Note: If you would prefer to boil the beets, cover them with water and bring to a boil until tender, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Remove the tops (and save for...
Given our cultural predilection for breeding the most uniform, shelf stable, and prettiest fruits and vegetables, it's a wonder the quince has survived our agricultural fervor.
Quinces are knobby and irregular, like lumpy pears. They are a bit drab-looking and neglected and are prone to patches of rot. Their flesh is pale and grainy--much like the flesh of a pear, but far more pronounced. They do not soften as they ripen, and they cannot be eaten like an apple, for their flesh is highly astringent, making them unpleasant to eat out of hand.
Hearing all this, you may think, indeed, why has the quince, a highly inhospitable specimen, survived the quest for "ideal" fruit? I can only attribute the quince's staying power to the inexplicable inertia of longevity. The quince has played part in humankind's orchard for centuries at least. The quince was Paris's offering to Aphrodite, and Apicius's ancient Roman cookbook contains recipes for stewing quince with honey. If quinces have one thing going for them, it is time.
But in fact, quinces have quite a lot more than just time going for them. A bowl of quince can perfume a whole room with their delicate, floral scent. In Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, she even suggests placing some in the bedroom or living room, and states that in earlier times, quince were often stored with linens. Quince is doubtless a much finer scent than nose-numbing sachets of cinnamon potpourri.
This heady fragrance is not just skin deep. The flavor of cooked quince is much like a rose or violet. And indeed, along with apples and pears, quinces belong to the same horticultural family as the rose. To be perfectly honest, the proper words to describe the flavor of quince elude me. My first exploratory nibble of quince jelly flooded my tastebuds with aromatic notes of rose, and ripe apple and pear. Beyond that, there are ineffable aromas that perhaps only a parfumier could elucidate. But I think it is just that--the mysterious and subtle flavor of the quince--that so enthralls me.
Further, quince, not unlike the Horse of A Different Color from the land of Oz, changes color. Like cut apples or pears, quince will oxidize and brown once the flesh is exposed to the air, but as you cook quince--either by roasting, simmering, or stewing--its nondescript, cottony white interior turns pink. If you continue to cook quince past the pink stage, it attains an almost ruby red or magenta hue. It is, in a word, gorgeous.
Quince needs some coaxing to attain its full splendor, but it is more than worth the effort, as is the case with many stubborn but delicious foods (artichokes, I'm looking at you). There are many ways to cook quince. Most recently, I have seen recipes for Quince Tarte Tatin and a Quince-Apple Tart, but my favorite thing to do with special fruit is to preserve it.
I am not much of a jelly-maker. I have long preferred the chunky, rustic texture of preserves and compotes over strangely smooth jellies, but I do see their appeal. They are refined and feel a bit fancier than preserves. Indeed, they have an air of something fit for a formal tea service, although this is perhaps my own flight of fancy, having never been served formal tea before.
And quince jelly seems particularly suited for tea, owing to its delicate pink hue and subtle but distinct floral flavor. But I'll settle for simply spreading it on toast or serving it with soft cheeses. Quince jelly is a good one for beginners to make, as quinces are full of pectin, which means that it doesn't take long to reach the jelling point, and you don't have to worry about adding additional pectin.
What's more, making jelly means you have lots of fruit pulp leftover for making fruit butter, or in the case of quince, membrillo. Membrillo is a very thick paste traditionally served alongside cheese. You can purchase it at most upscale grocery stores. But while you're going to the trouble of making quince jelly, you may as well make membrillo, too, and it doesn't have to mean standing over a pot of bubbling, molten liquid for hours.
This project can easily be spread out over a span of days. On day one, boil the quinces to soften them and strain to get the juice for jelly-making. Run the pulp through a food mill and reserve. On day two, make the jelly and membrillo, or make the membrillo on day three.
Wash, remove stems and chop into 1/4-inch pieces:
3 1/2 pounds quinces
Place in a large heavy saucepan with:
7 cups water
Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, mashing and stirring frequently, until the fruit is thoroughly soft, about 30 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through a jelly bag or a clean, doubled kitchen towel (I used a flour sack towel folded over on itself). Reserve the pulp to make membrillo, below.
For each 1 cup of clear juice, add:
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
Boil rapidly, stirring frequently, to the jelling point*. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam. Pour the hot jelly into hot sterilized 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Process in a water bath for 5 minutes.
* Generally, the easiest way to tell you've reached the jelling point is when the liquid reaches 220˚F, but for quince, which contains a lot of pectin, you may want to remove it from the heat at about 218˚F. You can also use the quick-chill test. Put a plate in the freezer before you start making the jelly. As the liquid cooks and thickens, occasionally drop a small amount of the liquid onto the cold plate. Put the plate back in the freezer for a couple minutes. If, the liquid wrinkles when you run your finger through it, the liquid has reached the jelling point.
Makes about one 8x12x3/8-inch slab
Run the pulp from jelly-making, above, through a food mill and discard the solids remaining in the food mill. Add to the pulp:
3 cups sugar, or to taste
Preheat the oven to 200˚F. Spread the pulp in an ovenproof dish and bake, stirring every 30 minutes or so, for about 5 hours or until the pulp is very, very thick and a deep reddish color. Spread the pulp evenly in an 8x12-inch sheet pan lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Let the pulp cool to room temperature, then refrigerate, uncovered for several days until the membrillo can be cut with a knife. Cut into squares and wrap individually in parchment or plastic wrap and store in an airtight container.