October 14, 2015

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Dear friends,

Until last week the only thing I had ever stolen was a popcorn ball on a dare when I was in the fourth grade. Now there’s another black mark — about 10 pounds of ripe quinces.

Remember the quince bushes growing on City of Akron property I mentioned a couple of weeks ago? The yellow fruit were so ripe they were rolling on the sidewalks along Portage Path and Casterton Avenue in Highland Square.

A few days later my evil twin, Dorena, said she spotted quince bushes loaded with fruit in downtown Akron, near her doctor’s appointment the next day. Did I want to meet her for a raid? Heck, yeah.

I tried to call the City of Akron’s arborist (who knew “urban arborist” was a career path?) for permission. He still hasn’t returned my call. So with all that fruit just going to waste I figured it was OK – no, it was my DUTY – to haul it away and eat it. Otherwise it would rot on the sidewalks, possibly causing a pedestrian mishap and expensive lawsuit. You’re welcome, Akron.

Still, I felt kind of guilty as we pawed through the bushes inches from rush-hour traffic along Cedar Street within sight of my former employer, the Beacon Journal. Would a former colleague spot me and think I had become a crazy street person? Would the cops haul us away?

We picked the ripe fruit for about 30 minutes as cars whizzed by. A couple of friendly strangers waved. No one else gave a damn, including the traffic cop a block away. We left with bulging plastic grocery sacks. The quinces were dead ripe.

My nose can attest to that. First my car and then my kitchen filled with the lovely citrus-floral aroma of the raw fruit. The ones Dorena and I harvested are lime-sized fruits from red-flowering quince shrubs. They are deliciously edible, although the quinces most people eat are much larger and grow on trees. The difference is that small quinces are more tedious to peel and core, but I can’t complain when the fruit is free.

Quince-savvy cooks warn that even large quinces are hard to peel. My enthusiasm began to wane until one cook posted in the comments section of an Internet recipe that she just poaches the fruit without peeling. I found out the hard way that coring is essential, though. The first batch I poached was tough to eat, what with all the seed-spitting.

Although quinces may be used in pies, meat glazes, cakes and even in savory stews, I think most people use them for jam. I don’t eat much jam, though, so I began my first foray into quince-cooking with two simple preparations – poached quinces and brandy steeped with quinces, vanilla bean, ginger and star anise.

The brandy is the simplest way of all to use quinces, and it actually involves no cooking.  The vanilla bean, ginger and star anise are placed in lidded containers and brandy is poured over them. In six weeks the flavored brandy is ready to drink, brush on pork roasts, add to pie fillings or drizzle over ice cream. Mine should be full-strength by Thanksgiving.

British cookbook author Nigella Lawson makes the brandy with a cinnamon stick and star anise. I was afraid the cinnamon would cloak the quince flavor so I omitted it and added a small piece of ginger and a vanilla bean.

My brandy is steeping in half-pint and pint jars instead of one big jug in order to have enough for gift-giving. So far, two weeks in, the quinces have not changed color as they do when cooked.

The poached quinces are another story. As they bubble in a mixture of sugar and water  they turn from white to pink and continue to deepen in color after cooking. Poached quinces taste wonderful over plain Greek yogurt.  They may be kept in the refrigerator in the syrup for two weeks.
P.S.: The hardest thing about this quince escapade was not swiping the fruit but typing “quinces” instead of “quince” for the plural. Quince, like mice, used to be a collective noun but through incorrect usage, “quinces” gradually became the standard. The barbarians have won again.

QUINCE BRANDY

jane-snow-quince
•    7 small quinces, halved, or 1 to 1 1/2 larger quinces cut into eighths
•    2 1/3 vanilla beans
•    4 thin slices fresh ginger
•    6 small star anise
•    1 1/2 liters inexpensive brandy (as needed to fill the jars)
•    2 pint and 4 half-pint lidded jars, sterilized in the dishwasher

Wash the quinces and cut the small ones, if using, in halves through the stem ends. No need to core or remove the seeds. Place 3  halves in each pint jar and 2 halves in each half-pint jar. If using large quinces, distribute the pieces proportionately among the jars. Cut one vanilla bean in half and place a piece in each pint jar. Cut remaining whole vanilla bean in thirds and place a piece in each half-pint jar. Place a star anise in each jar. Fill with brandy and replace lids. Leave at room temperature for at least 6 weeks before serving.

POACHED QUINCE
•    1 1/2 lbs. small quinces (about 16 lime-sized fruit) or 4 large quinces
•    4 cups water
•    2 cups sugar
•    1/2 vanilla bean
If using small quinces, wash and cut in halves. Remove the core and seeds with a sharp knife. If using large fruit, cut into fourths through the stem end and cut away core and seeds. Cut the pieces into 1/4-inch-thick wedges.

Combine water and sugar in pan. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves and water comes to a simmer. Add quinces and vanilla bean. Simmer about 45 minutes or until fruit is very soft. Serve as a meat glaze or dessert topping. I like it over plain Greek yogurt. Refrigerate in the syrup for up to 2 weeks.

HELP U COOK

Don’t toss out used vanilla beans if they are still aromatic. They may be rinsed, wiped off and used again, especially if you did not scrape out the aromatic seeds. Many experts suggest burying a used vanilla bean in sugar to flavor the sugar, but I don’t use much vanilla sugar. Instead I toss used vanilla beans into a jar of vodka and let it sit for months, adding more used vanilla beans as they become available. Voila! – homemade vanilla.

TIDBITS

How sad that Paul Prudhomme died last Thursday, a day after I wrote about him and his gumbo. His hometown newspaper, the Opelousas, La., Daily World, described the famous chef as a kind, gentle man. I knew him as a charming flirt who could get a bit snippy.

In the early 1980s – I forget the exact year — I was sent by my newspaper to interview Prudhomme in his lair, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans. The man was a rock star of the culinary world. It’s hard to overstate his popularity. He was responsible for the Cajun-food craze that didn’t just sweep but blanketed the country. Chefs from coast to coast, in big cities and villages, were blackening  everything from prime rib to shrimp in homage to Prudhomme’s  iconic blackened redfish.

You think the cronut and salted caramel are popular? They are blips compared to the blackened redfish mania that gripped America. The government banned the harvest of redfish for several years because the popularity of the dish dangerously depleted the species in the Gulf of Mexico.

I remember recreating this dish so my readers could make blackened fish at home. It involved heating a cast-iron skillet over high flame until the skillet became gray with heat, then placing in it a fish fillet heavily encrusted with spices. My house filled with smoke, the alarms blared and I flung open windows and doors in the middle of winter. I’m sure this was no deterrent to readers because the fish was so delicious. Blackening gives it an almost steak-like flavor.

The day I visited Prudhomme, the line to his restaurant was almost two blocks long – at noon! – because he famously did not take reservations. It was kind of thrilling to walk to the head of the line past all those angry stares and give my name to the doorman, as instructed. Paul was expecting me. I was ushered to his small table against a wall in the large, open dining room. He handed me a fork as I eased into a chair across from him. Turns out a home cook was back there in the restaurant kitchen, out of the way of the real chefs, testing recipes on a regular kitchen stove for Prudhomme’s first cookbook. Paul and I were the tasters.

I forget everything we ate that day from shared dishes, but it was lot and it was all incredible. As a young eager-beaver reporter, I frantically scribbled notes, shooting questions at Paul between bites.  He asked a lot of questions about me, too. Although he was married to Kay at the time, he was getting alarmingly chummy.  I remember his eyes. They were mesmerizing.

Then I asked Paul whether his restaurant suffered during his frequent absences to appear on television and at food events, a question the food world whispered about at that time. The warmth in his eyes drained. He wrapped up the interview in about 30 seconds and an employee ushered me out. But I already had my story, not to mention all that incredible food.

THE MAILBAG

From C.K., Tallmadge:
The last time I made gumbo, the recipe called for file powder. I was out of town and could not find it in the local upscale market. Your (well, Paul’s) recipe doesn’t call for it. Does it make a difference in gumbo?

Dear C.K.: I don’t think so, although some folks from New Orleans may beg to differ. If your recipe starts with a cooked roux, you shouldn’t miss the thickening properties of the file powder. If the gumbo turns out too soupy, simmer it longer until it thickens to your liking. File powder, made from ground sassafras root, does add a bit of flavor, too, but most gumbos are so spicy I don’t think you’ll miss it.

From Kathy Gauer:
Love the newsletter and appreciate you still doing it. I was wondering if you knew this — I recently found out that a favorite restaurant, Grille 39, that used to be in a plaza on Massillon Road in Green, is now called the Rose Covered Inn on East Waterloo Road, state Route 224, sort of in the area of the Goodyear Blimp Air Dock but further east past the Massillon Road intersection. Same chef/owner that has been around a long time and has a wonderfully delicious and assorted menu at reasonable prices. The grilled pork chops and homemade mashed potatoes were the best I have ever eaten!! There is a different decor at the new location than Grille 39 had but the food is still great!

Dear Kathy: This is the kind of news I love to hear – another local restaurant with great home cooking.  The Rose Covered Grill is at 2156 E. Waterloo Rd. in Akron. The owner is Joe Cernava, who owned Grille 39 and before that, Joe’s Bar and Restaurant in the Montrose area of Copley Township.

From Linda in France:
I’m with Bill on the pizza stone thing. I bought four fire bricks at the local builder’s supply place and put them in the oven. My tiny butane-fueled stove has a tiny oven but it exceeds 500 degrees!

I make the crust on a piece of parchment on a pizza peel then swoosh it right onto the bricks, paper and all! Works great, and I’d do it the same way if I had a lid for my charcoal grill which I haven’t figured out yet. By the way, pate feuilletee is CHEAP and that is what I make pizza on these days.

Dear Linda: How nice that ready-made puff pastry is so available. Thanks for telling me how to get the raw pizza off the pizza peel – always a challenge for me.
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