Crock pot membrillo (quince paste).

Country road, quince standMy friend Eileen bought a cute little house on a country road and planted quince trees. Perhaps not anticipating how prolific the trees would be, or how heavy the fruit, she planted four of them, four different varieties, and then recently took to Facebook to advertise the couple of hundred pounds of fruit she was looking to get rid of. For CHEAP.

Quince is a very dense apple-pear-type thing, and you have to cook it – it’s inedible raw. It’s got a musky, almost floral taste – a little rosy, a little appley, a little bit something else. It has a firm core that’s hard to cut through, and fuzz on its skin you have to wash off. If you’re in North America, you’re mostly relegated to getting it through friends, from abandoned orchards, or some Farmer’s Markets (if you are very lucky). It is very high in pectin.

Years ago, I got my hands on a few pounds of quince for something like $7 per pound. The market only had maybe ten pounds of them for the whole season, and because scarcity makes me irrational I bought as many as I could afford and then hoarded the jam I made out of them until a bunch of jars of it went bad in the back of my fridge when someone else opened and forgot about them.

The worst thing about marriage is when the other person lets your jam go bad without telling you. Just lets it happen. It’s still so hard to believe.

Quince haulThis time, with Eileen’s quinces, I was no less greedy but the price was much better and I was better prepared. Also, many of them were still green, and so they’ve been ripening in batches, four or five pounds at a time, and so I’ve been processing them at a leisurely pace, putting up a few here and a few there and barely breaking a sweat.

This is, in part, thanks to my trusty old Crock Pot.

The very best use for quince is a jammy paste the Spanish serve with cheese at breakfast and at tapas. It’s called membrillo, and it’s thick and sticky and garnet-red, and the process for making it is pretty straightforward but also quite time-consuming. I don’t have one million hours to peel and core and stir and stir and stir. Even if I did, I am profoundly lazy and as such, am always looking for the easier way of doing something.

The standard membrillo recipe calls for, at minimum, a ratio of two pounds quince to one pound sugar. You can add spices like cinnamon or vanilla, or strips of lemon peel, but you don’t have to.

If you were to make this on the stove, you would peel and core the quinces, add water, and cook until quinces are tender. Then you would puree them. Then you would cook them and their liquid down until a thick paste formed. Hours upon hours would pass, and this might satisfy a younger version of yourself but not this version, with her arthritic hands and arms and ill temper.

Shortcuts. Let’s take the easy way out. For this particular shortcut,  your best bet is a slow-cooker and a food mill fitted with your finest grinding disk. No food mill? A fine-mesh sieve will also work, but it will be a lot more work.

First, wash and halve your quince. For whatever weight of quince you prepare, add half the amount of sugar by weight. So, if you have five pounds of quince, use two and one-half pounds of sugar. Pour this over, and toss to coat fruit.

Slam your slow cooker lid down on the thing, set the cooker to low, and let ten hours pass. Overnight is nice. Your place will smell so good in the morning.

Get your canning stuff ready, if you plan to can. You can also freeze it.

The quince will start out yellow-peeled and white-fleshed, and by morning will have turned a winy kind of red. Working a couple of pieces at a time, process your quince halves through the food mill into a large non-reactive pot, such as a Dutch oven. Strain any remaining liquid into the pot as well, and turn your burner on to medium.

Cook until the paste has thickened and the mush appears to pull away from the the sides of the pot as you stir; the texture and consistency will be somewhat like apple butter; same idea, really. How long this takes depends on how much liquid remains in your slow-cooker; you will likely cook the paste down on the stove, stirring occasionally, for an additional 20 to 60 minutes. Some varieties of quince, like pineapple quince, may release more liquid and take longer to cook down. The colour will be a very dark red you might have a hard time believing at first.

Spoon quince paste into sterilized jars, run a knife around the edges to remove any large air pockets, and process for 20 minutes.

I started with about five pounds of quince, and ended up with just over two quarts of finished paste.

Serve on bits of bread with creamy goat’s cheese, or with an aged, nutty cheese like Manchego. Definitely have wine with it. The good stuff, the kind that comes in a bottle. And definitely invite a friend to share it, maybe one you don’t see very often, like your friend Eileen.

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Slow-cooker cabbage rolls.

I love cabbage rolls, but for years have not made them for the same reason I never make lasagna; I hate the requirement to boil a pot of water and cook each leaf before I can even get started. It sucks and I always burn myself and so I make stuffed peppers or stuffed squash instead. But then one day my mother-in-law told me that “the Ukrainian ladies told me you just put the whole cabbage in the freezer and then defrost it so you don’t have to boil it.”

I don’t know who the Ukrainian ladies are or even if I remembered the context of her statement correctly, but let me tell you – it works.

Cabbage rolls steps

Cabbage rolls just got easier to make. I much prefer forethought to effort, if I have to choose one over the other, and anything that I can do to save myself time and that also makes it so I can eat more cabbage rolls is something I am going to do over and over again. I keep re-reading that sentence and I am not convinced it even made sense but I stand by it.

I don’t pre-cook any part of these because I don’t have time to even do laundry so I am not going to take a lot of unnecessary extra steps for a weeknight dinner now that The Voice is back and every episode is two hours long.

There you go. There.

Also, it’s getting chilly again and the Crock Pot is the ultimate defense against the cold; there is something wonderful about coming in from the rain to a home that already smells like dinner. I put everything into the pot the night before and then throw it in the fridge; I just pull the food out in the morning, turn the Crock Pot on and let it go all day so it’s almost like dinner is a freebie. FREE CABBAGE ROLLS. It all just feels so right.

Morning matters.

Slow-cooker cabbage rolls

  • 1 head of green cabbage, such as savoy or Taiwanese
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 cup packed fresh parsley
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. dried savoury
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups beef stock

Okay. So. The night before you want to roll your cabbage rolls for the following night’s dinner, put the cabbage in your freezer. When you wake up the next morning, take the cabbage out of the freezer and put it in a colander in the sink and let it defrost. Your mileage here may vary – my apartment tends to be on the warm side, so mine defrosted just fine; if you are unsure whether you can get your cabbage defrosted in time, start even earlier, and just let it defrost in the fridge over a day or two.

Meanwhile, finely chop your onion, carrots, celery, garlic and parsley. You can do this in the food processor if you’re feeling kind of lazy. I was. Put everything in a bowl, then scoop half out and put it into a different bowl. Set aside.

Add your beef, pork, rice, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt, paprika, savoury, and pepper to the first bowl. Mix thoroughly. You can do this a day ahead as well, just cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

In the other bowl, add the crushed tomatoes and the beef stock. Taste, and season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Again, feel free to make this ahead of time and set it aside.

When you’re ready to roll, pour about a cup of the sauce mixture into the bottom of the Crock Pot. Cut the core out of your cabbage and discard it. Peel the leaves off, and cut out the thick part of the centre rib. Place a few tablespoons of your meat mixture into the top of the leaf, then roll it up, folding the sides in as you go. Place each roll into the pot as you go, ladling sauce over top as you complete each layer.

I ended up with about 20 cabbage rolls, which is too many to eat all at once but they freeze very well.

When you’re finished, pour the remaining sauce over top, cover with the lid, then either refrigerate until you’re ready to make these (if you’re doing it the night before), or cook them right away. Set your slow cooker to low, and cook for ten hours.

Serve with pickles.

Cabbage rolls with pickles

Slow-cooker ham and white bean stew

Stew.

Patience is a virtue, but it isn’t one of mine. And so I am pacing, expectant, as a friend of mine is days, maybe even hours away from having a baby I feel like she’s been gestating for years. I keep wishing things would hurry along, because while I know people with babies, very few of those people live nearby. And when you have babies, you need other people around you to have them. People with babies need other people with babies because what we really need is a support group with wine.

The longer you have babies, the more you need wine. Mine is an accidental hurricane, a destructive force of nature seemingly bent on exploring and subsequently breaking all my things. That this is going to happen to someone I know is very comforting.

And so my friend is almost there, and because one only needs so many onesies, I had said I would make her freezer meals in lieu of a shower gift. So I have been plodding along, making a container of something here, and a pot of something there. Tonight I added one more to the freezer, a pot of ham and white bean stew, a creamy, savoury combination of leftovers and slow-cookery.

I left the stew in the Crock Pot to cook for ten hours today, and when I came home this place smelled like salty meat and garlic and herbs; using just a few bits and pieces, there was enough hearty stew for at least eight people, I’m sure of it. It’s not beautiful, but it’s delicious, and plenty soothing for someone with a newborn and the imminent danger of having all her favourite stuff smashed by a happy little Hulk.

Crock pot full of stew.

Ham and white bean stew

(Serves 6 to 8.)

  • 1 lb. small white beans, such as Great Northern or navy beans
  • 1 lb. cubed ham
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 6 cups stock (ideally homemade ham stock, but store-bought chicken stock will work too)
  • 1 tbsp. grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • Juice of half a lemon, if needed
  • Salt to taste

The night before you plan to eat, cover one pound of white beans with an inch of water.

In the morning, drain and rinse your beans. Put them into a slow cooker, along with ham, onion, celery, pearl barley, stock, mustard, rosemary, and bay leaves. Stir, cover, set slow cooker to low, and cook for 10 hours.

Go to work, or about your day, or back to bed.

When you get home, stir in pepper, Parmesan, and parsley. Taste, and add lemon juice and salt as needed. Serve with bread. Feel virtuous.

Stew and toast.

Stewed short ribs.

I’ve been singing this song, dazedly, replacing the lusty words with worky ones, for the past couple of weeks. I’m … tired. Work is exhausting and unrelenting, the baby is crawling and into everything, and I haven’t watched a new episode of Adventure Time or read anything interesting in far too long. In the interest of adapting as best I can to a new normal, I am throwing myself into Crock Pot cookery – we WILL have a meal at the end of the day that doesn’t start off with a package of instant ramen and an egg. We WON’T just eat take-out sushi every day until our toes web and our backs sprout fins.

It is a wonderful thing to come home to a meal already made, and to an apartment that smells of herbs and garlic instead of stale cat food and yesterday’s dishes. It’s nice to hear from a friend on the weekend and invite him to dinner on Monday night because there will be short ribs, which is a pretty good excuse to blow off work for the night. And if he offers to bring a selection of interesting craft beers to try, all the better.

Did I tell you we’re going to move across town at the end of the month? Good lord, it never ends. But I’m fed, and ultimately that’s what matters the most. You may get quite a few Crock Pot recipes out of me yet – I’m doing a lot of big-batch feelings-eating.

Slow-stewed short ribs

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 5-6 lbs. beef or veal short ribs
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 whole head of garlic, cloves smashed and peeled
  • 4 large carrots, peeled and chopped into inch-long pieces
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped into inch-long pieces
  • 2 cups dry, lightly oaked white wine, such as Chardonnay
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup low-sodium or homemade beef stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Fresh parsley, chopped

In a large pan, over medium-high heat, cook short ribs in olive oil until deeply browned. Place into Crock Pot or slow cooker. To the same pan, add onion, garlic, carrots, and celery. Stir to cover with the oil that remains in the pan.

Add  wine, tomatoes, beef stock, bay leaves, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, rosemary, red pepper flakes, black pepper, basil, oregano, and marjoram, and bring just to a boil. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. When you are satisfied that it is delicious, pour the whole mix over the short ribs in the slow cooker. Stir to ensure even distribution of liquid. Set to low, 9 to 10 hours, and go about your day.

About 30 minutes before serving (if you are so inclined – this step is not mandatory), skim as much fat off the top as you feel you need to, then carefully spoon ribs, veggies and sauce back into your large pan and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Add lemon juice, taste again, and adjust seasonings as needed. Sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve over fresh noodles, rice, potatoes, or whatever starchy, filling thing most pleases you. Make sure you have crusty bread to sop up the juices.

If you don’t have a slow cooker but you do have 2 1/2 to 3 hours, you can make this in the oven. Braise the ribs, uncovered, at 325°F until meat is falling-off-the-bone tender. This way will produce a thicker sauce, but you will have to spend more time in the kitchen.