Quinces, the Lazy Way

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Braised Quinces

A while ago there was a meme making the rounds which I did my very best to avoid. As my track record with memes had already deteriorated considerably by that point, the fact that I dropped the ball probably didn’t raise many eyebrows, but still I felt quite guilty. You see, I wanted to participate, but I couldn’t bring myself to because doing so would have forced me to air some unpleasant truths about the way I cook that I simply wasn’t ready to admit. I had great fun reading everyone else’s culinary confessions, though, and swore that someday I would air at least a few of mine, when the time was right. Luckily for you, dear readers, my mini-confessional last time has made me throw caution to the wind, and for better or for worse I have decided to let loose today one of my deepest, darkest secrets.

So, here goes. My name is Melissa and I am quite possibly the laziest cook alive.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking – there’s no way I’m really the laziest cook alive, and you’re probably right. What I might be, however, is the laziest person alive who a) spends nearly every waking hour thinking about food, b) claims to prefer cooking to just about any other activity, and c) disparages those celebrity chefs who have made a fortune developing recipes and techniques for other lazy people. My shelves are full of cookbooks that encourage, cajole and admonish me to blend my own mayonnaise, grind my own spices, and roll my own pasta. I know curry paste from a mortar is more delicious than that from a can, and that stock simmered from a fresh, free-range bird will beat the pants off those abysmal cubes. I also know that melting chocolate and cooking custard directly over a flame is literally like playing with fire, but somehow in the heat of the moment all that wisdom is blasted to smithereens by the allure of time-saving shortcuts. Call me a closet sloth, or simply a lazy person in denial, but the sad fact of the matter is that when flavor and convenience are forced to battle head to head for my allegiance (and particularly when there’s something good on TV), no amount of shame, guilt or rationalization will ever compel me to willingly choose the hard way to cook.

Every once in a while, though, the universe takes pity on me and sends a recipe my way that doesn’t force me to make that choice. A recipe like this, one that offers the perfect balance of taste and efficiency, is the equivalent of a straight flush in the kitchen – it’s elusive, tremendously valuable and really should be milked for all it’s worth. I stumbled upon such a recipe a few weeks ago, a preparation for quinces that first had me skeptical, but then got me so excited I couldn’t think of anything else until I tried it. Now, those of you who have cooked with quinces know that they’re normally a big-effort item: they’re hard as moon rocks, require the potential sacrifice of digits to peel and core, yet have to be cooked well in order to be edible. For most quince-lovers this effort/outcome ratio may be acceptable; for a person as lazy as me, however, it has resulted in far less quince consumption than I would have liked throughout my life. There was, of course, that membrillo last year which was based on what seemed to me then like a nearly effortless preparation, but when I discovered I could buy it cheaply nearby even that recipe seemed like entirely too much bother.

This recipe, though, makes that one look like brain surgery. Not only is it so simple a two-year-old could do it, but for the complete lack of effort required the result is quinces in not just one but two utterly delicious forms. The idea comes from one of the UK’s hottest names at the moment, Skye Gyngell, chef at the Petersham Nurseries Café and the food editor for British Vogue. Skye not only has a new book out which is simply gorgeous, she has also started writing for the Independent, which is where her recent piece on quinces was published. This brilliant recipe (if it can even be called that) consists of washing a number of quinces, placing them in a baking dish with some water and sugar, covering it tightly with foil, and then going and relaxing in front of the television for approximately three hours. Actually, you could use that time for anything you want – Christmas shopping, blog-browsing, soaking in a hot bubble bath – the point is it’s completely up to you, but whatever you do, when your timer dings you will not only have the most luscious softly-yielding braised quinces to eat in any way you like, but also a fragrant ruby syrup Skye terms ‘quince cordial’, which when topped with a splash of prosecco or champagne, will easily be the hit of your next party. At which, by the way, when confronted with raves you hopefully won’t admit to your guests just how easy it was to make. You see, that’s the thing about laziness – it’s perfectly harmless as long as no one finds out.
 

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Quince Cordial 

 

Braised Quinces and Quince Cordial

Yield: about 4 cups cordial; recipe can easily be halved

8-12 whole quinces (depending on size)
3 1/2 cups/900ml water
1 3/4 cups/350g sugar
few strips lemon zest 

First heat the oven to 160C/325F. Wash and pat dry the quinces. You can halve them if they’re particularly large, but you can also leave them whole. Place in a baking tray and pour the water on top and sprinkle over the sugar and lemon zest. Cover the tray tightly with aluminium foil and roast in the oven for around three hours. You will know it’s ready when the quinces are completely soft and the cooking syrup is a deep ruby-pink – leave them in the oven a bit longer if necessary. Take the tray out of the oven, remove the cooked fruit and strain the syrup into a jug or jar. Allow to cool completely before using. Both will keep well in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks.

To eat the braised quinces, simply remove the papery peel and cut the soft fruit from the core. You can use the fruit in many dessert recipes that call for poached quince, or you can enjoy it on its own with a little yogurt and honey, or some vanilla ice cream. The cordial is delicious combined to taste with chilled champagne or prosecco, or if you’re going the non-alcoholic route, simply some sparkling water and ice.

 

Success is a Salad Best Served Warm

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Warm Spiced Pumpkin and Lentil Salad with Pears, Almonds and Goat Cheese

 

I have a confession to make. Those of you who do not maintain food blogs may find this hard to believe, but blogging is not all champagne and roses and sumptuous five-course meals whipped up at the drop of a hat. At least not for me. My problems are myriad, but tend to fall into three main categories: time (e.g. sometimes I barely have time to brush my teeth let alone cook something worthy of sticking on the internet), literary inspiration (such as when I cook something perfectly edible but can’t for the life of me come up with a thing to say about it apart from ‘it was delicious’), and of course, worst of all: failed recipes. These are particularly infuriating, since usually they have involved painstaking cookbook scrutiny, the forfeit of a considerable amount of my precious weekend, and the careful timing of their completion so that there is still enough daylight to photograph them (no small feat in late-November Edinburgh when the sun seems to set even before it has finished rising). When what I end up with is something I wouldn’t even serve my pet, let alone my readers, it’s enough to make a blogger want to throw in the proverbial towel.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened last weekend. Two promising new recipes failed me miserably, and in my state of shock I realized that not only did I now lack something to post about this week, but also (and perhaps worse) had nothing to eat for dinner apart from a very sad looking can of reduced-sodium Mediterranean vegetable soup (which we keep in the back of the cupboard for ’emergencies’). Now, this was not quite as tragic as it seemed, as Manuel was out for the evening dining with some of his colleagues, so I had only myself to feed, but while the soup might have filled the gaping hole in my belly it sure wasn’t what I hankering for. A trip to the supermarket, though, was pretty much out of the question due to the gale-force wind and rain lashing at my windows, and the brilliant idea to get some take-out (or delivery, I should say) was quickly squashed by the realization that delivery minimums are not set with thrifty single eaters in mind. As I eyed the barren shelves of my fridge and cupboard and itemized the sparse contents within – the nearly-empty jar of Vegemite, a dried-out rind of parmesan, some vanilla beans quadruple-wrapped in plastic, remains of a log of goat cheese, one overripe pear, and a two-week old butternut squash – that can of soup started to look increasingly attractive. I could almost feel my stomach sighing in resignation.

But a few moments later, when I had one hand on the soup and the other in the drawer, rummaging around for the can opener, I swear a voice spoke to me from my subconscious.

"What kind of cook are you?" it said reproachfully. "The kind who lets perfectly good ingredients go to waste? The kind who  thinks resourcefulness is having once turned a loaf of stale bread into breadcrumbs which have languished in the freezer ever since? The kind who would starve to death on a desert island because fish and coconuts didn’t sound all that appetizing for dinner?"

While I don’t make a habit of listening to my subconscious, this time I had to admit that it had a point. After all, there was food in the house, and not just that reserved for emergencies. My cupboards were far from bare, and I had no doubt that someone truly resourceful probably could have fashioned a meal for a dozen people out of less than I had there to feed myself.

So I rummaged around and pulled out everything that looked halfway edible. Some things were obviously no-go – the parmesan, for example, was well-past its best-by date – but I had a squash, and that pear, and we know those go together beautifully, and then I found a quarter of a package of green lentils, and even some almonds I had forgotten I had. The vegemite and vanilla beans weren’t looking too promising, but then a glance in the vegetable drawer revealed an opened package of mixed salad, most of which looked a bit the worse for wear aside from some remarkably perky watercress, which I dutifully fished out and added to the pile.

Laid out like that on my counter, there was no denying it – it was a veritable cornucopia. Even I had it within my powers to make a meal out of this. I plonked the soup back on its dusty spot in the cupboard, turned on the oven, got down the spice bowl, and started chopping. I didn’t even have much of a plan, apart from trusting my instincts, and luckily that seemed to be exactly what was required. What emerged an hour later was one of the best salads I had eaten in months, warm and hearty, sweet and crunchy and spicy and fresh. Not only did it hit the spot better than any emergency soup or greasy take-out ever could, but unlike those doomed recipes it was also a meal I am more than happy to share.

Warm Spiced Pumpkin and Lentil Salad with Pears, Almonds and Goat Cheese

Serves: about 4, depending on what else is served
Notes: I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but it would totally be in keeping with the spirit of this recipe to make substitutions. Don’t have pears? Leave them out. Have blue cheese or feta on hand instead of goat? Hazelnuts instead of almonds? Fresh spinach instead of salad? You know the drill. Not only will it still be good, your subconscious will thank you for being the thrifty, resourceful cook you always knew you could be.
p.s. Coriander and fennel may seem like a strange partner for pumpkin, but I urge you to try it – I found it once in one of Jamie Oliver’s recipes and have been roasting pumpkin like this ever since. The combination tastes almost citrusy, strangely enough.

1 small pumpkin or sweet winter squash such as butternut, kabocha, acorn or onion
extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, whole
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, whole
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes or cayenne pepper
plenty of salt and freshly-ground pepper
2/3 cup (125g) green lentils (also called puy lentils)
1 clove garlic
2 cups (500ml) chicken or vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
2 ripe pears, quartered, cored and thinly sliced
a few handfuls mixed salad greens, or anything green
1/2 cup (60g) almonds, toasted
5 oz (150g) mild goat cheese, crumbled

for vinaigrette:
1/2 cup (125ml) olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or high quality red-wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, peeled and lightly smashed with the back of a knife
salt and pepper

 
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Peel and quarter the pumpkin or squash, scrape out the seeds and slice into 1/2-inch (1cm) thick slices. Toss these in a deep roasting pan with enough oil to coat. Combine the coriander and fennel seeds in a mortar and bash them up a bit before adding them to the pan with the chile flakes and plenty of salt and pepper, tossing the pumpkin to distribute. Roast uncovered in the oven, turning the pieces as necessary to ensure even browning, until soft and caramelized around the edges, about 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium pot combine the lentils with the garlic clove (leave it unpeeled), chicken stock and bay leaf and bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the lentils are soft but still hold their shape, about 35 minutes.

While the lentils are cooking stir together all the ingredients for the vinaigrette (the garlic is left whole so that it just flavors everything slightly, but should be discarded before serving). When the lentils are cooked, remove them from the heat and drain (there won’t be much liquid left), discarding the cooked garlic and bay
leaf. Toss the hot lentils with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette, and additional salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

When the pumpkin is roasted, remove it from the oven and let cool slightly. While still warm, combine all the ingredients for the salad on individual plates, finishing with a drizzle of the vinaigrette. Pass more vinaigrette at the table.