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Don’t Overlook Pears

Apples Get the Attention, But Pears Can Achieve Perfection

When I spent summers in Maine as a kid, we were lucky enough to have in a field near the house an old pear tree, dating probably from the mid-to-late 1800s, that produced spectacular crops biennially. The pears, variety unknown, would begin to crowd the tree in August and I picked and ate them by the dozen.

They were resistant to blight and scab and were small by comparison to the Bartlett or Bosc. They began as green, slightly speckled fruit that matured to a fruit the color of a rose wine, with a whitish-golden flesh. We were indifferent caretakers, people from the city who didn’t know about pruning or spraying, but this tree was so healthy and strong it flourished despite our neglect.

We were never there to see the tree in September but we were told by neighbors that in some years the crop was so heavy that you couldn’t see the branches or leaves for the hundreds of pears hanging from it. I had the chance once to see the tree like that, during a good year, and it was remarkable. From its top to its base, there was no inch of that tree that wasn’t laden with pears.

At night, you could hear, occasionally, raccoons and deer feasting on the pears, a tell-tale snapping, crunching sound. Neighbors collected them for preserves and sauces, and they were just as good for eating out of hand as they were for picking. When autumn sets in, I think with great nostalgia of that tree and wish I had one like it. Until then, though, I buy the pears you can find in the supermarkets.

When we think of late summer and autumn fruit we tend to think of apples. Pears are as spectacular a fruit, but seem to show up less frequently in everyday recipes. Most of us have reliable recipes for apple crisp, apple pie, baked apples, apple sauce or apple butter, but pears, which are as versatile, don’t garner quite the same attention.

Like apples, pears make wonderful desserts but they’re also excellent paired with meats, used in salads and eaten with cheese.

I love the bite and juice of a freshly picked apple but a pear at its best has a velvety taste and silky texture that very few fruits can equal. The challenge with buying and using pears is that most ripen best off the tree, and there’s a relatively narrow window when they are ideal for use.

If you cook or bake pears before they’re ripe, the flavor hasn’t reached its peak and you’ll notice the muted taste; but if you wait too long and they’re over-ripe, they’re mushy, mealy and quite useless, unless you’re making a pear sauce, when it doesn’t matter as much. How you use them dictates when to use them. For salads or slaws, you want to use them when they’re firmer; for desserts, you want pears at the height of flavor.

Pears also present another challenge: As they ripen, they can bruise easily (particularly Bartletts), which leads to spoilage of flavor and texture. So, when you have pears on hand, let them ripen at room temperature in a paper bag and check them daily by pressing them gently around the stem. If they feel soft, they’re ready to use. Unlike some apples, pears hold up very nicely when you bake them, retaining their shape and texture beautifully.

The commercial pears most readily available in stores are the Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc, Comice and the delicious, smaller Seckel, which is a superb eating pear. Although there’s no hard and fast rule, Bartletts and Boscs are considered all-purpose pears for eating and cooking. These are just a fraction of the heirloom pear varieties, many dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, that are grown around the country: pears with names like Kieffer, Warren, Bloodgood, Buffum, Vermont Beauty, Lucy Duke and Forelle.

By comparison with the relatively wide array of apples that are sold commercially or can be found in orchards, there are fewer varieties of pears. There has been a movement afoot, however, as there was with older varieties of apples, to bring back heirloom pear stock that is in danger of vanishing altogether. I’m all for it, and if I could determine what variety of pear it was that grew so reliably in that field in Maine, producing a bountiful, healthy crop biennially, I’d chase it down.

Upside-down pear cake With cardamom, adapted from Epicurious.com recipe

This is an easy, fast, delicious recipe. You want to use pears that are ripe but not over-ripe.

Pear filling:

4 Bartlett or Bosc pears, peeled, halved or quartered, and cored

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter

For cake batter:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 large egg

3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Put the 1/2 cup sugar for pear filling on a plate and press the halved or quartered pears into the sugar so that all sides have a layer of sugar. In a large 10-12” skillet, melt the half-stick butter. When it foams, put the pears in the skillet and turn the heat to medium-low. You want to caramelize the butter and sugar. This should take 15 to 20 minutes. You’ll need to watch it so the sugar doesn’t burn and become bitter.

While the pears are caramelizing, sift together the dry ingredients of flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt. Cream together the butter and sugar, by hand or in a mixer or food processor. Add the vanilla and egg to the cream and butter mixture, and mix well. Now add the flour and milk to the batter alternately, so that you add first a third of the flour mixture, then a third of the milk; and so on until both flour mixture and milk have been added entirely.

Pour the batter over the pears in the skillet, distributing evenly. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes. You should be able to get a skewer or knife easily through the pears, and the batter should have turned into a cake.

Let it cool for 30 to 60 minutes before serving. Lovely with ice cream or whipped cream.

Cranberry pear relish, from “New England Hometown Cooking:”

1 lb. fresh cranberries

3 pears, peeled, cored and diced

2 apples, peeled, cored and diced

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups orange juice zest from two oranges orange liqueur, such as Triple Sec or Grand Marnier, optional

Put all the ingredients together in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the flavors have blended. You want the pears and apples to remain on the firm side, so I’d check this mixture starting at 25 to 30 minutes. This would pair well with a roasted turkey or chicken, and any pork dish. You could also use it as a topping for savory crackers.

Pear Sauce, from “Local Flavors” by Deborah Madison:

4 large, ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 one-inch piece cinnamon stick

2 teaspoons pear brandy, such as Poire William (optional).

You could also use regular brandy, I think, but taste first to see what you think of the flavor.

1 tablespoon butter or cream, optional Put the pears, honey, cinnamon and lemon juice in a saucepan or skillet.

Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to medium or low. Cook, covered, for about 20 minutes until the pears are soft. Let them cool a bit and then puree in a blender or food processor. Stir in the brandy and butter or cream, if using.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.