Poulet aux coings

One day a colleague of mine at the International Herald Tribune arrived with a bagful of quinces and handed it over. ‘Do you know what to do with these?’ he asked. Thus began my adventure in cooking with quince, a fruit I had rarely encountered before. Every autumn I try my hand at one dish or another. This year, I made chicken with quinces, a dish richly spiced with cumin, cinnamon, coriander and saffron, and sweetened with honey.

Poulet aux coings / Chicken with quinces

The dish is easy to prepare providing you have a sharp knife for paring the quinces, which are rock-hard even when ripe. The chicken is sautéd in olive oil and then simmered with onions and the spices, with quince pieces added halfway through. If there are no quinces in your area, not to worry — you can substitute pears. But the flavor won’t be the same.

If you’ve never encountered a quince, it’s an exquisitely perfumed yellow fruit that looks like a cross between an apple and a pear. In France, it is mainly used to make pâte de coings, a sturdy jelly that is served in sugar-coated squares. In Spain, this firm jelly is known as membrillo and is served with Manchego cheese. Other countries, like Iran and Azerbaijan, use quinces in various savory dishes, often paired with lamb or poultry.

But cooking with quince can be tricky. For my first attempt, I tried my hand at pâte de coings. The recipe looked simple enough. After I chopped and boiled some quinces from my bagful, the next step was to wrap the softened fruit in a fine muslin cloth and squeeze to remove the juices. Oops. Next thing I knew, my kitchen walls and ceiling were spotted with blobs of quince. At that point, I gave up.

The next year, I attempted plov, an Azerbaijaini rice and lamb dish that I’d enjoyed while working as a reporter in the USSR. It turned out beautifully, and I’ve never looked back. Bukharian chicken pilaf with quinces and apples followed, both of these recipes from Anya von Bremzen’s wonderful cookbook Please to the Table.

Despite its relative rarity in contemporary cuisine, the quince has been part of the world’s culinary repertoire for millennia. It hails from Mesopotamia and, according to certain theories, was the fruit Eve tasted in the Garden of Eden — not an apple. (A skeptic might say this stretches the imagination, as raw quinces are virtually inedible. The wily serpert would surely have been smarter than to tempt her with such a fruit.)

I heard about quinces long before I tasted them via Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, in which, after a year at sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, this odd couple fell in love, bought a ring from a piggy, and were married the next day: ‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince…’ To my three-year-old ears, it all sounded terribly exotic.

My next childhood encounter came via ancient aunts who sent pretty fruit baskets at year’s end embellished with little jars of quince jelly. It was fairly tasteless. Given the choice, I vastly preferred my mom’s homemade strawberry jam.

But the real thing is something else. As Claudia Roden writes in her Book of Jewish Food, ‘It is the seductive flavor and perfume of the quince that makes it special.’ Her recipe for Poulet aux Coings, which is differently spiced than mine, is described as a sumptuous dish that was prepared for the Jewish New Year holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which fall in the autumn when quinces are ripe.

I made the dish pictured above last week for Rosh Hashanah, its sweetness fitting with a tradition of wishing your near and dear a sweet year ahead. And so, dear readers, here’s wishing you a very sweet year and…

Happy cooking.

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