Saturday, February 9, 2008

Pears: The Shape of Good Things to Come

Pears 1 copyPears are one of the few reliable fruits for winter eating and baking. Only citrus competes for availability and quality during the winter months, and depending on the weather in Florida and California, often loses the contest.
On the American market, four varieties of pear are readily available: Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc, and Comice; you may also see the smaller Forell or Seckel, which is popular for pickling. As a generalization, Bartletts are a good all-purpose pear; Comice are luscious, fresh dessert pears; Anjou are buttery, juicy pears excellent for eating, poaching, and cooked desserts; and Bosc pears are good for baking or grilling as they are drier and tend to hold their shape better. All are flavorful and aromatic in their own ways, so the crucial difference is texture and juiciness. In particular, if you use Anjous for pies, be sure to use enough starch to compensate for their juiciness.
When buying, think about when you want to eat them. Pears are best ripened off the tree to avoid the grittiness that is a property of pears, so they are generally sold hard so that they may be ripened at home and used at peak perfection. Leave them, covered, at room temperature, periodically checking for ripeness by pressing gently around the neck, or stem end—the color they are when you buy them is pretty much the color they will stay. When they yield or soften under this pressure—usually 2-3 days— they are ready and should be used right away. You can put them in the refrigerator after they are ripe to keep them a few days longer if you must. Nutritionally, pears are a good source of dietary fiber, especially if you leave on the thin, edible skin, and of potassium and vitamin C.
Pears and apples are kissing cousins, coming from the same subfamily. As with apples, there are thousands of cultivars, and you can use their fruit in similar ways, although it is surprising how rarely pears are used in pies, or apples for poaching. But you can do either with either. Pears make great crisps, butters, chutneys, and sauces, and, like the wonderful baked apple, pears too can be roasted. They are a perfect match for cheese, especially blue and other salty, strong cheeses. Pears, caramelized walnuts, and blue cheese are popular as a topping for pizzas or crostini or as a salad with bitter or peppery greens; the affinity for salt means pears also are a good winter fruit to match with prosciutto, ham, or even some nice salty Chinese food. Like most of us, pears also love chocolate and eggy custards. As a garnish for a chocolate cake, baked in a tart in a pastry cream filling or served poached with crème anglaise and a thin chocolate sauce, they make a lovely dessert. Here is one to try.
Roasted Pears with Maple Glaze  Pears for oven 1 copy
These pears are really cooked by a combination of braising and baking, based on the cooking method given by Kate Zuckerman in her cookbook, The Sweet Life. Although these take no skill at all, they do take time and attention—but they are delicious and impressive. Choose blemish-free pears with their stems intact. My usual maple-cardamom fixation suits the pears well. Serves 8.
8 Anjou or other pears, stems on, of roughly uniform size
½ cup 100% maple syrup
¼ cup raspberry or other fruity, dark honey
¾ cup sugar
¼ tea ground cardamom
4 or 5 strips orange peel
2 T unsalted butter
2 ½ cups water
Optional accompaniments: chocolate sauce or vanilla custard sauce, orange tuiles or other simple, crisp cookie
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Put the water into a large shallow roasting pan such a lasagna pan.
Hold the pears upside down and peel them from the bottom, blossom end to the stem with a vegetable peeler; turn them around and remove any remaining peel in a downward motion from around the stem. Cut a small slice off the bottoms so that they can stand upright later. As you peel them, put them in the pan of water on their sides and turn them around to wet them.
Pears roasted 1 copyStand the pears up in the pan and add the remaining ingredients, sprinkling the sugar over the pears; no need to mix. Put them in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the pan and, with a soft rubber spatula to prevent injury to the pears, push them on their sides. Return to the oven for 20 minutes; remove and turn the pears, and return them to the oven for another 20 minutes. Test for doneness by piercing the bottom of a pear; if they are not yet tender, return them to the oven for another 20 minutes. This is likely.
Remove the pan from the oven and stand the pears upright, using the rubber spatula and the stems to assist. Spoon some of the liquid, now forming a syrup, over the pears and return them to the oven. Roast, basting every 15 minutes, for another 45 minutes to an hour or until the pears are glossy and caramelized. The syrup will continue to thicken and bubble, and the stem ends will become very dark, almost black. When they are done, baste them once more and transfer them to a plate to cool, reserving the caramel sauce in the pan. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the core from the bottom with a small melon baller or knife.
These are best served slightly warm (reheat them gently in the oven; if the caramel has stiffened too much, reheat that as well). Sit them on a shallow plate in a little pool of the reserved caramel, garnish with a cookie, and drizzle with a little of your best chocolate sauce.

Pears syrup 1 copy                 Pears choc 6 copy


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog. I especially enjoyed the very useful information on pears. I just planted some, so it will be a few years. In the meantime, I'll practice with your recipes.

Jane said...

Thanks; good luck with your farming.