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Quince science

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Cooking quinces is culinary magic. You start out with fruits that are yellow, hard and astringent. Three or four (or five) hours of gentle poaching later, they are fragrant, grainily soft, sweet and – most impressively – deep pink. Unless, that is, they have been cooked by me in the last year or so. I used to have the knack: see these beautiful specimens I cooked when I lived in the UK (and I made many similar-looking in Ireland, too, and I think I used to in Australia). But the last few times I’ve cooked them, they have refused to change colour, and after three or four hours of poaching I’ve been left with quinces the colour of bandaids. Not very appetizing! The liquid always goes at least a little pink, but not the jewel-pink it does when the fruit themselves also change colour.

Each time I’ve been confronted with beige quinces, I’ve scoured the internet looking for information on what could be going wrong. I haven’t found anything conclusive, but did see brief suggestions on a couple of cooking forums that absence of colour change could be due to one of two faults with the poaching liquid: (a) low sugar concentration, or (b) not adding lemon juice. Now, although I did make one beige batch with a lighter sugar syrup than usual, I’ve also had non-colour changing quinces when using the same sugar concentration that I’ve always used. So I thought it probably wasn’t the sugar. The lemon suggestion struck a chord, though.

When I was first cooking quinces, and for many years thereafter, I was a good, dutiful woman and followed Stephanie Alexander’s poached quince recipe to the dot. This included dropping the peeled and cored quinces into acidulated water (water with a good squeeze of lemon juice), before adding them to a light sugar syrup (1 part sugar to 2 parts water). A couple of years ago, though, I got uppity and started to think there was no point in the acidulated water, the stated purpose of which was to stop the quinces discolouring. What did I care if they discoloured a little? Once they turned dark pink you wouldn’t be able to see any discolouration, anyway. So I stopped doing that step, and began just tossing the quince quarters directly into the sugar syrup once I’d finished trimming them. Although I can’t pin it down precisely, in retrospect I do believe that it was around the same time I started doing this that my quinces stopped turning colour so successfully.

Last time I was faced with beige quinces, I found the lemon suggestion online, and, three hours into the cooking time, squeezed the juice of half a lemon into the poaching liquid. When I looked again, an hour later, the quinces were a lovely, reasonably deep pink. Ah ha!! But, being a scientist and generally sceptical, I wondered whether perhaps it was just the extra hour of cooking that had wrought the change, and the lemon had had nothing to do with it. So I decided to do….. Quince Science.

First, I obtained some experimental subjects.

Next, I thought about my experimental design. I wanted to test two hypotheses: (a) that low sugar concentration in the poaching liquid reduces quince colour change, and (b) that lack of lemon juice in the poaching liquid reduces quince colour change. I was also curious about whether sugar and lemon interacted somehow – for example, sugar and lemon might each boost colour a little bit, but both of them together would be required for full colour change. So I decided to set up four treatments:
– low sugar/no lemon
– low sugar/with lemon
– high sugar/no lemon
– high sugar/with lemon
This would let me separate out the effects of each of the variables, while also checking for an interaction.

I also thought about other sources of potential variation that might affect my results. The main ones I could think of were (a) random variation between quinces and (b) consistent variation between quince varieties. I could deal with the first fairly easily. Instead of cooking one quince in high sugar/no lemon, a second quince in high sugar/with lemon, etc, I decided to cut each quince into quarters, and cook each quarter in a different treatment. That way if one of my quinces was a weird one that would never change colour under any circumstances, I wouldn’t be misled into thinking that it was the treatment that was at fault for causing no colour change. The second source of variation was a bit more tricky. I know that there are about a dozen different quince varieties grown in Australia alone, and more overseas. But they’re never labelled, and I’m not sure which ones I’ve used for any particular batch of quinces. I know the last batch I cooked had waxy, fuzz-free skin and were and pear-shaped, while the ones I bought at the farmers’ market for this experiment were fuzzy, and two were pear-shaped and one more spherical. I wasn’t actually prepared to spend days driving all over Brisbane to source a wider variety of quince types for this experiment, so decided to just press ahead with what I had.

So I set up my laboratory. I usually poach quinces in the Le Creuset in the oven, but have occasionally done it on the stovetop. I don’t own four Le Creusets (or equivalents), unfortunately, so had to do this on the stove.

Here’s another potential confounding factor: different pot volumes and burner strengths. I tried to deal with this by making sure that all the treatments had ample liquid, and tweaking the burners throughout the experiment to make sure that all the pots were simmering very, very gently. And after all, I am not going to be publishing this in Nature.

The setup:
1. Rear left: high sugar/no lemon: A 1:2 sugar syrup, 2 cups sugar: 4 cups water.
2. Front left: low sugar/no lemon: A 1:4 sugar syrup, 2 cups sugar: 8 cups water.
3. Front right: high sugar/lemon: A 1:2 sugar syrup, 3 cups sugar: 6 cups water, plus the juice of half a lemon.
4. Rear right: low sugar/lemon: A 1:4 sugar syrup, 2 cups sugar: 8 cups water, plus the juice of half a lemon.

In go the quinces, to simmer gently for 3 hours.

After three hours, the differences were clear:

Fortunately this is science rather than art, so ugly flash photography is A-OK.

The bowls are in the same arrangement as the saucepans were on the stove. The two treatments with lemon are on the right, and are clearly a lot pinker than the treatments without lemon. There’s no obvious difference between the high and low sugar treatments with lemon. There’s a colour difference between the two non-lemon treatments, but I think that’s because the low-sugar treatment was on the front, wok burner, and so simmered a little harder than the back saucepan despite my trying to even them out.

Conclusion: Lemon is required for quinces to turn properly pink! Sugar concentration has no noticeable effect at the levels tested here.

I then went on to try a couple of further experiments.

First, I wanted to see whether I could get the lemon quinces to turn even darker pink, and whether this could be achieved simply by longer cooking, or if it required (or could be facilitated by) more lemon juice. I combined the two lemon treatments then split them back into two saucepans, to even out the different sugar levels, since I no longer believed this to be an interesting variable. I then added the juice of another half a lemon to one saucepan, left the other as it was, and simmered them both for a further hour.

There was no visible difference between the quinces with extra lemon and the ones without. Both sets, however, were noticeably darker and glossier after the extra hour of cooking. The syrup was also much thicker and darker. (I think the apparent glossiness of the fruits is just due to being coated in the beautifully cooked-down syrup.) You can’t really see an enormous amount of difference in the photos above, but trust me, there was a very clear change! I should have kept back some of the 3-hour quinces to use as a comparison in the photo, but I was too keen and rushed on without thinking my experimental design through, tch tch.

Finally, I wanted to confirm that a pot of beige-y quinces could be rescued at the last minute by the addition of lemon, for the benefit of anyone reading this after searching for answers to their quince troubles. So I combined then split the non-lemon quinces into two pans, added the juice of half a lemon to one of them, and simmered for a further hour. After that hour, the quinces cooked without lemon were pale pink (so at least no longer beige). But the quinces with the late-added lemon were utterly indistinguishable from the ones that had been cooked with lemon from the start. Both sets were equally dark pink and glossy. There was a difference, however, in flavour. The quinces that had been cooked with lemon from the start seemed to have a stronger flavour, that was more consistent all the way through. The ones that had had lemon added at the end were entirely fine, but less flavourful in the middle of each piece of fruit. I think the lemon may heighten flavour, and cooking with lemon for 4 hours rather than just 1 gives it a chance to penetrate all the way in.

Final conclusions: Long-cooking (at least 4 hours) contributes strongly to quince pinkness, as we all knew. For maximum colour change, add lemon juice during cooking. For the best flavour and earliest colour change, add the lemon at the start of cooking, rather than towards the end.

Future research directions: While waiting for these quinces to poach, I browsed the internet for more quince information, and came across this incredibly useful site from NSW DPI: Quince Growing. Table 1 lists 15 varieties of quinces grown in NSW, and includes information on what colour they are when cooked. This ranges from ‘yellowish’ to ‘deep pink’. I wonder whether some varieties really can’t be turned pink with cooking, even with lemon, or whether other varieties turn pink without lemon. Clearly an area that needs further research! I will just have to scour farmers’ markets for further specimens from a wider variety of cultivars. Maybe I can get ARC funding for it.


Our apparently regular weekend chat

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

I went to the Powerhouse markets with my mum this morning. She likes markets; Ted doesn’t; why didn’t I think of this obvious pairing-up before? Good call mum.

I brought back a lovely wintery haul: cavolo nero, young kale, parsley and dill, a bunch of plumping-up dutch carrots, a potkin pumpkin, Tenterfield apples, a German rye loaf, a boudin noir (plus a couple for Jean and Edwige), and two very large and meaty smoked ham hocks.

I bought the potkin in hopes that it would be something like a kabocha, the pumpkin that stole my heart away from butternut squash when I lived in Dublin. Kabocha (at least in Ireland) have dark green thick but edible skin, and intensely orange flesh that is firm and sweet. The middle-aged couple selling these pumpkins at the Powerhouse markets had two kinds on offer: “These ones are potkins, and these other ones, we don’t know what variety they are so we call them bobkins, after Bob here”. They’d never heard of kabocha but the potkins looked a plausible match so I bought one. (“How much for this little one Bob?” “Oh, about two dollars.”) Once home I checked the interwebs: many sites claim that potkins are a kabocha hybrid. Hurrah, perhaps! But alas, when I split mine, its flesh was much paler than a kabocha’s, and when I quartered, seeded and roasted it the flavour was fine but nothing spectacular. So as you can tell it’s been an emotional whirlwind of a day, pumpkin-wise, and maybe I need to have a sit down and have a glass of wine to settle myself.

Fortunately, lunch gave me something else to think about, which was emptying out various bits and pieces from the fridge so that new bits and pieces could go in. Not that much in the crisper – a few zucchini and some herbs. In the big tupperware that holds the cheese stash, there were several scraps and rinds and forgotten last chunks of various cheeses each wrapped up in paper, one of which was a small piece of Roaring Forties blue cheese that had seen better days. It was very mildly suspicious-looking on one edge, but as regular readers will know, this blog sometimes ought to be subtitled Slightly Dodgy Things I Have Eaten, so after submitting it to the taste-a-tiny-bit-it-won’t-kill-you test, I passed it as edible but for immediate consumption only. Hence this pasta, variants of which we make pretty frequently. I love the way that the zucchini cook down to a sweet, luscious softness, losing about 70% of their original volume. Even after making it a dozen times, I still doubt myself when I see the towering pile of raw zucchini. Don’t – you will regret not having more if you skimp.

Strozzapreti with zucchini, thyme and blue cheese

8 slender zucchini (why bother buying fat, watery zucchini?)
3 large brown shallots
olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
leaves from quite a few sprigs of thyme
a palmful of leaves of flat-leaf parsley
150 g strozzapreti
smallish piece of blue cheese, about 10 x 2 x 2 cm

Slice the zucchini into rounds about 2-3 mm thick. Peel and halve the shallots, and slice very finely. Heat a small glug of olive oil in a non-stick pan over moderate heat, add the zucchini, shallots, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring more or less frequently, for about 20 minutes. The zucchini will cook down until they are very, very soft. They shouldn’t pick up much, if any, colour though – turn the heat down if they start to brown more than the tiniest bit.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta, then drain it, reserving a cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in with the zucchini, loosening the sauce with drizzles of cooking water if needed. Toss through some chopped parsley, then serve with more parsley and crumbled cheese sprinkled on top. Stir through the cheese before eating.

Serves 2.

Lunch and linkitude

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

I just ate an awesome lunch of broccoli rabe and sourdough with grilled goats cheese. Let me tell you about it!

I’ve been going to one or other of the farmers’ markets around town every weekend for the last couple of months, having rediscovered how much happiness they bring me. My instinctive Saturday morning laziness has so far been regularly trumped by getting all enthused about vegetables and getting a bit of fresh air. At the West End markets yesterday I gathered a back-strainingly heavy load of fresh vegetables, including this bunch of I-think-it’s-broccoli-rabe. Not sure of the ID as the seller didn’t have a lot of English, but it looked and tasted like the internet tells me broccoli rabe should.

To cook it, I first cut off the leaves and chopped the stems into 2 cm pieces. I simmered the stems for a couple of minutes, added the leaves and continued cooking for another two minutes, then drained it all and set aside. In a separate pan, I slow-cooked a quartered and finely sliced onion in a dash of olive oil until soft and silky; added 4 jarred anchovies and cooked until they dissolved; then added 5 finely minced cloves of garlic and a teaspoon of chili flakes, gave them a minute, and finally threw in the drained broccoli rabe. I let it cook down on the stove for another five minutes or so, until everything was combined and the stems were tender. While that was happening, I toasted a couple of slices of sourdough, then topped them with thin slices of aged goat cheese (from the Gympie cheese stall at the markets) and toasted under the grill until the cheese was slightly melty and touched with gold. I ate a pile of the broccoli with the cheesy toast on the side.

Oh yeah. Man, what a delicious combination. The slow-cooked onions and anchovies added a sweetness to the very slight remaining bitterness of the leaves, with the goat cheese giving a bit of savoury bite. I’m so glad I stopped and bought the mystery broccoli-like greens even though my bags were already bulging.
And now, a few other fascinating food-related things!

◊  Why were my market bags so heavy? Because I have a stack of recipes lined up to try this week, including savoury pumpkin cakefarro salad with roasted red grapes and greens, and beetroot and lime soup.

◊  I am also planning a scientific assault on the question of why my poached quinces sometimes turn pink and sometimes stay the colour of bandaids. My current theory is that a squeeze of lemon juice is required for the colour change, and I will be testing this (and if necessary other theories) by cooking halves of single quinces in different ways and observing the outcomes. Yeah science.

◊  I have been totally rocking the cooking recently, at least in terms of variety and enjoyment. Check out the Eating notes for details. Recent highlights: Molly Wizenberg’s leek confit, which is spectacularly good when slightly warm and eaten piled onto toasted sourdough spread with soft goat cheese; a parsnip, pear and thyme soup; boudin noir with apples; pear and gruyere toasted sandwiches; lentil, roast tomato and rosemary soup; and smoked salmon with roasted potato, parsnip, shallots and horseradish.

◊  The boudin noir of the previous paragraph came from the Eumundi Smokehouse, which has a stall at the West End market and Powerhouse market. It’s been too long since I ate a proper French boudin to be able to say exactly how authentic it was, but it tasted pretty damn good to me. Air-dried saucisson from there was also good.

◊  We’ve had a couple of great dinners recently with Ian and Lisa at China Kitchen (High St Toowong) – the chili soup, dry-fried intestines, and chili and sour potato have been standouts. Recommended.

Freezer full of ziplocks

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Just quickly, dudes, because I am writing this in the last 5 minutes of my lunchbreak.

You know what really rocks? Freezing single serves of things like cooked wheat grains, barley, brown rice, beans, etc etc, in little ziplock bags. You can flatten them out before freezing, so they stack together beautifully in the freezer and take up almost no space. Then, when you are desperate for lunch or dinner, they will be sitting there, waiting only to be told how best they can serve you.

Example: this morning, I realised that I had no leftovers to take in for lunch, and knew that I could not face the uni refec with any kind of equanimity. So I opened up a tupperware, and threw in the contents of a ziplock of frozen wheat grains, a couple of handfuls of frozen peas, another couple of handfuls of baby spinach, and a piece of hot-smoked salmon. The grains and peas thawed during the morning, and at lunchtime I just chucked it all in the microwave for 90 seconds to wilt the spinach, squeezed some lemon over the top, and it was delicious. Thank you, past self who cooked up too much wheat grain one night a couple of months ago and put the leftovers in the freezer. The self of today salutes you.

Meg + bike = OTP

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

My long-suffering Facebook friends are used to being updated on my continuing love affair with my bike. Another week, another paean to the joys of commuting under my own power between home and uni, along the river. Most days it’s the simple exercise I value most – the cranking up of my poor clockwork brain that needs to be wound up with a bit of cardiovascular activity so it can tick on throughout the day. Or it’s the 40 minutes spent away from computer, papers and iPod, leaving room for my thoughts to wash up and back like the tide. Or it’s the fact that it’s free, and I’ve saved both bus fare and gym membership for one more day.

But there are a couple of less tangible things about it I think are worth even more. The first is the way that a memory of a town is ground into you by riding (or walking) a route over and over again. If I close my eyes I can walk again my commutes in Dublin and Brighton, remembering every turning, the horse chestnut tree on the side street, the change from concrete to cobble footpath at a particular corner, the white-painted walls of an alleyway, the metal of an old manhole cover worn slippery, the long, long wait at a particular pedestrian crossing, the low winter sun glinting on the windows of my office as I round the last corner. It’s the same in Brisbane now. There’s the slow climb up to the Storey Bridge, the twisty zip down the path and precipitous Ivory Lane to the river, the slow weaving in and out between pedestrians getting off the ferry at Riverside, the wrist-shaking juddering over the cobbled paths in the botanic gardens, looking out at where Lightfoot used to be moored before Michelle and Graham set off for Canada, then the brackish smell of the mangroves, the roar of the freeway above, watch out for the lip of the curb there, the winding back and forth with the river, up onto the road at Toowong, two hills in the looping St Lucia backstreets (on one of which I was almost run over by a garbage truck coming the other way, a year ago), and the final run into uni, past the old parasitology buildings, and down the ramp into the courtyard of our building. I’ll never fully lose this fine-grained knowledge of this route, not completely.

And the second: freedom. My bike lets me go places I wouldn’t venture on foot at night. Down by the rowing sheds at uni. Around the factories and warehouses in West End, when the streets are silent and deserted. Through the city botanic gardens, dodging ringtail possums hypnotised by my lamp, past the sleeping homeless people, even though QUT apparently sends out occasional emails suggesting that women keep out of the park when it’s dark. I feel like the city is mine, in a way it would never be if I were in a car or walking. I can cycle for miles, go wherever I want, explore whatever makes me curious, and sense it all directly.

Tonight, riding home from my Italian class at about 9.30, I found the river walk blocked off  just coming into the city. At first I was cross at the thought of having to take the suggested detour, which involved lots of road-crossing and getting involved with traffic. But then I decided instead to cross over the Go Between bridge to West End, cycle along the south bank of the river past the Cultural Centre, and cross back over on the Goodwill Bridge. Coming into West End, suddenly alert again, I smelled the sharp, sour smell of the milk factory on the night air as I turned into Montague St. I slowed down as I passed the old Montague hotel on the other side of the road, looking over at people sitting talking at tables outside on the footpath, under iron lace balconies, in warm pools of light, quiet amongst the empty streets around. When I came to the museum of modern art, I missed the turnoff for the cycle path, and since there was almost no-one else around I continued on and followed the narrow twists of the pedestrian path for a while, then bumped over the edge of the path to coast down the steep rolling hill of lawn between the garden beds, back to the river’s edge and the boardwalk. It was like a dream – somehow intense but full of floating potential. I smiled the rest of the ride home, thoroughly aware again despite the familiar route.

Two things

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

1. I have finally discovered the level of food blogging I am capable of these days: a one- or two-sentence description of what we do for dinner each night. Idea shamelessly stolen from the far more inspirational Redfox, who also blogs, you know, properly. Anyway, our dinner reports are being logged on the page linked in the sidebar labelled Eating notes.

2. I sliced off the tip of my index finger last night, cutting fennel on the mandoline in a hurry and not using the finger guard.  It HURTS.  Use the finger guard, dudes, it is there for a reason.  Thank heavens Miffy, trained medical professional, was in the house and willing to go beyond normal guest duties and dress it for me. Thanks Miff.

It’s just a silly phase I’m going through

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Don’t get excited! You know I’m only here because it’s between Christmas and New Year and I’m kidding myself that I have time for this in my life.  But let’s see – maybe if I don’t have to code the bloody RSS feed by hand I might actually drop by now and then.  You never know.

There won’t, however, be many photos of food.  The sun sets in Brisbane at afternoon-o’clock all year round, so we rarely eat dinner in daylight, and food photographed by electric light is actively un-appetising.  I take hope from the fact that one of my long-term favourite food blogs, Hungry Tiger (currently offline?), is also infrequently updated and photo-less, and yet remains inspiring to me.

Finally, after this ungracious re-beginning, a very genuine thank you and apology to all those people who emailed me over the last year or so asking where I was, and received no reply.  The answer was that I had my head up my academic posterior, alternately panicking and blissfully enjoying myself (kinky!).  I anticipate lots more intra-posterior insertion in the year to come, but I will try and extract myself now and then.