by Betty Thompson
Photo by Brandi Easter
PEARS, AN ANCIENT FRUIT from Asia, quickly spread in popularity to Greece, Rome, throughout Europe and finally to the New World. In Roman times about 40 varieties existed. Today more than 5,000 varieties are grown in the world's temperate zones.
Normally, tree-ripened fruit is considered to be of best quality and flavor. However, pears left on the tree to ripen become soft and mealy in the center and so are picked green and hard. Once picked they ripen at their own pace at room temperature.
My mother would lay them on a bench and cover with a layer of newspaper to keep out the light. Daily she selected the ripened pears for use.
Most pears are ready to eat when they yield slightly to pressure next to the stem. Some show a slight color change, many remain green when ripe.
Consider how pears are to be used when selecting. Salad pears should be ripe and juicy. Under-ripe fruit may hold its shape better when cooked and may require slightly longer cooking time than stated in the recipe.
Pears cooked in a sugar-saturated liquid like the pears in red wine in this month's recipe can be ripe or under ripe; they will retain their shape as the sugar retards the tenderization during cooking. Cook pears without sugar for sauce but with sugar to retain the shape of slices.
Pear flesh darkens when exposed to air. To prevent browning, dip cut slices of pear in 1/2 cup water mixed with one tablespoon lemon juice. It is best not to leave pears standing in water for long periods.
Pears are a delicious addition to the main course. Roast pork tenderloin with Asian pears and apricots or a Swiss dish of buttered mashed potatoes layered with poached pear wedges and topped with caramelized onion rings are good choices.
Pears also make good salads. Toss pear slices in a good vinaigrette. Place on a bed of water cress or other salad greens. Combine walnut or hazelnut oil with lemon juice or fruit vinegar for the dressing.
Pears go well with cheese. Add a wedge or two of Humboldt County chÈvre and thin slices of pear dipped in lemon juice to a green salad, or make a cheese dressing by creaming a little Roquefort, Stilton or Gorgonzola and adding a little olive oil and wine vinegar. Toss with mixed greens, sliced pears and coarse black pepper.
For this elegant dessert select short pears so they are easily covered with syrup during cooking. Tuck a few extra pear quarters in the spaces to fill the pan.
4-6 dessert pears
1 strip lemon peel
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup red wine (zinfandel)
1 stick cinnamon
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
Whipped cream if desired
Choose a stainless steel pan deep and small enough for the pears to stand upright. Test the size with the pears before starting. Put sugar, water, wine, cinnamon and peel in the pan.
Over low heat dissolve the sugar before it boils. Increase the heat and boil one minute. Peel pears, leave on stalk and remove stem "eye" but not core. Put immediately into the syrup. Syrup must cover the pears so add additional water and wine to cover if necessary. A piece of wax paper on top with small holes punched for pear stems will help hold them upright. Cover and poach until tender at least 20 minutes.
Remove pears and arrange in a serving dish. Remove peel and cinnamon from the pan. If liquid is more than 1 cup reduce to 1 cup by boiling. Mix cornstarch with a little cold water, add to the syrup and stir to boiling point. Cook until clear.
Spoon sauce over pears and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Pass whipped cream in a separate bowl. For ease in eating, serve with a spoon and fork.
Serve this favorite with pork chops, chicken or sausages.
4 large pears, peeled, cored and quartered
1 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
6 cups mashed potatoes, with milk, butter, salt and pepper added to taste
2 large onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter or oil
Combine pears, cider, sugar, peel and spices; bring to a boil and simmer until the pears are tender. Prepare the mashed potatoes. In a frying pan, saute onions in butter until limp and golden brown. In a large buttered casserole, layer 1/3 potatoes, 1/2 pears and sauce.
Repeat, ending with potatoes. Top with golden brown onions. Serve immediately or reheat.
Use a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom to make this buttery pear almond tart with a hint of lemon and clove adapted from "Entertaining" by Martha Stewart.
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/4 pound butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk
5 tablespoons ice water
1/2 cup apricot preserves
2 tablespoons dark rum or fruit juice
1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon flour
9 firm, ripe pears (Anjou) peeled, halved lengthwise and cored.
To make pastry, put dry ingredients and lemon peel in bowl. Add butter pieces and cut into flour until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add egg yolk and ice water.
Stir several seconds with a fork until pastry forms a ball. Avoid over mixing. Wrap and chill 1 hour.
Grease a 10-inch, removable bottom tart pan. Roll pastry out slightly larger than pan. Carefully lift pastry to pan and gently press against bottom and sides. Trim edges, prick bottom and sides with fork and chill for a half hour.
Bake in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for 20 minutes and cool on a rack. After 10 minutes prick any raised bubbles.
To make glaze, heat preserves and rum over low heat, stirring. Strain, brush tart shell with 2 tablespoons glaze. Reserve remainder.
To make filling, stir together almonds, sugar, and flour; sprinkle over glazed shell. Slice 12 pear halves crosswise. (Do this on a cutting board and lift the entire half with a spatula and push it off into place.) Place sliced halves in a circle over almond mixture in the shell. Chop remaining pear halves and use to fill spaces between sliced pears.
Bake in preheated 375-degree oven 40 minutes. Remove from oven; brush with remaining warm glaze. Serve at room temperature.
Betty Thompson has taught cooking classes locally since 1974.