I'm starting to get a little bit cross with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He seems to have a knack for publishing pieces in the Guardian on topics that I have been on the cusp of writing about myself, or have already written. First it was the pig's cheeks. Obviously I was pleased that Hugh had helped to bring a highly underrated ingredient to the masses. But, dear readers, you saw it here first, on my blog, and here, in my article for lovefood. Then it was Hugh's charming little article on homemade cheese. Again, been there, done that (although I do concede that my efforts ended with ricotta and labneh, and I have not yet attempted homemade mozzarella).
While I understand that it must be difficult for Hugh, a mere nobody who has yet to make it in the world of cookery and food writing, to come up with original ideas week after week, I would really appreciate it if he would at least credit me in his weekly Guardian articles for the effervescing fountain of inspiration that I constantly provide.
I was similarly dismayed by his most recent articles. No sooner had I drafted a post about the beauty of figs than a similar piece pops up in the Guardian. Hugh's love for figs even seems, like mine, to border on the erotic, judging by the highly fetishised voyeuristic language he used to describe them ("provocatively, fleshily, immodestly sexy"). Like myself, he bemoaned the availability of decent ripe figs in England, owing to their stubborn resistance to transportation without turning to mulch. As in my last post about figs, he harked back to romantic holidays in the Med, where he would pluck ripe, ready and abundant figs off trees laden with fruit and gobble them greedily.
I was vexed, I admit, but I let it slide, as I have a rather ravishing fig, raspberry and hazelnut cake recipe up my sleeve to share with you all at a later date, which I'm sure would knock socks off Hugh's fig and almond tart. Besides, there were always the quinces.
Oh wait. What did I see the following week in that most austere of journalistic publications?
Oh well. They do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose.
What I found most interesting about Hugh's article on quinces last week was not the article itself, but the comments underneath (this seems to be the case with a lot of Guardian articles for me, especially the foodie ones - the middle-class outrage evinced by some of the commenters is utterly priceless and can make for very entertaining reading; I imagine they could devote a whole section on the 'First World Problems' website to them). Most of the comments underneath had one thing in common: they were lamenting the elusive nature of the humble quince.
I found this rather hard to comprehend. I seem to be overwhelmed by quinces at the moment. Every fruit stall in Cambridge market is selling them. They're mostly Turkish imports, but I picked up three home-grown specimens the other day. I try and buy a couple every time I go to the market, ensuring I always have a permanent stash should the mood for quinces arise. (Admittedly, quinces aren't something one cooks on impulse, as they can take hours to cook into sublime, perfumed softness).
However, I think I am just lucky that Cambridge has a decent fruit market. Quinces are, by and large, quite difficult to track down. Supermarkets don't tend to sell them, which I always find odd, because they keep incredibly well. I kept one in my fridge for nearly six months and it was still perfectly edible when I finally got round to stewing it for porridge. They also transport well, prone to none of the bruising of fruits like peaches and figs, which supermarkets still manage to sell in abundance.
A mystery, I think. Generally your best bet for quinces are greengrocers or Middle Eastern stores (though the latter in Cambridge has never, to my knowledge, stocked them). Maybe a nice greengrocer would be able to order some for you. Support your local greengrocer, readers; they're few and far between these days.
Judging by how many Guardian readers are unable to locate this excellent fruit in their vicinities, I think it'll be a while before quince becomes a mainstream ingredient. I know it's rather selfish of me, but I'm quite glad of this. I like that the quince still maintains a rather mysterious, elusive aura. It makes cooking with it so much more interesting, because few people are used to its delightful perfumed flavour and sweet, slightly grainy texture. It means that there are relatively few recipes around using quince, giving me the scope to be creative and invent my own, both sweet and savoury.
A couple of weeks ago I baked two whole quinces for a couple of hours. When they had turned crimson and soft, I sliced them in half and scooped out the core. I stuffed them with a mixture of lamb mince, onion, pine nuts and allspice, then baked them for half an hour or so until the stuffing was golden and oozing delicious lamb juices over the fruit. Perched atop a bed of saffron and coriander rice and drizzled with a tahini yoghurt sauce, they were utterly delicious, their intense sweetness balanced by the earthy lamb, nuts and saffron.
Hooked by the combination of meat and quinces, I wanted to try them with duck. This salad is something I came up with out of the blue (literally, actually - all my best recipes come to me while I'm swimming). It's a really simple combination of pan-fried duck breast, thinly sliced, with poached quince segments, on a bed of lentils and spinach and scattered with walnuts. It looks labour-intensive on the page (lots of ingredients) but it's actually really simple, just a matter of cooking and co-ordinating the various components. Most of the ingredients are herbs and spices.
I rubbed the duck with a mixture of ground cumin, coriander seed, paprika and olive oil before searing it on both sides in a very hot pan and cooking it briefly in the oven for medium rare meat. I wanted some nice pungent spices in there to counteract the sweetness of the quince, which they did perfectly. Cumin and coriander seemed just right, given the Middle Eastern origins of the quince, and they work really well with the sweet meat of duck. I absolutely love duck breast, but I don't eat it that often. There are few things more satisfying than using a really sharp knife to slice into a medium-rare duck breast, still pink and tender in the middle, whispering promises of juicy, flavoursome meat and a crisp, spice-rubbed skin. It's during moments like these that I feel most content and satisfied as a cook.
The quince I poached in a sugar syrup infused with star anise, cinnamon, lemon peel, lemon juice, bay leaf and black peppercorns. It renders the quince delightfully soft and fragrant, the flavour of the anise and the lemon juice preventing it from cloying, which quince has a tendency to do more than any other fruit. Any leftover quince is great eaten on porridge the next day, as I found out this morning. That's the beauty of this fruit - it can provide a supporting or even a starring role in sweet and savoury dishes alike.
This is a really delicious salad, full of interesting flavours. There are a lot of what I would call 'earthy' flavours in there - lentils, cumin, coriander, walnuts, spinach - to counteract the natural sweetness of the duck meat and the intense sweetness of the quince. The end result is flavoursome and satisfying but still quite light (did you know that duck breast, when you take the skin off, is actually leaner than chicken?). To make it lighter still, you could just serve the meat and quince on a bed of salad leaves or wilted spinach, but you might want to use more duck in that case (I allowed half a duck breast per person, but the duck breasts I bought from the butcher must have belonged to some kind of Godzilla duck because they were absolutely gigantic).
I fully expect Hugh to have an article on duck in the Guardian this weekend.
Spiced duck and quince salad (serves 4):
2 large or 4 small duck breasts, skin scored at 1 inch intervals
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp paprika
3 tbsp olive oil
2 small or 1 large quince, peeled, cored, and cut lengthways into eight
3 star anise
4 bay leaves
Juice of half a lemon
Four strips of lemon peel
10 black peppercorns
Half a cinnamon stick
250g green or Puy lentils
1 chicken stock cube
A few sprigs of lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
4 bay leaves
A bag of baby spinach
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
A large handful of shelled walnuts (or pecans/hazelnuts)
Toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry frying pan until fragrant. Crush in a pestle and mortar with the paprika, then add 2 tbsp olive oil and a good grinding of salt and pepper to make a paste. Rub this over the duck breasts and set aside.
Place the sugar in a large saucepan with around 300ml water. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the star anise, bay leaves, lemon juice, lemon peel, peppercorns and cinnamon stick, then add the quince slices. You may need to add a little more water to cover them. Bring to the boil, then cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for around 20-30 minutes until the quince is tender. Keep checking it every 10 minutes or so, as it can collapse into mush very quickly. When cooked, turn off the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring around 500ml water to the boil and add the chicken stock cube, a few thyme sprigs, and the bay leaves. Add the lentils and boil for about 25 minutes until tender but still with a little bit of bite. Drain and keep warm.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan until very hot, then add the duck, skin side down. Cook for a couple of minutes or until the fat starts to crisp up, then turn over and sear for a minute or so on the other side. Transfer the duck breasts to an ovenproof dish and cook for 4-6 minutes (for medium rare meat). When cooked, place on a chopping board and leave to rest, covered with foil, for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the spinach to the hot duck pan (drain away most of the fat). Cook until wilted, then add to the lentils. Add the balsamic vinegar and some seasoning, then stir together to mix well. Taste - you might want a little more vinegar or seasoning (the quince is very sweet, so it needs the tang of vinegar to balance it out).
When ready to serve, cut the quince segments into thin slices. Slice the duck breasts thinly. Arrange the lentils and spinach on four plates, then top with the quince and duck slices. Scatter with walnuts and a few thyme leaves, then serve.