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Article

Pears, in All Their Colorful Variety

Fine Cooking Issue 76
Photos: Scott Phillips
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A perfectly ripe pear is, to me, one of the best things in the world to eat. The flesh is creamy, smooth, and sweet, and the juices so abundant they run down your chin. Happily, finding the perfect pear is easy. It’s a matter of gentle handling, a little know-how, and some patience.

Though most of the year, you’ll find several varieties of pears at the market, each with different colors and textures.


 

 

From firm to perfectly ripe

Pears are picked when the fruit is mature, but not yet ripe because, left to ripen on the tree, they develop deposits of lignin, which makes the flesh grainy. If the pears are very hard when you buy them, they may need several days to ripen. You can hasten the process by storing them in a closed paper bag. Once ripe, pears will stay in good shape for a couple of days, but for longer storage, hold them in the refrigerator. Ripe pears should be handled gently, as they bruise with the lightest bump.

The best way to judge ripeness is to gently press the neck of the fruit near the stem with your thumb; if the flesh gives, the pear is ready to eat. I also use the sniff test. A ripe pear will often give off a delicious, sweet aroma. For cooking, pears should generally be “firm-ripe,” or just at the beginning of the ripening window. In this case, look for ripe fruit that yields only slightly when pressed near the stem.

Pears’ subtle flavor calls for simple treatment, one that doesn’t overwhelm them with too many other flavors, but this doesn’t mean you should avoid assertive partners. Think of the classic combination of pears and pungent blue cheese. Pears have many good flavor mates, from mild to powerful. Butter, cheese, cream, and caramel add richness and roundness. Nuts add crunch and a toasty flavor. Other good flavor companions include nutmeg, cinnamon (use a light touch), star anise, cardamom, vanilla beans, rosemary, thyme, mint, and any of the lemon herbs, such as lemon verbena.

Raw or cooked, pears add tons of flavor

Pears inspire thoughts of dessert (try roasted pears), but don’t overlook using them in a savory context. Sautéed or stewed pears complement roasted meats, and fresh pears are fabulous in salads.

Savory dishes
Make a sweet-sour pear chutney by simmering chopped pears and onion, raisins, and an equal amount of sugar and cider vinegar.

For an enticing appetizer, fill whole Belgian endive leaves with some crumbled blue, a few toasted pecan pieces, a little pepper, and top with a pear sliver.

Tuck pear slices into a sandwich of smoked turkey and  Brie on multi-grain bread. Add a dab of chutney or cranberry sauce for punch.

Compose a salad of fennel slivers and pear slices tossed in a lemony vinaigrette on a bed of watercress or arugula, topped with shavings of Parmigiano.

Sweet endings
Sauté sliced pears in butter and brown sugar, let cool, and use them in your favorite recipe for upside-down cake or as a topping for vanilla ice cream.

Make a simple rustic tart. Sprinkle sugar on a round of pastry dough, arrange thinly sliced pears on top, sprinkle on more sugar, dot with butter, and grate on some nutmeg. Fold in the outer inch or two of pastry, pleating as necessary, and bake at 400°F until the pastry is golden and crisp.

Poach ripe or nearly ripe pear halves, peeled and cored, in a simple syrup of 2 cups water or wine to 1 cup sugar. Include strips of lemon zest, a vanilla bean, and a few star anise pods or whole cloves. Chill and serve in a little of the poaching liquid, topped with a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche.

Sweet Wine & Honey Roasted Pears

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