Cocina Que Canta, the culinary school at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, where I teach cooking classes on a regular basis, Salvador, the head gardener, regales me with his enthusiastic review of what's at its peak in the seven acre organic garden adjacent to the school.
"Look at the quince," he exclaims with his unbridled enthusiasm. "Look how many are on the tree." His hands move fast through the heavily laden branches as he fills his arms and mine with as many as we can juggle. Immediately my mind is racing to the kitchen as I try to imagine how I can cook the quince for the mystery recipe I need to pull together for the cooking class I'm teaching in a few hours.
Although the menus for the classes are planned in advance, guest chefs at the school have an opportunity to teach an extra recipe based on what looks fabulous in the garden on any given day. I happen to love the spontaneity--and challenge--of making up a recipe at the last minute. Calling it a "mystery" is appropriate because the students don't know ahead of time, nor does the teacher, which makes it fun--and a great teaching moment.
After making the rounds, the quince now nestled in my bunched up apron, Salvador, leads me down the steps to his "cold cellar." It's a Norman Rockwell painting. On roughly constructed shelves and lined up on a big wooden table in the center of the small space are even rows of winter squash: butternut, acorn, and spaghetti. Along another wall are perfectly stacked rows of bunched garlic. When I see the curvaceous butternut squash--a personal favorite--the mystery recipe pops into my head. I'll cube quince and butternut squash, toss them in olive oil and seasonings and roast them in the oven.
I'm excited and curious because I've never roasted quince, but my intuition tells me if the pieces are small enough and they're roasted tightly covered, they should take about the same time to cook as the squash. It turns out my instincts are right.
Perfumed with broken cinnamon sticks, long thin strips of orange zest and a splash of fresh orange juice the students vote the recipe "a keeper." They unanimously agree it'll be on the menu for their holiday dinner parties.
Roasted Butternut Squash and Quince with Orange and Cinnamon
2 pounds butternut squash
1 pound (about 2) quince
4 garlic cloves, bruised with the side of a knife
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 strips (3x2-inches) orange zest
1 cinnamon stick (about 4 inches long) broken in half
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced rosemary or thyme leaves, optional
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash into thick circles; discard the seeds and pulp. Remove the skins of the squash and quince with a serrated swivel bladed vegetable peeler. Cut into cubes somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 inch, not larger. There should be about 6 cups squash and 3 cups quince. (This time consuming task can be done ahead, if more convenient.)
2. On a rimmed sheet pan (about 15 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 1 inch) combine the squash, quince, orange juice, garlic, olive oil, orange zest, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Toss with tongs or your hands to blend. Spread in an even layer on the sheet pan and cover tightly with foil.
3. Roast 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, uncover, and with a spatula turn the vegetables and stir to redistribute. Return to the oven and roast, uncovered, 30 minutes or until the vegetables begin to brown slightly on the edges. Toss in the rosemary or thyme is using. The vegetables can be roasted ahead and reheated just before serving.