I think I’ve mentioned this before, but coming up with the kind of intricate dessert – the ones that make you gawk at them in awe, quivering spoon in hand, at a ponzy restaurant – is, thanks to my not-that-sweet tooth, quite the challenge – which I happily accept every time, what with me trying my best to grow in the kitchen and all that jazz.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a wonderful batch of fresh quinces to play with. As usual, two of the pretties ended up in a jar with a load of spices, destined to be used for whatever I could come up with by the time the preserving process was done. On a normal jar-opening day we would dig into these yumtastic spiced quinces with a side of sweet rice or on a slice of dark bread. This time, I was determined to do something else with them in order to wow the next dinner crowd and, of course, you guys. As the Day of the Jar was drawing closer, I was still pulling up blanks while a bowl of steaming sweet rice topped with the quinces was merrily bobbing around my head. The only thing I could come up with was a rather non-helpful sort of autumn’y color scheme on a plate… something orange, something dark, something red and the pale yellow quinces on top. But as to what exactly should bring those colors to the plate… a mystery. Scatterbrain that I am sometimes, I started thinking about what I would do if I hadn’t set myself a silly “Sweet” goal for this… and all of a sudden I found myself in the kitchen, grinning madly, putting together the plate my mind had conjured up in search of a dessert – while hubby was standing in the doorway with that scallops?-what-happened-to-dessert?-look on his face. Well, another incentive to make it work, right there – make hubby enjoy something seafood’y! In addition to that, I went ahead and tried to make myself enjoy something I’m very wary of, ever since that fateful Thanksgiving dinner that also booted sweet potatoes off my menu… pumpkins. What can I say, that “failed” dessert project turned into a rousing success on both of these counts, clean plates and seconds for both of us included!
The Spiced Quinces
As I’ve told you guys before, I have a thing for quinces. In recent years, they’ve gone somewhat out of style around these parts for no good reason. And so far, at least not that I know of, nobody has slapped a silly “Superfood” sticker on them yet, even though they would really deserve one. Extremely rich in vitamin C, iron and potassium, they also pack a lot of tannins – antioxidants said to hold antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties as well as benefits in the cardiovascular department – so they’re top shelf in the healthy get-ready-for-the-cold-months department. Convenient, they’re in season during the autumn and early winter months, no?
Dealing with quinces in my kitchen doesn’t just produce yummies on a regular basis, it also brings back memories every time I see one… Sad memories of baby teeth lost – Yes, it looks like a pear. No, you can’t eat it raw. Please, dear grandparents, enlighten your grandchildren about that fact before they chow down on one… Good memories of the first food-war won in elementary school – unanimous decision that my grandma made the best quince yelly! Score~! Ah, how I miss her quince jelly… sadly her recipe is lost to the world by now, and I haven’t found one that can compete with it yet – it’s an ongoing quest though, so, as soon as I find one, you guys will be the first to know! Anyways, these spiced quinces were the result of me experimenting around with different spices in an attempt to get at least close to whatever my grandma popped into her quince jelly, without going all the way down jelly-alley. Here goes~
The Spiced Quince Preserve
500g Quinces, peeled, cored and cut into ½ cm thick segments
½ Orange, juice and zest
150ml plain Tap Water
85ml Rosé Balsamic Vinegar
85g Light Muscovado
1 Star Anise
1 Tsp ground Allspice
2 green Cardamom Pods, crushed
1/3 Cinnamon Stick
10-15g Ginger, sliced into thin disks
1) A word in advance: these yummies need at least 2 weeks of quality soaking time in their jar, so you should plan ahead a bit – which doesn’t mean you need to actually use them after 2 weeks, once they’re safely sealed away in a sterilized jar and stored in a cool and dark corner of your pantry, they’ll keep for 3-4 months. Maybe even longer but so far I haven’t had the restraint necessary to leave the jars untouched for that long~!
2) Set a heavy-based pot, large enough to hold all of your quince segments comfortably, on to medium-high heat.
3) Add the water, orange juice and zest, muscovado and vinegar and give them a good stir before sending the ginger slices to take a bath in the simmering liquids. Stir from time to time as the contents of your pot are warming up to keep the muscovado from sticking to the base of your pot rather than blending into the mixture.
4) Bring the mixture to a rapid boil, keep it there for around 1 min, then turn the heat down to medium.
5) Once the bubble action inside your pot has calmed down again, pop in the star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice and cloves and leave them to simmer away for 5 mins.
6) Turn the heat down to medium-low and carefully slide the quince slices into the hot syrup.
7) Now, the time they take to turn deliciously soft wildly depends on how ripe they were in the first place. Usually a bath of 10-15 mins in the hot syrup takes them to an almost-done – al dente, if you will – point in the process that takes the residual heat, which will soften them some more while they’re inside the jar already, into consideration. Have a first test-bite after 10 mins – they should be soft but not falling apart – and take it from there.
8) By the way, if you kept them in for too long and they’ve turned mushy on you, pick out the spices, drain some of the syrup and whizz them into a purée! Not the point of the whole exercise but a yummy save nonetheless~ Taking it even further and turning it into a jam or marmelade works too.
9) Once they’re done, carefully lift them out of the syrup and maneuver them into sterilized sealable jars with a slotted spoon – don’t forget to douse the spoon with boiling water to sterilize it as well.
10) Crank the heat up to high and give the liquids the bubbly treatment for 5-8 mins until they’ve reduced down into a thick’ish syrup – you’re golden once the color of the syrup slowly starts turning into a darker shade.
11) Slowly pour the hot syrup, spices and all, into the jars holding your quince slices and fill them up to the rims.
12) Tightly seal the lids and leave the jars to cool off on a heatproof surface.
13) Store them in a cool and dark spot for at least 2 weeks before opening them.
14) The first time I made these, I thought something went wrong when I opened the first jar. I remembered having left the quinces in the syrup for just a little too long – the thinner slices were falling apart when I’ve tried to wrestle them into the jars in pretty, vertical layers. So, the slices coming out of the jar, somewhat on the firmer side of things, gave me a major headscratch-moment… until I noticed the jar was only filled to about 2/3 of the previous syrup gauge and the slices looked a tad thicker than how I remembered them. Aha! They had soaked up the syrup and the muscovado solidified a little bit in the cold! So, don’t worry if they pop out a bit firmer than you expect, they’re still wonderfully juicy and soft.
15) For this dish you’ll need 2-3 slices per serving, depending on their size.
16) Remove them from the jars, place them on a slotted spoon or a small sieve and pat the underside of the spoon/sieve with a paper towel to remove the excess syrup oozing through.
17) Cut them into conveniently bite-sized pieces and set them aside until dinner’o’clock.
The following amounts will net you 4 servings
150g Waxy Potato, peeled, cut into ½ cm cubes
300g Hokkaido Pumpkin, peeled, cut into ½ cm cubes
1 Tbsp Butter
½ Clove of Garlic
1 Tsp hot Curry Powder
1 Pinch of Cumin
1 Pinch of Curcuma
½ Tsp Ginger, freshly grated
1 generous Pinch of Cinnamon
1 Tbsp Crème Légère
1) First off, to keep the potatoes from giving your purée a sticky texture, pop them into a sieve right after dicing them. Thoroughly rinse them under running water for around 3-4 mins to remove the starch gathering on the cutting surfaces. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch of salt and tuck the sieve across your sink or on top of a bowl, out of harms way, for 20-30 mins. Rinse off the salt and pat the cubes dry with a paper towel just before you’re getting ready to get the purée started.
2) Set a heavy-based pan onto medium heat and add the butter.
3) Once the butter has melted, add the potato cubes and sautée them for around 5 mins.
4) Add the pumpkin cubes, ginger and garlic, give the contents of your pan a hearty flip and continue sautée’ing the lot for around 10 mins, stirring occasionally.
5) Have a test-bite after 8 mins – if both the pumpkin and the potato cubes are tender, move them into a high rimmed, stick-blender friendly container. If the cubes are still too firm, give them a little more time. Make sure to check frequently though, for some reason unknown to me, pumpkin takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it’s overcooked in the blink of an eye.
6) Once everything has been relocated to the whizzing container, add the spices and the Crème Légère.
7) Give the lot a thorough whizz with your stick blender.
8) As soon as the purée appears to be smooth, check for chunks with a fork. If you happen to find a stray chunk or two, hunt them down with the blender, and check again. Why not just whizz a while longer after it looks smooth from a cook’s point of view above the bowl, to make sure? Simply because both the potatoes and the pumpkin tend to turn glue’y if whizzed too long.
9) Have a taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and, if necessary, stir in some more Crème Légère – if the purée ends up being too thick for comfort.
10) Cover the container with a kitchen cloth and set it aside, preferably in a warm spot, until it’s time to plate up.
Just in case not all of you are familiar with this kind of bread, here’s a bit of foodology. Pumpernickel is a hearty sourdough rye bread, containing coarsely ground and whole rye grains. It’s near-black color, it’s juicyness as well as it’s deep, nutty, almost smoky flavor comes from the traditional low-and-slow method of baking it. Up to 24 hours at 100-120°C keep it juicy while the Maillard reaction, more commonly known in connection to meats, crisp on said meats and open fire, changes the color and aroma of the rye. If you can, get the original Westphalian Pumpernickel – this is one of those things that, if copied and adapted for mass-production, doesn’t end too well most of the time. I’ve had versions of it that turned out to be a regular rye bread with a whole grain here and there, chem-bombed and colored with whoknowswhat… not a pleasant experience if you’ve read “Pumpernickel” on the package and expect exactly that. If you can’t get your hands on the real deal, drop by your local bakery and ask for the darkest, wholegrain’y rye bread they have. If, however, you get the good stuff, as “Party Rounds” or a packet of the traditional thin slices, make sure to firmly wrap them in clingfilm after you’ve opened the packet. Since the bread is only held together by it’s own moisture, thanks to the lack of gluten, it dries out quickly and crumbles apart at a sidelong glance after a while.
The Crispy Pumpernickel Bites
2 Slices of Pumpernickel
1 Tbsp Butter
Alt: 1 Tbsp Walnut Oil – to enhance the nutty flavor of the bread even more
1) Cut the bread slices into bite-sized pieces with a sharp knife – or, if you’re in a whimsical mood, use a cookie cutter to shape the bites. If you’re going with the cutter-idea, make sure not to use a very intricate one, they don’t get along well with whole grains in their path. Simple hearts or flowers work well, though.
2) Set a pan, large enough to hold all your bites in one layer, onto medium-high heat and add the butter or oil.
3) Once the butter has melted completely, add the slices and fry them for around 3-4 mins on each side until they’re crispy.
4) Carefully pick them out of the pan and set them on to a paper towel to remove any and all excess butter and to keep the crisp… well, crispy, until it’s time for the bites to hit the plates.
8 Scallops, roe removed, patted dry with a paper towel
1 Tbsp Oil
1 Tbsp Butter
1) Set a small pan onto medium-high heat and add the oil.
2) Once it’s at its maximum temperature, add the scallops and fry them for 1 min on each side.
3) Take the pan off the heat, tilt it to one side and remove the oil and scallop juices with a paper towel.
4) Flake the butter into the still-hot pan and give the lot a gentle swirl and leave the scallops to enjoy the residual heat for another minute.
5) Turn the scallops over 30 seconds after the butter has melted around them and season them with vanilla salt and a crack of pepper on both sides before gently setting them onto a paper towel.
6) These times go for averagely sized scallops of 2-2 ½ cm DIA and a thickness of about 1-1 ½ cm. If the ones in front of you are smaller than that, or a lot bigger for that matter, buy an extra one and do a test run. The really small ones will probably only need 20-30 seconds on each side while the larger ones are best done by sticking to the 1 min-per-side rule-of-thumb and adding an extra minute in the pan, off the heat, with a lid on top.
Assembling the Dish
4 Tbsp of Pomegranate Seeds
Alt: 4 Tbsp of Red Currants – just a thought, I haven’t tried that one yet.
1) Divide the purée on to 4 plates, about 2 heaped tbsp per serving – you will probably have leftovers for seconds or a late-night snack.
2) Arrange 4 pumpernickel bites and 2 scallops each on top. If you’ve got some rather large specimen sitting on your paper towel, slice them in halves horizontally before arranging them on the purée.
3) Top the servings off with thin slices of the spiced quinces.
4) Garnish the plates with the pomegranate seeds or red currants for a juicy burst here and there.
5) Ooooor… stack everything up in a neat and pretty pile on serving spoons~!
It’s really not my thing to toot my own horn, all but jumping up and down with pride, but, at least in my humble opinion, this time it’s well justified. I created this one, aversion to pumpkins or not, only with the theoretical knowledge of pumpkin and curry being an item, the practical knowledge of scallops served on pumpernickel being delicious, a jar of spiced quinces looking for friends on a plate and a silly mental image of a maybe-dessert. I didn’t know if it would work, if hubby and/or me could stomach it, and it turned out fabulous. So, if there’s an ingredient that repels you for whatever reason, I can only advise you to try giving it a new context, it might turn out delicious despite the ick you may have come to expect!
Unless it’s Brussels Sprouts. Ick.