Tough and tart but tasty

Tough and tart but tasty

Quince is an undiscovered gem of Turkey. Anatolia has an amazing range of quinces, and unlike most of their European counterparts, they are perfectly edible raw. Quinces are usually notorious for their hard and tough flesh, which is difficult to bite into, almost mouth-puckering with a drying effect on the tongue, and even harder to swallow, sometimes giving a choking effect. However, Turkey is abundant with way more pleasant varieties, easy to slice and eat, beautifully fragrant, and mouth-wateringly tart and tasty. Interestingly, Turkey is the leading producer and exporter of quinces in the world, and even we in Turkey do not seem to be aware of it. Quince must be that one fruit we take for granted, without feeling the need to appreciate it, which I consider a huge mistake.

Indeed, quince was more widely used in Turkish cuisine in the past. Nowadays, its use seems to be confined more in sweets, the ubiquitous ruby red quince dessert topped with a twirl of clotted cream on top that appears almost everywhere. But other quince desserts, such as the refreshing quince compote, are becoming rare, but this is another story. The habit of having a mouth cleansing, freshly tasting compotes alongside dishes is a fading habit in general, mostly because of the rise of soft drinks. Many people still lovingly make their own quince jams and marmalades. In the countryside in some regions, a quince paste called “pelverde,” is made which is so thick that one can cut through it. Until a decade ago, many fine patisseries used to display some neatly cut bars of quince paste wrapped in cellophane paper on the shelves of their shop windows. I do not see it anymore, but it is also a sad fact that most of our old school pastry shops are long gone too. Those quince bars were a legacy of Sephardic Jewish cuisine, known as dulce de membrillo, or if thick like paste, halva de membrillo, or just shortly membrillo or bimbriyo. Their counterparts still exist in Spain, usually paired with aged Manchego cheese.

When it comes to other uses of quince, unfortunately, we can say that it is greatly in decline. I blame the potato and the tomato. Quinces had always been a part of Turkish cuisine. Quince was once used how potatoes are used today, in stews and pot dishes, either with meat or poultry. It is a fruit that can last long, so it was treated pretty much like a root vegetable during the fall and winter months. Potatoes were not known and were non-existent in Turkish cuisine in the past, being a crop that is originally from South America. Instead, pulses and vegetables and sometimes fruits like apples and quinces were used in meat or poultry pot dishes, stews and kebabs to balance the meat both taste-wise and nutritionally. Quince was a perfect choice for that; its dense and wholesome flesh withstanding long cooking and absolutely satisfying. Slightly sweet and pleasantly tart, quince was a taste much sought in savory meat and poultry dishes, combining sweetness, sourness and saltiness -- a taste combination that was much appreciated in Ottoman cuisine. Fruits were instrumental in achieving this taste combination, which in a way survives with the occasional dash of pomegranate extract that goes into many regional dishes. With the introduction of tomato into Turkish cuisine, fresh tomatoes and tomato paste became a perfect substitute as tomato also has a slightly tart and sweet taste. Eventually, the reign of quince in savory dishes dramatically declined.

Still, there are quince dishes here and there that managed to survive. In one of my recent podcasts on NTV radio, when I was talking about quinces, I checked the Gaziantep cookbook called “A Taste of Sun & Fire,” which I wrote, and I was surprised to see that I included six savory quince dishes, and interestingly there was none in the sweets section. I chose the most festive one for you, an elaborate rice pilaf that will steal the show on any table and sure to fit an elaborate Christmas or New Years’s Eve feast. Enjoy the quince, and please eat it more!

Recipe of the Week: Buhara pilaf, with lamb, quince and nuts, is named after the Central Asian city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan and is traditionally mostly reserved for festive meals.

Pour nearly boiling water over 2 cups of rice with a little salt and soak until the water becomes lukewarm. Blanch ½ cup each of pistachio nuts and almonds by adding sufficient water to cover and bring it to boil. Allow to cool and then drain the water and peel off the skins. Peel 2 carrots and slice diagonally. Peel and core 2 quinces and 2 hard sour apples, then cut each into eight pieces and put them in a bowl of water to prevent them from discoloring. Melt ½ cup of butter in a pan, or heat the same amount of olive oil. Sauté the pistachios slightly on a gentle heat, making sure that they do not take on color. Remove the pistachio nuts with a perforated spoon and then sauté the almonds, quinces, apples and carrots by turn, and put them in separate bowls. Finally, brown the pieces of about 1 kg lamb in the remaining butter and put it in a saucepan. The traditional choice is lamb shank on the bone but cubed lamb is also perfectly fine. Alternately you can use chicken thighs. Add 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, 4 cups of boiling water and salt to taste, and simmer over low heat until the meat gets soft and tender. In a large round-bottomed cooking pot, first, place the sautéed nuts and then arrange the meat and slices of quince, apple and carrot on top of the nuts in a neat pattern. Drain the rice and rinse thoroughly. Top the rice over the other ingredients, taking care not to disturb the pattern. Measure the liquid remaining from the cooked meat and make it up to 3 cups with water if necessary. Pour this over the rice. Add 1 ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. You may add spices of your choice, allspice and cinnamon go beautifully well with this dish. Cover and cook over low heat for about 15-20 minutes until the rice has absorbed the liquid. Remove the pot from the heat. Lay a clean cotton cloth or several layers of paper towel over the top, cover again with the lid, and set aside to rest for 10-15 minutes. To serve, place a large circular serving plate upside down over the pot. Holding it firmly in place, turn the pot and plate upside down, giving it a little shake. You will have a spectacular dish of rice decorated with pistachio nuts, almonds, meat, apples, quinces and carrots.

Cork of the Week: To enjoy this festive dish, one needs a bubbly sparkly glass to toast. Until recently, we did not have local ciders, a pity as Anatolia is a land of apples, pears and quinces, as well as a land of vineyards. Thanks to Enis Güner from Denizli, Sevilen, we have a perfect, wonderful fermented apple cider that can replace the champagne. Search for apple cider disguised as a festive bubbly, and you’ll spot it on shelves.