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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Do You Know Quince?

I've heard some people talk nostalgically about the smell of cooking quince reminding them of autumn days at their grandmother's house. I can't say that this rings any bells with me as quince did not feature at all in my childhood. Indeed, the first time I became aware of it was on the second craft fair I ever had a table at way back in 2003. I found myself on a table next to a man wearing an apron embroidered with the words "Quince Charming" and his table was stacked with a variety of different products all made in some way with quince.

I was young, inexperienced and a little nervous at the time and I was in two minds as to whether I should stand quietly behind my stall, allowing people to browse my products in peace or whether I should attempt to draw them in with loud questioning. Quince Charming was clearly not in any doubt as to what he should do and every person who strolled to within a few feet of his table was asked, "Do you know quince?" Looking slightly startled and taken unawares they would usually mutter something about having quince growing in their garden to which he would take pleasure in pointing out that that was "Quince japonica", a rambling shrub and that he was talking about "true" quince. I admired his efforts and one way or another learnt a thing or two from him about what to do and what not to do regarding capturing people's attention. Certainly, by the end of the weekend I knew his speel as well as he did, and still do to this day!

Apart from bumping into Quince Charming a few more times at craft fairs over the years, I didn't really have much to do with quince until a couple of years ago when one of my regular customers asked me if I could make quince jelly. I told her I couldn't as I didn't have any quince but I put a plea out on Facebook, asking if anyone knew where I could get hold of some. I soon tracked down someone who was more than happy for me to come and help myself to the quince on his tree... but he said I would need a boat! It turned out that his tree was on an island in the middle of a small lake. We went up to have a look but there was no way to get to the tree and our pleas for a boat on facebook were not successful. So another year went by without quince in my life.

I give talks to various gardening clubs and other associations and in them I go through the kitchen garden year, month by month, looking at what needs doing in the garden and what can be harvested. My November section always mentions quince, it being one of very few things that are harvested at this time of year. I mention too, my desire to use some but my failures to date. However, this year, my fortunes changed when someone who had seen my talk emailed me to say she had arranged for me to pick some from someone she knew who had a tree in her garden that was cropping abundantly. Eagerly, I set off with my fruit picker and harvest bags, returning shortly with two bags full.

Finally, with some quince to play with, it was time for me to "get to know quince". It certainly does have a strong aroma, that quickly fills any room they are put in. It isn't, however, an unpleasant smell, it being sort of like clementines cooked in hot butter. They look like large, misshapen yellow pears but they are hard, tough to peel and with a core that takes a fair bit of effort to cut through. The core is quite big too, relatively speaking, so there isn't that much usable fruit compared to the other familiar members of the Malus family: apples, pears and crab apples. The fruit too is quite dry and covered with a fluffy grey down. I had read not to attempt to enjoy the fruit raw as it is dry and unpleasantly tart but to be honest I didn't find them particularly appetising to look at anyway.

I didn't think the quince would keep well, so with the clock ticking, I flicked through my recipe books and decided what I would make from them. Quince jelly was first - relatively easy to make in that the whole, unpeeled or cored fruit are cooked up and then allowed to drip through a jelly bag over night. I made two batches of this and another batch with added gooseberries from the freezer. From the pulp that was left behind, I made quince cheese, or membrillo, as it is known in Spain. This is supposed to be amazingly tasty with Manchego cheese so I purchased some of that and gave it a go. It didn't blow my socks off but I could see that some people would adore that flavour combination.

When I had been collecting the quince, the tree owner had recommended an apple and quince sauce recipe from the River Cottage Preserve cookbook so I gave this ago, using the Bramley apples she had also kindly given me from her garden. This was a beautiful sauce and went very well with the roast pork I had at the weekend. The flavour notes from the quince would help it to go with other meats too, I suspect and it was certainly less sweet than some apple sauces. Inspired by this idea, I had a fiddle with the recipe and created a quince and cranberry sauce that I think will go very well with turkey. As it contains quince, apple, cranberry and pork I think it will go well with anything served up at Christmas actually.

As I neared the bottom of my second bag, I made a batch of lemon and quince marmalade and then moved on to chutney, making one from pumpkins and quince, adapted from a recipe from River Cottage. I really had no expectations as to what a pumpkin and quince chutney might turn out like but I was surprised to find it turning a beautiful glossy dark brown with a fruity sweetness not that dissimilar from Branston Pickle; a chutney I have long attempted to imitate.  That's not to say that I think Branston is all that wonderful but it is certainly something that people are familiar with and one that they are comfortable to use so anything that is like it is sure to be a hit. Branston Pickle is a completely meaningless and undescriptive name so it seemed fitting that I should come up with a name that is equally as obscure... So "Ps and Qs Pickle" was born; a nod to the two principle ingredients and a reminder to use your table manners!

So that was it, I had ticked everything off my wish list in terms of what I wanted to try with quince but I still had a handful of fruit in the bottom of the bag. I had briefly searched the internet for quince related cake recipe but it was clear that quince is not used in baking with the abandon of its cousin the apple or even the pear. However, I have a pumpkin and ginger tea bread recipe that is my husband's all time favourite cake... when it goes right. It is a weird thing because often it produces the most beautiful loaf, like a divine Madeira cake with gingery favours but equally as often it fails to cook properly, remaining undercooked and stodgy in the middle no matter how long it is left in the oven. Having chatted to a friend, who also makes this cake, we decided it must have something to do with the pumpkin used. Some pumpkins are quite wet and others dry so maybe the cake fails if the water content is wrong. My theory would be that a dry pumpkin would more likely work. With this in mind, I wondered whether the dry flesh of the quince would work, adding to the cake the citrus butterness that seems to define the fruit. And it turned out I was right as the last few fruit went towards making this beautiful cake.

That completes my voyage of discovery regarding the quince for this year at least and now I feel that should I wander to within a few feet of Quince Charming, I would honestly be able to say yes should he ask, "Do you know quince?"

Quince and Ginger Tea Bread

175g melted butter140g clear honey1 egg, beaten250g grated quince flesh100g light muscovado sugar350g self-raising flour1 tablespoon ground ginger1 tablespoon Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 180°C, gas 4 and line a 2lb load tin. Mix together the butter, honey, egg and quince. Add the muscovado sugar, flour and ginger and stir until well combined. Pour into the tin then sprinkle over the Demerara sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes until risen and golden. Leave in the tin to cool for 10-15 minutes before turning out to cool on a wire rack.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Apple Plait

Here is a lovely recipe that looks and tastes amazing but is actually really easy to make if you have a bread machine to do all the kneading and proving for you. It is tasty to make with just the apple and cinnamon as the filling but on a recent occasion I had just finished making a batch of Apple & Cider Mincemeat and had a little smidge left-over so I added that as well and it made it super tasty!

Apple Plait

100ml milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
250g strong white flour
1/2 tsp salt
25g unsalted butter, diced
25g caster sugar
1 tsp fast-action dried yeast
1 large apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon and 25g caster sugar (or use mincemeat instead).
Sliced blanched almonds and egg to coat.

Add the liquids to your bread machine and then stack the flour, salt, butter, sugar and yeast on top (or do this in reverse if that's how your bread machine works). Set the machine onto it's dough setting and let it run through this program. Remove the dough from the machine and knock back on a floured surface. Roll the dough out to the rectangle about 30 by 25cm. Put the apple mixture down the middle of the length of the dough. Make diagonal cuts out and down from the apple to the edge of the dough on both sides at 2.5cm intervals. Fold the strips of dough in towards the centre to form a "plait". Place on a greased baking sheet and cover with greased Clingfilm and leave to double in size. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Brush the plait with beaten egg and scatter on some blanched almonds. Bake for 20 minutes until golden then transfer onto a wire rack to cool. Serve hot or cold, on its own or with custard, cream or ice-cream.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Don't waste your pumpkins!

With food waste really hitting the headlines and as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstale's new series about waste on the TV this week, it is alarming that so many pumpkins will be thrown in the bin this week. It is estimated that 18000 tonnes of pumpkins will end up in the bin after Halloween. Sadly, most people who buy a pumpkin at this time of year do so to only carve it into a lantern and have no idea how and no inclination to eat it.  And yet pumpkins are amazingly versatile vegetables and can be used in many different ways in the kitchen from savoury recipes such as curry to sweet bakes such as cakes.

I grow pumpkins every year, with the hope that at least two will be big enough and impressive enough to make into Halloween lanterns. Growing anything is not an exact science so it is impossible to only grow what you need for Halloween. One year I accidentally grew 19 pumpkins! Since then, I have become something of an expect in finding ways to use pumpkins. My All Hallows Marmalade is an orange marmalade with pumpkin. My Lime Pickle is a lovely chutney suitable for Indian food that contains pumpkin, and in the absence of mango, I use pumpkin to make a "Mock Mango Chutney". Even my Tomato & Piquant Pepper Chutney has pumpkin in it, as does my "No Added Sugar Tomato Ketchup". But I use most of my pumpkins up in every day foods such as soups and cakes.

I think the problem starts when people think about either trying to eat pumpkin as an ordinary vegetable or they think about making something like a pumpkin pie. Plain boiled or steamed pumpkin is pretty gross. It is bland and the texture isn't all that pleasant either. However, that lack of flavour makes it wonderful for using in recipes because it takes on the flavours that are added to it so it is ideal in curries. I use small strips in stirfries because it adds colour and crunch without changing the over all flavour. Similarly it can be added to casseroles where it is hard to tell the difference between that an any of the root vegetables floating around in the gravy. Whereas pumpkin pie may be pretty disgusting, pumpkin works brilliantly in other bakes. In cakes it can be grated in in much the same way as carrot is used, or it can be steamed and mashed first and the added to the batter of things such as pancakes or drop scones. Here, the flavours of mixed spice work perfectly to make satisfyingly warming autumn bakes.

So, how to avoid wasting your pumpkin lantern.

When I carve (or rather when my daughters carve their pumpkins) we save the bits that are cut out for things such as eyes, mouth etc. This year, I grated the flesh straight off the skin from these fiddly little bits and had enough grated pumpkin to make Lakeland's medium pumpkin cake. This I decorated to look like a pumpkin and we ate it at a Halloween party.

Today (Tuesday), 3 days after Halloween, I brought in the smaller of our two lanterns and set about chopping it to pieces. Lanterns tend to keep better if an LED light is used inside them rather than tealight candles and with the cool conditions, this pumpkin was in really good condition. It took about half an hour to chop it up into cubes, cutting off the dried out exposed surfaces and the skin. In total, I had 2lb 12 oz of cubed, usable pumpkin from this one lantern.

This evening I used 1 lb of pumpkin, and l lb of butternut squash to make a batch of soup that I bagged up to freeze. It made 6 portions in total. Then I made some pumpkin salsa to go with our dinner. This was a new invention for me but definitely something that is worth making again. I bottled most of this and put it in the fridge for future use. Tomorrow I will make a batch of Lime Pickle with the remains of this lantern and see about cutting up the other one.

It would have been wrong to have thrown the lanterns in the bin when they are such a useful vegetable but if you have a lantern and really have no inclination to eat its remains, or they have already gone mouldy, then at least put it into your compost bin or into your food waste and not the black bin. Next year think about all the tasty things you can make from your lantern, making that Halloween purchase a true bargain!

Pumpkin & Butternut Squash Soup (makes 6 portions)

1 lb cubed pumpkin flesh
1 lb cubed butternut squash flesh
2 garlic cloves, chopped
10 fl oz vegetable stock
1/4 pint sieved tomatoes (or passata)
1 tsp curry powder
Salt & pepper to taste

Put some oil in the bottom of a large saucepan and gently saute the cubed vegetables for about 5 minutes then add the garlic and fry for another minute. Pour in the stock and tomatoes and add the curry powder. Put a lid on the pan and simmer for 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Blend until smooth, taste and season as necessary. Eat hot or cool and freeze in portions.

Pumpkin Salsa

8 oz cubed pumpkin
1/2 pint sieved tomatoes (passata)
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 red pepper, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
Dash of lemon juice
Pinch mixed spice
1 tsp sweet chilli sauce
Pinch of salt

Put the cubed pumpkin in a small saucepan with the sieved tomato and bring to the boil. Simmer for 20 minutes or so until the pumpkin is soft then blend to make a small puree. In a medium saucepan, fry the onions until just beginning to colour then add the garlic, pepper and tomatoes. Pour the puree into the pan with these vegetables and add the other ingredients. Simmer with the lid off for about 10 minutes to thicken then taste and season if necessary. Allow to cool or pour into a glass jar and seal whilst still hot to keep for later.