Treat pears tenderly for best recipe results
Once again we found ourselves with the proverbial embarrassment of riches - this time, in keeping with the season, we were overrun with pears. For a few weeks in a row, our box from Washington Green Grocers featured juicy Bartletts and lovely d’Anjou pears. They arrived quite firm to the touch and ready to ripen on the kitchen counter.
Pears are native to the Northern Hemisphere and have been cultivated for their sweet fruit since antiquity. From Asian literature to Homer’s Odyssey, pears were lauded for their magical properties and cited as gifts from the gods. In Spain today, the colloquial expression “esto es la pera” (it’s the pear) refers to something exciting or wonderful. Pears arrived in America in the early 1600s in the form of seeds from England, from which a diverse variety of types developed.
Don’t be too aggressive with these tender beauties; they bruise easily, and nicking the skin invites browning. Here’s the challenge: how to reach the perfect degree of tenderness, juiciness and flavor without creating a mushy mess. Except for the Bartlett, which turns from green to golden, pears don’t change color as they ripen from the inside out. You’ll know they’re ready to eat by the firmness of their neck.
Test them twice each day, pressing lightly at the base of the stem to see if the flesh has softened enough to yield to gentle pressure. You can accelerate the ripening process by nestling the fruit in a bowl of bananas, which emit ethylene gas, the same chemical used in commercial fruit processing. Once they’ve reached the ideal state, which can last for only a few hours at room temperature, store them in the refrigerator.
When selecting pears for a recipe, you’ll need to decide whether you want them to retain their shape or fall apart. If you’re making pear compote, opt for a variety that will readily turn into pear mush, like d’Anjou or Bartlett. If you’re baking a pear tart, choose one that will stay firm enough to recognize, like Bosc.
If you want to find a dish to make good use of less-than-lovely or slightly overripe specimens, consider trying a batch of pear butter. The technique in this recipe avoids the tedium of peeling and coring the fruit. Grinding the chunks with a food mill extracts the juicy flesh, leaving behind the pits and skin. The two or three hours in the oven will thicken the puree and concentrate the flavors. Skip the baking step to make a pear version of applesauce, delicious over grilled pork chops.
The pear quick bread recipe below takes a surprisingly long time to cook because the batter is so wet. It’s easier to remove the pear skins with a vegetable peeler than a knife; you’ll lose less flesh (of the pear and of your fingers when dealing with such slippery fruit). Grating the pears over a bowl will let you catch every drop of the sweet juices. When I made it the first time, I forgot to turn down the oven temperature and the outside of the loaf was a bit overdone. If your oven runs high, you may want to cook the bread at the lower temperature for the entire time.
The colorful poached pears in the photo were made with a very dry Cabernet Sauvignon, lavender sugar and whole cloves. You can vary the flavor profile by substituting cardamom or ginger for the cloves, but a dry wine is essential. The actual poaching time is only about 10 minutes, and it gives the fruit a rosy tone. You can deepen the color by allowing the cooked pears to remain in the liquid for several hours (or in the refrigerator for up to two days).
Once you’ve removed the pears from the poaching liquid, strain the wine mixture into a small saucepan and reduce it over a very low heat until thickened. Use this as a sauce to pour over ice cream or a slice of the quick bread – pear magic.
1 1/2 C dry red wine
1/2 C lavender sugar
2-inch slice of lemon peel
2 T lemon juice
8 whole cloves
4 Bosc pears
Combine wine, sugar, lemon and cloves in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover; simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove skin from the pears with a vegetable peeler, leaving the stems in place. Trim a thin slice from the bottom so they will stand up. Place the pears in the simmering wine mixture, cover and poach until slightly softened, about 10 minutes. Turn pears several times while they’re cooking to create a uniform color. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool. Remove lemon peel and cloves. Pears may be served warm or stored in the poaching liquid in the refrigerator for up to two days. If stored, continue turning pears occasionally for even coloration.
Pear Quick Bread
1 1/2 C flour
2/3 C sugar
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/3 C canola oil
1 t vanilla
zest and juice of 1 lemon
8 ripe pears*
Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg, oil, vanilla, lemon juice and zest; set aside. Peel the pears and grate the flesh over a bowl to catch the juices. Add 1 1/2 C grated pears with juice to wet ingredients, stirring until mixture is smooth. Add the dry ingredients and fold together, just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes. Turn the oven down to 325 F and continue baking until tester comes out clean, another 35 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then place loaf on rack to cool completely. *Note, use d’Anjou, Bartlett or other soft-fleshed pear.
3 pounds very ripe pears*
2 t lemon juice
1/4 C sugar
1 t grated orange peel
Preheat oven to 300 F. Cut the pears into large chunks, removing any badly damaged flesh. There is no need to peel and core unless pears are not soft. Press the pears through a food mill into a large bowl. Stir in the lemon juice, sugar and orange peel. Pour the puree into a glass baking dish and cook for 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes. Transfer the thickened pear butter into a bowl to cool. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. *Note, use d’Anjou, Bartlett or a combination of both.