and still I have a box of the fruit left in the unheated guest bedroom.

I’m not complaining. Quinces are good for a lot of things. From the nineteenth century until after World War II, quinces were valued especially for their pectin. People would cook the sliced fruit in water, and then either make the liquid into jelly or boil it down until it was sour and viscous before combining it with other fruits in jelly or jam. For centuries before that quinces were made into paste, the original marmalade—or, simply, thick, sliceable jam—to be served as finger food. Quince paste has never lost popularity in Spain or parts of Latin America, and it seems to be coming back into style in the United States. Even more appealing than quince paste, to me, are pastes from quinces combined with other fruits, such as berries and plums. Quinces also make delightful, fragrant syrups (I most like a raw syrup of quince and honey), and jams that can turn out red or white, and smooth or rough, depending on your method. Cooked in syrup for nearly two hours, quince cubes or slices become a ruby-red spoon sweet. Steeped in vodka with sugar, quinces become an aromatic liqueur. Poached in white wine with honey, they become a tart relish for roasts or even a dessert. Quinces combine well with apples in pie, and some people like them best simply hollowed out (with a coring tool that looks like a small, heavy spoon with a pointed tip) and baked whole like an apple.

Having made all those things this year, I wanted to try something different. I gazed at the quinces, sitting in the guest bedroom beside the last of the peppers (peppers keep much longer in a cool guest room, by the way, than they do in a refrigerator), and I wanted to combine the two. I’d already made some wonderful quince–red pepper jelly. What else could I try? I decided on—

Quince Chutney

quince chutney 5

1 to 2 tablespoons mustard oil*
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pound peeled and sliced or diced quinces
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium-large (about 1/2 pound) onion, halved and sliced thin
2 ounces small fresh hot red peppers (I used jalapeños and Fresnos), sliced thin
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped gingerroot
1 teaspoon salt
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons raisins

Heat the oil in a preserving pan. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, and stir them over medium heat until they release their aroma. Immediately add the remaining ingredients. Boil the mixture gently, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the quince is tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

When the chutney has cooled, store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. It’s even better after a week or two.

*Available in Indian markets, mustard oil is always labeled in the United States as “for external use only.” The USDA requires this labeling because the oil contains erucic acid, which is said to cause “nutritional deficiencies as well as cardiac lesions” in lab rats (mustard seeds and prepared mustard also contain this natural chemical, of course). Mustard oil has a very strong flavor. If you’re not sure you like it, use only 1 tablespoon. If you’re sure you don’t like it, or if none is available, substitute another oil.

This recipe is actually a variant of one I developed for apple chutney, and that chutney turned out equally delicious. So if your guest bedroom is filled with apples rather than quinces, this is a good way to use them.

Hot Pink Sauerkraut

hot-pink sauerkraut

When my friends Wendy and Greg handed me a gorgeous, huge red cabbage from their garden a couple of months ago, Greg told me he loves to make red-cabbage sauerkraut. The Pickle Lady was humbled; I’d never made or even tasted sauerkraut from red cabbages! Now I knew what I would do with my beautiful cabbage.

I decided to take as my model a low-salt red-cabbage sauerkraut recipe from an odd little Canadian cookbook, Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home. I cut the head fine, using a mandoline, and mixed the shredded cabbage with some apple and onion slices, a bay leaf, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. As always  in making sauerkraut, I tossed the mixture with salt and packed it firmly into a crock. But several hours later the cabbage had released almost no juice. This was problematic; when you’re making sauerkraut, the cabbage must be well covered with liquid to keep from rotting. The Canadian authors, warning that red cabbage is “a very hard vegetable,” suggested pressing “thoroughly with a potato masher,” but this didn’t work for me. I could have added some brine from one of the big jars of fermented pickles in my garage refrigerator, following another suggestion from the Canadian authors, but then the sauerkraut would have tasted of dill and garlic. A final suggestion from the Canadians was to add whey, strained out of buttermilk or kefir, which they said would jump-start the fermentation. That sounded to me like an unnecessary bother. So I decided to add fresh brine–that is, salted water.

Two weeks later, I pulled from my crock heaps of gloriously hot-pink, tart, delicious sauerkraut. Here’s the recipe. You can add more spices or leave them out, as you prefer.

4 pounds finely shredded red cabbage, plus a few whole outer leaves
1 large apple, cored and sliced thin
1 medium-large onion, sliced thin
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
Pinch of caraway seeds
3 juniper berries
3 tablespoons pickling salt (fine, pure salt)
1 quart water

In a large bowl or stockpot, thoroughly mix the shredded cabbage, apple, onion, bay, caraway, juniper berries, and 1 ½ tablespoons salt. Pack the mixture firmly in a crock or gallon jar. Wait an hour or two for the salt to dissolve.

Stir the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons salt into the water, and keep stirring until the liquid is clear. Pour the brine over the cabbage mixture. Lay the whole cabbage leaves on top, and add weights. (I used the weights that come with a Harsch pickling crock. With an ordinary crock, cover the cabbage with a plate that just fits inside the crock, and weight the plate with a capped, water-filled glass jar. If you’re using a gallon glass jar, weight the cabbage with a freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine in the proportion of 1 ½ tablespoons salt to 1 quart water.) The cabbage mixture should be well covered with liquid. If it isn’t, add more brine in the same proportion. Keep the crock or jar at warm room temperature for two to three days, until fermentation gets underway, and then set it in a cooler place. If you’re using an ordinary crock, you’ll need to skim the brine occasionally.

Begin tasting the sauerkraut after two weeks. When it’s as sour as you like, transfer it to a clean jar, and store the jar in the refrigerator. If you like, you can freeze some of your kraut in plastic bags, rigid plastic containers, or glass jars. I don’t recommend canning it. Although with the addition of brine my recipe is saltier than the Canadians’ version, the sauerkraut will still be less salty than the USDA approves for canning.

Candied Fennel Cores

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Four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures put an end to the remains of my vegetable garden. As in many years past, I was late in digging carrots and setting up plastic tents over the greens (which might actually have survived if I’d included an electric heater, set on high). After three days of bitter cold I dug up the carrot bed, in frozen chunks six inches deep, and set the blocks in the garage to thaw. I also dug up two enormous bulbs of Florence fennel, the kind sold in stores as anise (which it isn’t) or finocchio (Italian for “fennel”). The bulbs were frozen through.

I set the fennel in a big bowl on the kitchen counter for a day and a half, until the bulbs had thawed enough to handle. Then I cut away the outer layers, which had browned a bit. Most of the rest became, with the addition of onion, potato, chicken stock, and sour cream, a big pot of pureed fennel soup. Delicious! It was the best thing I’d ever made with fennel—until two days later.

I had saved the fennel cores. These were hard, solid, and white, like cabbage cores. The cores of Florence fennel are included in many Italian recipes, although they take longer to soften than the outer layers; I could certainly have cooked them in the soup. But I had been reading Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a wonderfully entertaining yet scholarly history of candy. Tim had made me think how medieval my Joy of Jams was. All those fruit pastes and syrups started with recipes the Arabs developed, or borrowed from the Persians. These treats became popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. My book even includes some recipes for crystallized fruits, which are just preserves with the syrup drained off. To a large extent, The Joy of Jams is about medieval confectionery.

But I’d left out candied vegetables. “All kinds of roots and stalks were being candied in England by the sixteenth century,” according to Tim. They included parsley roots, angelica stalks, lettuce stalks, and stranger foods like sea holly, borage, and bugloss. They also included fennel roots.

My fennel had tough, rough, dirty roots, and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. But the cores seemed to hold some promise. So I made a small batch of . . .

Candied Fennel Cores

5 ounces Florence fennel cores, cut into 3/8-inch cubes
1 cup water (plus more for cooking the fennel)
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar

Put the fennel cubes into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them.

Combine the 1 cup water, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the cream of tartar in a saucepan, and heat the mixture gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a boil, and continue boiling it until it is reduced by about one-third. Add the fennel, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Return the pan to the stove. Simmer the fennel in the syrup for about 25 minutes, until the cubes are partially translucent and the syrup reaches thread stage (230 degrees F.).

Remove the pan from the heat. Let the fennel cubes rest in the syrup at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the fennel cubes. Set them to dry in a warm place until they are no longer sticky. I used a food dehydrator, but you could instead use a very low oven or even a woodstove.

The finished candies ranged in color from pale gold to amber. They were firm but not tough and had a mild but appealing fennel flavor. If you wanted to intensify the flavor, you could add a few fennel seeds to the syrup.

I thought about including the candied fennel cubes on a Christmas dessert platter, alongside my candied Asian pears, or in a Christmas pudding, but I didn’t hide them away fast enough. They got eaten almost immediately. I must admit that I got my share.

Another Reason to Preserve Food at Home

Maybe you’ve replaced your old plastic water bottle with a stainless-steel one to avoid exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical linked to reproductive abnormalities and increased risks of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. But did you know you could be ingesting BPA through commercially canned food? BPA is a component of the epoxy resin that has long been used to line metal food cans. Consumer Reports (December 2009) tested for BPA in 19 name-brand canned foods—soups, juice, tuna, corn, chili, tomato sauce, corned beef, and green beans—and found the chemical in all of them. Organic brands didn’t necessarily have less than nonorganic brands, and even cans labeled “BPA-free” contained the chemical. The highest levels were in green beans, vegetable soup, and chicken-noodle soup. “A 165-pound adult eating one serving of canned green beans from our sample . . . could ingest about 0.2 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, about 80 times higher than our experts’ recommended daily upper limit,” the magazine reports. FDA guidelines allow a much higher daily exposure, 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. According to a congressional subcommittee, however, the FDA has relied too heavily on studies sponsored by the plastics industry and should re-evaluate BPA’s safety. Aren’t you glad you get most of your “canned” foods out of glass jars?

July 15, 2010: Some weeks after writing the preceding paragraph I learned that the notorious BPA is also used to line the flat lids of mason jars. While Jardin (the owner of Ball, Kerr, and Bernardin) works on developing an alternative liner, home canners don’t need to worry: As long as we store our jars upright, the food inside will never come in contact with the lid.

Toshiba Apples

In Marina Lewychka’s Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, an old Ukrainian war refugee, lonely in his English cottage since his wife’s death, refuses to heat his sitting room, because that’s where he stores boxes of apples through the winter. Even after he marries the voluptuous young slattern Valentina, the apples are his dietary staple. He eats them simply sliced and microwaved—Toshiba Apples, his daughter calls them.

Having recently and independently invented Toshiba apples myself, I was embarrassed to read about them. I could have dubbed them Panasonic Apples, after my own trusty nuker, but clearly I was less creative than Lewychka’s character; I hadn’t named the dish at all. Worse, I now realized, I had taken to eating old-people food. Though I still had my teeth, I’d gotten fussy and lazy: I found apple crisp too sweet, apple pie too fatty and troublesome to make, applesauce—well, I loved applesauce, and in fact I had been planning to make some when I discovered Toshiba Apples. I’d sliced and peeled a few apples but then had to go out; there was no time to make a pot of applesauce. So I put the bowl of apple slices in the nuker and ate them hot a few minutes later, with my fingers.

Actually, they were delicious.

It’s a lucky householder who has enough apples to last the winter and a cool room to keep them in (I use an unheated guest bedroom). Good keeping apples, like my Fujis and Braeburns, grow sweeter in storage, and they retain a firm texture instead of growing cottony like a Red Delicious. But by February stored apples may be starting to shrivel; they are no longer attractive as a raw snack or dessert. They are best for cooking, and in winter and early spring you probably prefer a hot snack to a cold one anyway. Microwaving unadorned apple slices is a quick and easy cooking method that preserves the integrity of the slices and their pure apple flavor better than any other.

Here’s how to make Toshiba Apples: Slice and core as many apples as you’d like. I prefer to peel them, but peeling isn’t necessary. Put the slices into a bowl, and nuke them for about ten minutes; the time will vary depending on how much fruit you’re using. You might toss the slices once so they cook evenly. When they are as tender as you like, take them out of the microwave. Sprinkle them with cinnamon if you want, but I never do. Eat and enjoy.

Sugared Violets

While the violets continue to bloom, my daughter, Rebecca, suggested I describe how to candy them. Here’s what to do.

Pick 50 or so sweet violets, each with a bit of stem. If you can’t candy them right away, keep them covered and chilled for as long as several hours.

When you’re ready to proceed, lay a sheet of waxed paper on a plate. In a small bowl, beat an egg white with about a teaspoon of water. Have at hand small, soft pastry brush and a small bowl of extra-fine sugar, store-bought or ground in a blender or spice grinder from ordinary granulated sugar.

Holding a violet by the stem, brush the back of the petals with a thin coating of egg white. Then brush the front of the flower with egg white, spreading the petals as you do so. Sprinkle a think layer of sugar over every surface, lay the flower face up on the waxed paper, and pinch off the stem. Do the same with the rest of the blossoms, and then set the plate in a warm, dry place until the flowers are completely dry (for me, this means overnight on the pellet stove).

Store the dried blossoms in a small glass jar until you’re ready to use them. They look lovely on a cake or a plate of sweets.

Sweet Violet Syrup

There is little as pleasantly startling as the scent of blooming violets on a cold day in early spring. The little purple flowers have spread so thickly through my front lawn over the years that I now have nearly more violets than grass. But what a lovely ground cover, and what a cheering fragrance when nothing else is blooming but periwinkle and the early, scentless daffodils.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are edible; many people candy them or sprinkle them over salad greens. If you don’t mind spending twenty minutes or so picking the blossoms, you can also make them into syrup—syrup as amazing for its blue color as for its aroma. Come summer, you’ll want to try it in soda water, iced tea, or champagne.

The recipe that follows is adapted from my forthcoming Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

Sweet Violet Syrup

3 ounces (about 4 cups) stemmed violets
2 cups water
About 2 cups sugar

Combine the flowers and water in a saucepan. Simmer the contents, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Strain the mixture through a dampened jelly bag. You can squeeze the bag, when it’s cool enough to handle, to extract more liquid. Then measure the volume of the liquid, and combine it in a preserving pan with an equal volume of sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Raise the heat to high, and bring the syrup to a full boil.

Remove the pan from the heat. Funnel the syrup into a bottle. Store the bottle, tightly capped, in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups