The artful touch of the quince

Times Staff Writer

THE hard, tart quince, with its mild apple-pear flavor, is one of those fruits that definitely needs help in reaching its full potential. It's just not much good without some cooking. There are the familiar jellies, jams and preserves, of course. But there's a lot more too.

For a very simple dessert that really does show the fruit at its best, bake quince whole until they are fork tender. This will take about an hour depending on the size of the fruit (be sure to turn them during the baking to prevent burned spots). Let the quince cool until they're easy to handle and cut them into quarters.

Even after mellowing in the oven, the quince will still be tart, so I like to drizzle a little butter then sprinkle sugar over the top before popping them under the broiler until they get a little char around the edges. Then the nutmeg. It's amazing how a sprinkling of freshly ground nutmeg brings out the flavor. I like to finish it with drizzle of creme anglaise. Served warm, this makes a heavenly wintertime dessert. (Even easier, skip the creme anglaise and just serve it with good vanilla ice cream.)

The combination of dried cherries and quince is irresistible in our quick strudel. It's a good idea to start with fresh filo dough: The frozen sheets can stick together and tear easily. Keep opened filo dough sheets covered with plastic wrap and a towel until you're ready to use them. If left uncovered they tend to dry out quickly, making the dough crack and hard to handle.

Quince also works well in savory dishes, adding a nice accent to meat (try dropping cubes into a stew sometime). It's especially good in a sauce with veal. Start with beef broth, homemade or canned. And finishing it with a swirl of butter at the end adds richness, sheen and a bit of thickening.

When selecting quince choose large, firm yellow fruit without blemishes or bruises. Keep them at room temperature to ripen, and enjoy a dividend: Quince are also a wonderfully aromatic fruit.

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Quince and dried cherry strudel

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

1/3 cup dried tart cherries

1/4 cup kirsch (cherry brandy)

5 tablespoons butter, divided

2 quince, peeled and diced

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/3 cup diced pecans

2 tablespoons lemon juice

5 sheets filo dough, thawed at

room temperature about 10

minutes

1 tablespoon coarse sugar (decorator's sugar)

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Combine the cherries and kirsch in a small bowl; set aside to soften the cherries.

3. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the quince and cook, stirring frequently, until it has softened slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the brown sugar and continue to cook until the sugar has caramelized a bit, 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Stir in the pecans, lemon juice and reserved cherries and kirsch. Cook until the kirsch has evaporated, another 2 to 3 minutes. Allow to come to room temperature.

5. While the filling cools, melt the remaining butter. Place 1 sheet of the filo on a work surface and brush with some of the butter. Repeat with the remaining sheets, layering one over another, reserving about 2 teaspoons of butter.

6. Spread the cooled filling evenly over the filo and roll up the strudel from the short side of the filo. Place the strudel on a baking sheet and brush with the remaining butter, then sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool about 10 minutes then slice.

Each of 8 servings: 219 calories; 127 mg. sodium; 19 mg. cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.19 grams fiber.

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Roast quince

Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Servings: 4

1 cup half-and-half

1 cup whipping cream

1 vanilla bean

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

4 quince, about 1/2 pound each

3 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons sugar

Grated nutmeg

1. Combine the half-and-half and whipping cream in a small saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. With the tip of a knife, scrape the tiny seeds along the inside of the vanilla bean into the cream. Add the pod halves. Whisk a few times and heat to a simmer. Turn off heat and let stand 10 minutes to steep before removing the pod.

2. Combine the sugar and cornstarch and whisk into the cream. Heat to a boil, stirring occasionally. Simmer 1 minute. Quickly whisk the egg yolks into the cream mixture, then remove the mixture from the heat and strain. Cover and let the creme anglaise stand while preparing the quince.

3. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

4. Place the quince in a small pan. Bake until tender, 1 hour, turning the quince during roasting to prevent any burned spots. Remove from the oven, cut into quarters and remove the seeds.

5. Meanwhile, heat the broiler. Place the quince on a shallow tray or baking pan, drizzle with the butter, then sprinkle with the sugar. Broil until the sugar melts and the wedges begin to brown around the edges, 3 to 4 minutes. Grate a little fresh nutmeg over the top. Arrange 4 pieces of quince on each plate. Garnish with more grated nutmeg and drizzle with the creme anglaise.

Each serving: 401 calories; 130 mg. sodium; 196 mg. cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.03 grams fiber.

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Veal chops with quince sauce

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 2

2 (14-ounce) cans beef broth

1/2 cup minced onion

1/2 cup minced celery

2 large carrots, minced, divided

1 large quince, minced, divided

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 (8-ounce) veal rib chops

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, divided

Salt, pepper

1 small parsnip, minced

2 large shallots, minced

1 cup ruby port

1. Place the beef broth, onion, celery, 1 of the minced carrots, half of the minced quince, and the tomato paste in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid is reduced by about half, about 30 minutes. Strain and reserve the broth.

2. Let the veal chops sit at room temperature about 15 minutes.

3. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Season the chops with salt and pepper to taste and cook until medium-rare, about 5 minutes a side. Remove from the skillet and keep warm.

4. Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the skillet along with the reserved carrot, reserved quince and minced parsnip and cook, stirring frequently, until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the skillet and keep warm.

5. Add the shallots to the skillet and cook just until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the port and cook until the port has reduced by half, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the reserved broth and simmer until reduced by half again, about 10 minutes. Strain the sauce into a clean small skillet and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cut the remaining tablespoon of butter into 4 pieces and add them one at a time to the sauce, swirling the pan after each addition, not stirring. Add more salt and pepper, if desired.

6. To assemble, place a chop on each of 2 warmed plates. Top each chop with half of the vegetable mixture and drizzle the sauce around the chops.

Each serving: 677 calories; 1,212 mg. sodium; 241 mg. cholesterol; 37 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 55 grams protein; 3.60 grams fiber.

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