Falling for a Forgotten Autumn Fruit
Early on, maybe I never thought much about pears because my mom’s beauty of a pear tree, while providing the best shade in the yard and a lovely perch for a wistful oriole or two, never bore much fruit. Its dark, fluttering leaves gave us something to stare at out of the kitchen window while doing dishes, but its limbs only produced an occasional pear that never grew much past infancy.
Growing up, what I experienced of eating pears came, mostly, out of a can or the gifted mounds wrapped in newspaper from successful pear growers in the area. The canned versions were halved, sliced or cubed, firm and sweet, but reliably bland. The wrapped fresh pears generally ripened so fast that, by the time we remembered we had them, were mushy and mealy and encircled by fruit flies.
Still, at some point in my later years, I fell for pears. Hard. Their sweet, delicate floral flavors, not as bold but just as satisfying as those of their apple cousins, seemed to not only suit me, but an array of recipes I tried, from simply poached, infused with vanilla and other spices, to tarts, pies and more.
My budding interest in pears has been fueled by all the colorful and shapely variations available out there — curvy, alluring sculptures offering a range of tastes and textures. Having known primarily the Bartlett of my youth, I have now been acquainted with everything from the tawny, dull-skinned Bosc, rich in flavor and smooth and sturdy for baking, to the bright green or ruby red, crisp and sparkling flavored D’Anjou, perfect to slice up fresh for a cheese plate (or snack for one).
What secured the pear’s place in my heart was an afternoon at my stovetop, poaching pears for the first time. Peeled, cored Bosc pear halves were slipped into a steaming bath of a combination of apple juice, water and lemon juice with cinnamon sticks, anise stars and vanilla bean infusing the potion. All was covered with a round of parchment and allowed to cook at a low bubble. The result — beyond the autumn aromatherapy throughout the house — was a melt-in-the-mouth delicacy, soft as butter under my spoon and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was as good a dessert as I had eaten in my entire life.
While apples and pumpkins predominate, pears are an under-sung emblem of fall and should be considered when contemplating a taste of autumn.
In her book, “Pears: A Country Garden Cookbook” (CollinsPublishersSanFrancisco; 1994), author Janet Hazan recommends that when selecting pears, choose those that are relatively smooth-skinned, “devoid of dents, holes, marks or bruises. The fruit ought to feel firm to the touch, as it will probably be underripe.”
According to the website USA Pears (www.usapears.org), pears ripen best OFF the tree, so most supermarket pears are still unripe. Store pears at room temperature to ripen (you can speed this up by placing them in a fruit bowl with other fruits, such as bananas). As they ripen, pears’ flavors and sweetness improve.
For Bartlett pears, their change in color will indicate their ripeness. For other pears, use USA Pears’ “Check the Neck” method, where, if gentle pressure is applied to the neck of the fruit, it will give slightly. You can slow the ripening of pears by storing them in the fridge, but do not refrigerate unripe pears. If your pears are overripe (mushy), you can always use them in purees, smoothies, sauces and soups.
Using pears in recipes presents all sorts of options in tastes and pairings for both savory or sweet dishes. Pear chutney is an excellent condiment for chicken or pork, fresh pear salsa teams perfectly with fish, and sliced pear tastes heavenly with pungent blue cheese and crunchy, buttery walnuts in a salad.
For sweets and desserts, pear upside-down cake makes pear halves an alternative standout for this traditional dessert. Pears hold up well in spicy quick breads for the fall season. Pears work well solo or in pairings in pies, tarts and crumbles, with some winning combinations such as pear and cranberry or pear and pineapple. Keep in mind that while pears and apples are related (in the Pome family), pears break down more quickly in cooking and baking than apples, but can be substituted in many apple recipes.
Or, add pears to your fruit bowl alongside the apples to grab for a juicy bite of fall.