A Toast to the New Year

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The past month has been a busy one! December was an oddly warm one for the Hudson Valley, and I tried to get out to hike as much as I could. There were forsythia flowers blooming, and cherry blossoms opening, and mushrooms all over. As I write this, winter has finally settled in a little bit more– there is snow outside, and it is cold enough to have the wood stove cranking. The new year is upon us, and I, for one, am dedicated to making it a good one. There were so many heavy moments in the last few months of 2015 that by December, I sank pretty low. But with good food, an open mind, and love in our hearts, I know we can start on a high note.

Back in October, I harvested some berries from the invasive autumn olive. They are lovely red berries that have microscopic dots all over them, giving them a silvery cast (the plant is also called silverberry, due to the silvery underside of their leaves, and perhaps the berries themselves). I have been gathering these lovely little berries for years now, since I found a huge patch where you can never even put a dent in this highly productive species’ output. One bush will produce tons of berries. It’s a picking experience not without pain–there are some sharp thorns.

I must say that I had almost given up on them as a source for food. I don’t like the berries raw–though some do eat them this way–as they are very tannic. My lips just pucker at the mere thought of them. Pressed and added to apples is a suitable way to eat them, as I do like their flavor. I once tried to make something from them on their own, and they separated into a red pulpy mass with a white milky liquid. It wasn’t very pleasant. Also, the large seeds inside the berry have a grain-y smell to them that I don’t care for. When you pass them through a sieve, as for applesauce, it releases this flavor. It sort of ruins things for me, though I wonder how the seeds would be toasted.

This year, once they began to ripen I went to collect a small amount, about a pound. As I picked them, I didn’t even know what I would make. I had been so disappointed in them in the years past that I was only picking them because I do every year. What to make? I wondered. When I am at the end of my rope on deciding what to so with a fruit, I resort to two things: vinegar or liquor. I took the liquor route. And, I tell you, this was the correct route. (Though I will try vinegar next year–maybe that’s a good route, too!)

This mixture–a quart jar filled with the berries, covered with vodka and let to steep for about a month– is my new favorite elixir. At first, I was deflated. When I went to agitate it over the month I noticed it never changed a deep red which I thought it might due to all the lycopene autumn olives contain. But when I tasted it–well, that’s where I was sold. It’s tinged pink, sort of an eerie color, neither here nor there, but all the berry-ish flavor is leeched into the vodka, none of the acrid tannins linger, and all you have is a lovely fruity beverage to indulge in for the final hours of the past year. I will chill it thoroughly, and enjoy it by the fire as the minutes tick to nine o’clock. (Which is when I observe the change, as I cannot stay up until midnight.)

So, I raise my virtual glass of autumn olive cordial, and I wish you a wonderful 2016, filled with fine foods, friends and lots of love!

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Quinces

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Poached quince slices on yogurt.

Usually, every fall, I buy quinces from Locust Grove in Milton, NY. This year, my two little trees finally bore fruit. Coincidentally, it was the first year I started spraying them with neem oil. I guess I’ll be doing that again next year! I think I could have let the fruit stay on the tree a little longer–they were still slightly greenish, with small imperfections and dimples. With this precious bounty, I decided to do something extremely plain so I could fully appreciate the fruit on its own.

It used to be, when I first became obsessed with making preserves, that I would be drawn to whatever esoteric recipes I could find. Spices and herbs were so much fun to add to fruit! But that inclination has faded. I’ve been focusing on simpler preserves for a while now. In this case, for my prized home-grown quinces I simply poached them in water and sugar. No lemon juice, no cardamom,  no bay leaves or peppercorns (which are all lovely with quinces). The only tweak was that I used my slow cooker to poach them gently over the course of the day. This is the best way to bring out the lovely brick colors that these quinces turn.

Note that quinces don’t always change color. The other day I was given about five large yellow quinces. I decided to experiment–I wanted to roast them dry and see what happened. Usually I roast them with a bit of water and sugar. Using a lightly oiled cookie try, thick, skin-on slices with were roasted for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees. I turned them once half way through and sprinkled them with very little sugar. The skin crisped up and the insides softened, like roasted potatoes, but they were tart and fruity. They were golden brown, and not a bit pink. Just like that they might have been a nice side with a roasted meat.  Instead I chose to toss them with two spoonfuls of quince jelly. They were hard to stop eating.

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Poached quince syrup, pickled cherry juice, and soda water.

Poaching quinces will leave you with a lovely syrup. For thanksgiving, I used this syrup blended with a splash of leftover juice from some pickled sweet cherries to make an outrageously delicious shrub soda. Also, the poached quince slices are great on top of yogurt, see above, or even more delicious baked into an apple quince pie. That was thanksgiving dessert. I have a little bit less than a quart left–maybe for an all quince tart?

Poached Quinces

6-8 cups of sliced quinces, peel on (you can peel them if you like, but I don’t bother)

2 cups of water

1-2 cups of sugar (1 cup is my preference taste-wise, but 2 cups makes a thicker syrup)

In a slow cooker add all ingredients. Turn on low for 8 to 10 hours, depending on your cooker. Throughout the day check on it, and give it a stir. I like to pull the quinces when they are a deep red, and fully soft. You can cook them too much, and they begin to fall apart. A quick fix for that is to blend them, syrup and all, and you have a luxurious quince pudding. The texture when whipped up is so soft and dreamy–much fancier than just applesauce.

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A perfect apple quince pie.