Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ancient Fruit

Quince, Apples, and Pears  1886 Paul Cezanne

My friend Julia and I met a thousand years ago. Just days before I opened my restaurant L’Amie Donia, I ran an ad in the Palo Alto Weekly looking for line cooks and dishwashers. My office was a desk my sister had hauled out of her garage and tucked into a corner of the cozy storage room where I wrote menus and listened to NPR nestled between one hundred pound bags of flour, five gallon bins of cornmeal, gunny sacks of lentils, rice, and cannellini beans. Slowly, slowly, I had been stocking our pantry and preparing for our opening, scared out of my mind, running on coffee and adrenaline. Julia came by one morning holding out an application she’d only half filled. A tall, skinny, tanned blond, with strong ropey arms who sat on the floor even though I offered her my chair (there wasn’t room for two chairs), wearing a white T-shirt that smelled of laundry soap with faded jeans and Tevas. Who is this girl? I thought. She had just arrived home from a long cycling trip through Washington State, when her mother had shown her the ad and here she was, sitting cross legged against a case of wine, sizing me up with pursed lips (they didn’t stay that way for long). I could only offer seven dollars an hour. Okay. What time shall I be here? When I arrived the next morning at seven, she was already there, sitting by the front door on the ground in another clean white T-shirt, her hair in a loose bun. I unlocked the door, we walked in, and for the next two years, she never left my side.

To say those first few months were hard is like saying war is hard. Ask a soldier to describe the front lines, and if she’s come home unscathed, perhaps you’ll hear how poorly reality compares with what she remembers as the swell of daunting tasks intensified and swallowed her whole and that she would not exchange any of it for the easy industry of an air conditioned office with a coffee maker and a microwave in a break room. Even on grim days when incident and no-show dishwashers collided, we summoned grace in the kitchen, and I’d go home only to return just a few hours later, playing with the keys in my pocket, ready to do it all over again. I’m here because you’re here, you go, I go, put the coffee on, crank up the ovens, roast the veal bones, blanch the fries, freeze the dough, cook the apples, strain the stock, check the walk in, mise-en-place, mise-en-place, mise-en-place, whatever we can do, we will do, and no one leaves until it gets done. Yes chef.

Within this orbit, rich with friendship and work, cooks come to know each other all too well, and it wasn’t long before Julia showed her mettle. This shy, freckled girl swore like a sailor and cooked like a couple of grandmothers, reaching back to essential ingredients before they were gussied up. Ask her to make pot roast and she’d sigh, intoxicated from the beefy aroma, as if it was already on her fork. And she provided the soundtrack to those long hours we spent prepping before the doors opened. Annie Lenox, The Pretenders, Sinead, so loud, the lady next door complained. Goodbye NPR. Alchemy and curiosity made Julia a wonderful chef—like her freckles, she was born into her talent. So when she was certain that I had a very capable brigade, she went off to take the helm of another kitchen in San Francisco and we remained war buddies with plenty of scars and mangled joints for souvenirs.

The other day, I came home to find a humungous bag of lumpy, yellow quince on my porch. No note. No sorry I missed you. I reached and put one right up to my nose to sniff its lemon rose scent through a gray fuzzy coat. It didn’t take me two seconds to know who they were from. Like I said, we know each other all too well. A different fellow might have forgotten how crazy I am for this ancient fruit. Julia remembered.

I’m making this Quince Cranberry sauce to take to Thanksgiving dinner at my sister-in-law’s house. That is, if I don’t eat it all before then with yogurt and granola.

Quince Cranberry Sauce

8 medium size quinces, peeled, seeded, and cut into eighths
1 ½ cups sugar
2 Tablespoons honey
2 cups water
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
4-5 cardamom pods cracked
2 cups fresh cranberries

Peel and core the quince very carefully, removing any fibrous pieces. Save a tablespoon of seeds. They’re packed with pectin and will give your sauce a lovely honey consistency.
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, water, citrus juice and zest and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Wrap the crushed cardamom pods and a tablespoon of quince seeds in a piece of cheesecloth and place in the warm liquid.
Add the quince and place a piece of parchment paper with a 2 inch hole cut in the center on top to keep the fruit immersed and allow steam to escape. Simmer for an hour until the quince are tender and have begun to turn rosy.
Gently fold the cranberries with the poached quince and simmer on low heat another 45 minutes until thickened and glossy. Remove the spice pouch. Pour into jelly jars, seal, and keep refrigerated.