Eating the World

Ate de Membrillo: A Northern Mexican Flavor

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: northern Mexican food consists of more than just carne asada and bacon wrapped hot dogs. Don't get me wrong, I cherish both, but I also cherish the multitude of other foods that make up the rich culinary traditions of northern Mexico. In an effort to get the perception of northern Mexican food to go beyond carne asada, this column will feature the food and places that make northern Mexico as noteworthy of a place as the more frequently celebrated Oaxaca.

See also: Minveraland's Tamal How-To

Growing up traveling between Hermosillo, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, my family and I passed the town of Magdalena de Kino, a lush agricultural oasis within the Sonoran desert just 50 miles south of the US-Mexico border. The town has an almost magical confluence of climatic conditions: with enough heat in the summer to flavor the fiery chiltepin and brilliantly red chile colorado carefully woven into ristras, and cold enough in the winter to drive the quince, membrillo, trees dotting the area to bloom heavily, resulting in a plentiful harvest in the fall. These three foods are almost synonymous with the town of Magdalena, along with the missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, responsible for introducing not only wheat to the Sonoran landscape, but also quince, a variety of other fruit trees and the agricultural knowledge to establish them in the area.

Known as ate de membrillo, dulce de membrillo, or queso de membrillo, the thick sweet paste made from quince is not originally from this region, having been an Old World introduction, but it certainly has become traditional in Magdalena, and the livelihood of families devoted to maintaining the tradition alive. My visit to this small and magical town was timed to coincide with the quince season there, in late September, returning with a block of the delicious paste, and a ten pound bag of the fragrant ripe fruit for my own yearly tradition of many hours of stirring the pot. Literally. The making of ate de membrillo is a labor of love and strong stirring arms, requiring hours of dedicated stirring, if not days, depending on the batch size. I'm sure you've seen a Pinterest How-To pin or two on how to make this delicacy in a slow cooker. Forget it. The results will not be worth the (lack of) effort.

A frequent question of those that venture into making their own ate de membrillo is regarding the color difference between their homemade version and commercial or artisan versions. The are two factors that can contribute to this: the use of food colorings in cheaper commercial products, and the much longer cooking time devoted to artisan ones. Cooked over a low fire over several days, an artisan version achieves a much deeper caramelization of the fruit and sugar than is achieved at home.

Due to its milder climate, Magdalena's quince season comes earlier than Phoenix's. The fruit can be found in Phoenix's farmers markets throughout the month of December. Be sure to select fruit that is fragrant, yellow-green in color and as free of blemishes as possible. Unlike many other fruits, quince does not ripen once picked off the tree, nor does it soften when ripe.

Ate de Membrillo

To cook the quince 15 ripe quince 1 large lime 1 stick Mexican cinnamon 2 cloves

To make the paste Unbleached cane sugar 1 teaspoon sea salt

Wash the quince thoroughly. Cut the fruit into quarters, removing any bruised parts. Core the quince, but reserve the cores, as they contain most of the pectin necessary to thicken the paste. Keep the cut pieces submerged in cold water while working, adding the juice of the lime to keep them from oxidizing.

Place the cleaned quince, cores, cinnamon stick and cloves in a stock pot, adding enough water to just cover the fruit. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the fruit is tender. Strain the fruit, discarding the quince cores, cinnamon stick and cloves. With either a food processor or a food mill, puree the cooked quince until smooth.

There is a difference of opinion in the various for quince paste as to what to do with the cooking liquid. It can either be discarded, or strained and reduced until it form a syrup due to the presence of pectin derived from the quince cores. After trying both methods, I've found there is no significant difference to the final product, but there is a difference in the cooking time, as this syrup adds more water to the paste to be cooked, and stirred, out.

Once the quince puree is ready, weigh out an equal amount of cane sugar. Place the puree, sugar and salt into a heavy pot and cook over low heat, stirring frequently. The paste does have the tendency to stick and burn easily, and stirring is a large necessity in the process. There will come a time during the cooking process when the temptation to raise the cooking temperature will strike; do try to resist this, as it will result in scorched bits sticking to the bottom of the pot as well as hot bubbles of steam breaching the surface sending skin burning projectiles of ate flying much further than imaginable.

The paste is ready when the paste can be separated by passing a wooden spoon and does not instantly come back together. It will be thick and rather sticky. At this point, the ate de membrillo can be processed in canning jars for a longer shelf life, or poured out on a lightly greased baking sheet and spread out to an even layer. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap, squeezing out any air bubbles. It can also be dusted lightly with sugar on all sides.

European countries typically use quince paste as a pairing for cheese, but in Latin American countries it is typically used as a filling for pastries, or simply paired with bread. Come back next week for a recipe for ate de membrillo empanadas, another delicacy of Magdalena.

Minerva Orduño Rincón dreams of a day when Mexican cuisine begins to get the respect it rightfully deserves, a goal she trying to help along with Muñeca Mexicana handcrafted food. Until then, you can find her at a kitchen near you.

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Minerva Orduño Rincón