My dad has given me two perfect gifts. Both were unusual and prophetic, their potential unfolding over time. The first was a hypnotic poor-quality video tape of a sewer blockage that my dad managed to get from a (probably bewildered) plumber. It was perhaps a strange care-package to mail to a daughter at college but it ended up being a source of inspiration years later.
The second gift was a cookbook that my dad rescued from a bin at the recycling center. Printed in 1960, "In A Persian Kitchen" looks its age. The jacket is in tatters, the bottom corner must have had a run-in with a khoreshe, and the recipes are full of advice for aspiring "Persian housewives."
I came into possession of this book before I ever thought I'd live in Irvine, with its plenitude of Persian food. In fact, it was before I even cooked much. I had just moved into a shabby apartment in Westwood where I had the first kitchen that was really mine. The kitchen came complete with a "vintage" oven that, despite the deceiving adjustment knob, only had one temperature--burn. This presented quite a challenge and a challenge I ended up devoting a lot of free time learning to conquer.
So, "In A Persian Kitchen" was one of my first cookbooks and was my guide through many fledgling cooking experiments. While many of the recipes were similar to other Middle Eastern dishes I knew well--eggplant casserole, yogurt dip, stuffed cabbage leaves--many others seemed exotic to me at the time--pomegranate soup, rice and rhubarb sauce, stuffed quince. As the author notes, the way Persian cuisine combines fruit and meat often strikes the American palate as unusual. I was totally intrigued.
I entertained often during my time in that apartment. Fortunately, a neighborhood of hungry college students who weren't put off by the likelihood of the place going up in flames made a fantastic audience. Being a beginner in an ill-equipped kitchen, most of my early attempts were failures, including my take on her stuffed quince recipe.
I didn't cook much from that book after that year, though it was a catalyst to a building interest in Middle Eastern flavors. Also, while dated and in contrast to everything I had been hearing in my Women's Studies classes, the housewife wisdom woven between recipes managed to stick with me. The author urges the cook to be exceedingly hospitable, always prepared to stretch the stew at the last minute. She introduces the book with a proverb that I was especially drawn to: "a guest is God's gift."
Now, five years and many ovens later, meat-stuffed fruit seems less surprising and more manageable. Quince was on my New Year's list as the "new fruit"--eaten for the first time that season as a celebration of the fall. For my parents, who joined me for this, eating quince this way was very new. Quince is often found in jams (has lots of natural pectin!) and tarts but is also good as a savory dish. They are apple-like and can take a while to soften when cooked. This recipe is not from the Persian cookbook, but is my fusion of pan-Middle-East of interpretations of the dish. I did keep the sweet-and-sour accent from the Persian recipes and used the pre-baking style from Claudia Roden.
- 2-3 quinces (if you can't get quince, apples work--just don't pre-bake them as long)
- few tsps of brown sugar
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 T olive oil
- 1/2 lb ground beef or lamb (I used bison. I'm sure goat would be great if you can find it...more on this another time)
- 1 tsp tomato paste
- 3 tsp pomegranate molasses, divided (if available)
- 2 T pine nuts
- 2 T raisins or currants
- Salt & pepper
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 2 T pine nuts
- 1/3 C lemon juice
- 1 C water
- 1/4 tsp saffron
- 1 Tb sugar or to taste
- 1 T butter (optional)
Wash the quinces and rub off their fuzz. Bake on a foil- lined baking sheet at 325° for about 1 1/2 hours until they give a little when you press.
Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onion until it is soft. Add the meat and tomato paste and cook until browned. Add in the pine nuts, raisins, cinnamon, allspice, and 1 tsp. pom molasses and cook for another minute or so. Season with salt & pepper.
When the quince are cool enough to handle, slice them open lengthwise. Remove their cores. Then, using a spoon or melon baller, remove some of their flesh, leaving at least 1/2 inch in the shell. Add the removed pulp to the meat stuffing mixture. Place the quince halves in a baking dish and rub the inside of each shell with about 1/2 tsp brown sugar. Fill the halves with the stuffing. Dissolve the saffron in the water and mix with the lemon juice, remaining molasses, and T of sugar. Pour this mixture over the fruit and drop in some dots of butter, if using. Cover the dish with a lid or double layer of foil and bake in a preheated 350° oven for about 1/2 hour more.