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Playing with Food

I am always inclined to buy fresh quinces.  I think it’s the soft gray down that clings to them so that they appear freshly hatched, like apples in baby blankets.  Actually using them however is a different story.  Too often, I leave them on my counter to look pretty and forlorn until I make a last minute attempt at transforming them into some kind of edible paste or jelly.  It seemed a shame to always take something fresh and sugar it down to pulp, no matter how delicious it is with manchego.  Determined do it differently this time, I started to look for quince recipes that didn’t end in membrillo.

Because so many cited Arab Spain as an influence, I went to the source and decided to try Claudia Roden’s Couscous with Fish, Tomatoes and Quinces from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  As soon as I read it through, I was immediately reminded of why its one of my favorite books.  More than tell you what to do, she describes what needs to happen.  Rather than just stirring 10 minutes or simmering for 20, your waiting for the couscous to plump and the quinces to become just tender.  What’s interesting is that she’s no less precise than others.  Instead, she weans you off the timer so that you don’t experience that moment of panic when its been five minutes and something hasn’t thickened or browned yet.  As someone who admittedly lives and dies by the timer, it’s a great reminder to just be aware of what your doing, watch for the changing colors and textures,  and enjoy that fact that as an adult, you can play with your food.

Couscous with Fish, Tomatoes, and Quinces
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  I love her process for making couscous.  Not only does it produce a fluffy couscous but getting your hands into the bowl is like playing with magic sand.  The original recipe calls for a whole fish.  I’d definitely do this for a dinner party but for a weeknight the red snapper fillets were an easy substitute.  I also used canned tomatoes in place of fresh.  I was too quick to add the whole can and next time will be sure to drain them before adding.  Though the portions seem large, it can easily be cut in half.

3 cups couscous
3 cups warm water
1/2-1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter or extra-virgin olive oil

3 quinces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound large tomatoes, peeled and chopped, fresh or canned and drained
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
1/4-1/2 teaspoon saffron threads or saffron powder
6 red snapper fillets, totaling about 3 pounds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pour the couscous into a shallow oven-safe dish.  Gradually add the warm water and salt stirring constantly so that it is absorbed evenly and breaking up any lumps, about 10-15 minutes.  When the grain is plump, add three tablespoons of olive and rub grain between your hands above the dish, to air it and break up any lumps.

Place in the preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes until heated through, fluffing it with a fork at the halfway point.  Remove from oven and add an additional 2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil before serving.

Cut the quinces in half and trim darkened ends.  Place in a pan with water to over and simmer for about 20 minutes, until just tender.  Strain and reserve cooking water.  Cut into quarters and core.  Set aside.

In a heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat.  Drain tomatoes if using canned and add to skillet.  Add sugar, salt, pepper, and saffron.  Cook until tomatoes fall apart.  Add the quinces with 2 ladlefuls of reserved cooking water and simmer until quines are tender.

Lower oven to 350 degrees.  Cut 6 large pieces of parchment or aluminum foil and brush with olive oil.  Place one fillet in the middle of each square and sprinkle lightly with salt.  Fold each foil over the fish to form a  loose packet and fold along ends to seal.  Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes.  When its done, the flesh will flake easily and have turned white and opaque.

Serves 6.

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