Quince (called beh in Farsi) is a fruit that is so aloof it may as well be a root vegetable. Often sporting a bit of mossy fuzz, quince is a homely yellowish thing with a thick skin you are well advised not to attempt to bite into (unless you have a great dental plan) and a flesh that tastes sour, astringent and … dare one say … somewhat reminiscent of a raw potato! But make no mistake: our seemingly ungainly friend has many enchanting graces.
For one thing, quince is good for you, down to its seeds! (Here’s an old-fashioned Persian remedy for coughs and sore throat: rinse, dry and save quince seeds and when a cold strikes, soak a half dozen seeds in hot water, let sit for a minute till somewhat gelatinous, and drink like cough syrup. Alternatively, put quince seeds directly on tongue and suck to dissolve, much as you would with a lozenge.) For another, there is the serious matter of just how good it smells -a combo of honey, citrus and spice plus some other mysterious heavenly molecules. (This scribbler can confirm rumors of turning positively giddy when inhaling the stuff!) When cooked, the aroma of quince only intensifies even as its flesh grows soft and succulent and turns a rosy hue. In short, quince makes for a sublime ingredient with the potential to elevate any dish by virtue of its exquisite scent, taste and texture.
Now you’ll probably want to rush out and buy a whole bunch of quinces to put in a decorative bowl to infuse your home with its heady scent, and you probably can’t wait to also cook with it in many amusingly inventive and delicious ways, and who can blame you. But good luck finding any if you live in the U.S., as quinces have long fallen off the mainstream pedestal here and are hard to come by. Ah, perverse fate! Thankfully, there is a growing cult of quince enthusiasts (preach it!) and it is inevitable that at some point in the future, quince will make a leap from esoteric to embraced -just as the pomegranate managed to accomplish a few years ago.
Quince may languish in obscurity here in the U.S., but for centuries it has shined brightly as a favored ingredient in the cuisine of many cultures across the world. In Persian cooking, in particular, quince has long been a much-loved ingredient used to make a gamut of goodies such as: khoresh, abgoosht (a chunky soup combining quince with lamb shanks and various dried legumes), ash (a thick herb-infused soup), kookoo, moraba (jams & preserves), sharbat (a thick syrup diluted to make charming summer beverages) and last but not least and a dish that is one of my of my all-time favorites: dolmeh ‘ye beh or stuffed quince.
Many a time while cooking for this blog I have wistfully dreamed of a magical contraption that would allow transmitting the aroma of the food we make into the blogosphere but never so intensely as when savoring the delicious smell of this dolmeh ‘ye beh. I truly wish there was a way I could have shared the pleasure of the experience with you. (Someone hurry up and make an app for this!) Until technology catches up, just stare at this pic and use your imagination
When it comes to the stuffing for this dolmeh, it typically calls for ground beef but it is also perfectly acceptable (and in fact a classic alternative) to opt for a fruit, herbs and nut mixture. We hope to make the vegetarian stuffing on another occasion, but this time, we used Maman’s usual formula of ground beef (but no rice or split peas as some other Persian kadbanoo may choose to use) and chopped fresh herbs (scallions, parsley, mint and tarragon) mixed in with a portion of the pulp of the quinces (the rest of the pulp goes for the sauce) seasoned with turmeric, cinnamon, a bit of saffron, and flavored with tomato paste, lemon juice and a bit of sugar. The taste of the final dish is savory punctuated by tart and sweet – which is one of the signature flavor profiles of Persian cooking and stunningly delicious. Another particular delight of this dish (aside from its aesthetic and aroma) is that it serves up all of the quince, save for its seed and fuzz. Which is rather charming.
You really need to do yourself the favor of experiencing this dish. If you can’t find quince in the market, I hope you know someone with quince trees growing in their yard, and if so, make nice with them and get you some … quinces. And then indulge.
- 6 quinces – preferably unblemished ones
- 1/2 pound ground lean meat (lamb, veal, or beef)
- 3 stems scallion
- 3 sprigs parsley
- 3 sprigs mint (or substitute 1 teaspoon dried mint)
- 3 sprigs tarragon (or substitute 1 teaspoon dried tarragon)
- 2 small onions or one large onion (finely chopped)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- a pinch of saffron (optional)
- 2 tablespoons or more sugar
- 1/3 cup lemon juice (or white vinegar)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- Scrub the fuzz off and wash quinces very well to clean. Pat dry.
- Cut the top off each quince, about 1/2 inch down -set aside to use as a lid. Using a melon baller, hollow and scoop out the core and the seeds. (Either discard seeds or else rinse, dry and save seeds for use as sore throat and cough remedy as described earlier.) Short video demo here.
- Scoop out the flesh, leaving a 1/2 inch thick pulp on all sides. Save the pulp: you’ll use 1/3 of the pulp for the stuffing and the remainder for the sauce. (If you accidentally puncture the bottom of the quince, fret not, you can use a bit of the pulp to patch up the hole. Quince pulp: delicious and multi-functional!) Quince flesh browns rapidly once exposed to air. To prevent this, have a bowl with the juice of one lemon at hand. After de-pulping each quince, dip a pastry/basting brush in the lemon juice and lightly coat inside of each scooped out quince. You can also dab the quince lids with lemon. (If you don’t have a brush, use your fingers, or a spoon, or even a clean cotton ball.) Optional step: Sprinkle a tiny pinch of sugar inside the quince as well. Short video demo here.
- Prepare the stuffing:
- Wash, dry and finely chop the scallion, parsley, mint and tarragon. Set aside for now.
- In a bowl, season ground meat with 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric. Gently knead to evenly mix.
- Sautee onions with 1-2 tablespoons of oil until golden and translucent (approximately 5-10 minutes) then add the ground meat mixture to the onions and sautee for an additional 5 minutes or until the ground meat is lightly browned.
- Add: chopped herbs, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 of the scooped-out quince pulps, 1/2 tablespoon of tomato paste, and 1 cup of tepid water. Stir very gently to mix and bring mixture to a gentle boil. Once gently boiling, cover lid and simmer for 20 minutes or until almost all the liquid is absorbed but be careful not dry out the meat mixture. (Optional: at the end of the 20 minutes, add a pinch of saffron to the mix.)
- Make a lemon juice and sugar sauce combining: 1 cup of water, juice of one lemon, 2 tablespoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, and 1/2 tablespoon of tomato paste. (Taste and adjust to your liking, adding either more lemon juice or more sugar.) Bring to a boil. Divide mixture, reserving half. Add the other to the ground beef and stir to mix. Congratulations – you’re now done with the stuffing!
- Fill each quince with stuffing and top with its lid. Line a big pot with a cup of water and 1 tablespoon of oil. Layer the bottom of the pot with the remaining scooped-out quince pulps. Arrange quinces in the pot. Bring pot to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and pour the remaining lemon juice and sugar sauce over the quinces. Cover and cook for approximately 45 minutes. (Instead of cooking this on the stovetop, you can cook the quinces in a glass casserole dish in a 350 degree oven for on hour, basting quinces a few times with its sauce and juices to avoid drying out.)
Serve hot or at room temperature with bread, yogurt, and sabzi khordan. if refrigerated (may do so for up to two days) reheat completely before serving.
Make it, enjoy it, and noosheh jaan!