Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Some sterling advice from good Queen Quincelot

Several weeks ago, at the Farmer’s Market in my hometown of Silver City, N.M., I came across a remarkable booth, one that sold not only quinces (rare enough, in that part of the world) but also empanadas filled with homemade membrillo, or quince paste.

Have you ever made membrillo? I have, once. This thick, rosy, long-simmered paste is absolutely delicious, but practically speaking, it’s a pain in the neck.

And that’s just the membrillo—half, so to speak, of the whole empanada. I’m sure there are people who crank out empanadas on a moment’s notice, but I’ve never been one of them.

Well, I paid my buck-fifty for a quince empanada with pleasure, and ate it on the spot.

I also bought a bag of quinces to bring back with me to Arizona — because quinces, for all their virtues, are not something you should bite into on a whim.

In my last column, I wrote about persimmons, those peculiar, woefully overlooked fruits with great rewards for the patient eater.

Consider this part 2 in a series. Quinces, which are in season now, are fall’s second great misfit fruit: Every bit as demanding as persimmons, yet equally, if uniquely, marvelous.

Quinces are not conventionally handsome. Squat and gnarly, a ripe, yellow quince resembles nothing so much as a deformed apple (except when it suggests a deformed pear).

Most varieties are cloaked with a layer of waxy fuzz. This may or may not be removed before the quinces are brought to market, but should always be scrubbed away before cooking.

They sound great already, don’t they? But there’s more: Off the tree, the flesh of the quince is inedibly hard and astringent.

If you try to bite into one like an apple, your teeth will get stuck and the taste will make you queasy. How do I know this? Because, in the name of research, I tried it.

Subject this same fruit to an hour or so of cooking, however, and you’ll hardly know it. Poached in syrup—the most common way of cooking quinces, though they can also be added to stews—the fruit turns silky, toothsome, and a lovely shade of pink.

And some of the fruit’s fragrance infuses the flavor of cooked quince. Even when raw, a ripe quince smells enticingly like roses and pineapple (or like narcissus and oak leaves, if you believe, as you should, the cookbook author Deborah Madison).

To poach quinces, combine one part sugar to three parts water in a saucepan. This is not a precise recipe; size the quantities and pot to just contain your fruit. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.

Scrub your quinces clean. Slice into wedges, and core each slice. Use caution when cutting a quince: the flesh is very hard.

If you opt to peel the fruit (I never do), cook the peels with the flesh; they contribute color and a thickening pectin to the syrup.

Poach the fruit in the simmering syrup for 45 minutes to an hour. If you’d like, you can add spices to the syrup: cinnamon, cloves, or orange zest. A half-teaspoon of vanilla extract is nice here, too. The quince is done when the flesh is soft and pink. Cool and store the fruit in the syrup, which is also good over ice cream or for soothing sore throats.

Poached quince slices are great on their own, topped with plain sour cream; or mix them with the raw apple slices in an apple tart.

Membrillo is a little more work. If you’d like to give it a try, look for recipes in Spanish and Mexican cookbooks; Chez Panisse Fruit, by Alice Waters, also has a recipe.

If you cook membrillo into a thick, hard paste, you can slice it into wedges and serve it with sheep’s milk cheese. Or leave it a little soft: It’s great in empanadas.