Until recently, the pear really wasn’t on my radar. I ate pears, occasionally, and I probably thought they we’re good, but I didn’t really love them. They we’re just pears. The kind of fruit that sometimes gets lost in the bottom of your bag and turns into something mushy and soft, a thing not at all pleasant to poke your finger into when fishing for a pen at the bank. (An apple would never do that.)
But something has shifted for me. I can’t explain exactly how this happened, just in the way I couldn’t explain what makes a person suddenly fall in love with someone they had never even remotely considered loving before. Cupids perhaps? I haven’t a clue when it comes to love, but as to the pear, I might venture the guess that until several weeks ago, I had never eaten a pear that was truly, perfectly and exquisitely ripe.
You see, I’ve just never done well with fruits that are finicky and short lived. (I can count on one hand the number of avocados I’ve cut into when they weren’t either rock hard or stringy and black.) I’m impatient and neglectful and all of the things one shouldn’t be when it comes to waiting for a fruit to be just right. And so, it shouldn’t surprise you that most of the pears I have eaten in my life were hard, crunchy and dry things, thoughtlessly yanked out of the fruit basket and bitten into like an apple without any preemptive squeezes to check for ripeness. And too many of them, casualties of my neglect, are discovered under a cloud of fruit flies, inexplicably bruised, soft as a stick of butter and turned into a grainy, faintly alcoholic smelling mush.
But one day, in my absent-minded visit to the fruit bowl, I happened to pick up the perfect pear. All of you pear lovers will agree – you who tenderly lay your pears on plates or wrap them in paper bags, checking them daily with gentle squeezes and long, wistful inhalations of their increasing perfume – that this is completely unfair, and I would have to agree. I was not gentle or thoughtful with my pear, I hadn’t monitored it’s ripeness. I just got lucky. I picked up the pear, mindless as ever, and it happened to be the pear.
It gave just ever so slightly in my grasp, and when I bit into it, the flesh was softly perfumed and yielding, sensuous even. Juice trickled down over my chin, and my mouth was filled with notes of honey, roses and anise; a musky blend of subtleties that made me close my eyes and gasp. The flesh practically melted in my mouth, and I thought, if ever there was an erotic fruit, the pear must surely be it. And then I was in love. Just like that.
Nigel Slater, one of my favorite cook book authors and food writers says, “Like a snowflake, the perfectly ripe pear is a fleeting thing. Something to be caught, held tenderly, briefly marveled at, before it is gone forever.” And so it is. I have bought numerous pears since my amorous affair began, and I have had some good ones, but none have quite equaled in measure the one that started the whole thing off. I haven’t despaired, though, because just as new lovers begin to find comfort in the more mundane aspects of one another, I have discovered ways to love pears that extend beyond the fleeting pleasure of one to be eaten immediately, just as it is, in its complete and perfect splendour.
A pear can be poached, a pear can be roasted. It can be slivered into slaws or sliced thinly into salads. It can be slipped beneath cheese and arugula and concealed between slices of dark bread; it can be baked or stewed or blended into a soup. There are so many things one can do with a pear – and who would have thought! When I first met my husband, I remember the secret delight I took in delving into his character – placing him in different scenarios or with certain people to see how new and different aspects of his personality would come to light (like the time he first met my best friend Carol – the ultimate test of a man – and their personalities melded like pears and chocolate which filled me with more joy than even pears and chocolate can). So it is with the pear, contrasting it with the unexpected, celebrating the familiar, getting to know it deeply and intimately as if it we’re a part of myself.
Here are some favorite discoveries I have made in my delving, and I think they capture all the reasons I have fallen for this demure yet seductive fruit. As Nigel says, “a pear whispers.” It pulls you in, if you pay attention and listen closely.
Roasted squash with apples, pears, cinnamon and ginger
My mother in law makes something like this every year for the holidays. I always have seconds, and sometimes thirds. It shows that the pear, too, can be comforting and warm. It would go very nicely served along side of a roasted pork loin or pot roast.
- 1 large squash (butternut, buttercup, kabocha or delicata are a few possibilities)
- 2 tart medium sized cooking apples (granny smith, calville blanc, etc)
- 2 firm ripe bosc pears
- juice of half a lemon
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, minced
- 2 tbl brown sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a large baking dish and set aside.
Peel, seed or core the squash, apples and pears. Slice them into 1/4 inch wide by 2 inch long wedges, so that the apple, squash and pear slices are all roughly about the same size. Place them in a bowl, and toss with the lemon juice and salt.
In a small skillet, melt the butter and add the ginger and cinnamon, cooking 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the brown sugar, and cook for just a moment, until the sugar is just dissolved. Drizzle the mix over the squash mixture, and mix until everything is well coated.
Layer the squash mix into the prepared pan, scooping every bit of the buttery sauce from the bottom of the bowl into the pan, and cover with foil. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until everything is fork tender.
Arugula with wine poached pears, bleu cheese, and toasted maple-pecans
The pear salad is just an essential thing to know how to make. There are a million variations on it, but this is one that I think really captures the sophistication of the pear – this is the pear out for a night in the city, bedecked in black, wearing high heals and drinking martinis.
- 2 firm but ripe pears (comice or conference ideally)
- 200 ml red wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 thyme sprig
- 4 juniper berries
- 1 tbl sugar
- 1.5 cups pecans
- 2 tbl maple syrup
- 6 cups baby arugula (or 1 15 oz bag)
- 1 cup crumbled bleu cheese, such as Gorgonzola
- 1 small red onion, sliced thinly into half moons
Combine the wine, bay leaves, thyme, juniper and sugar into a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel, quarter and core the pears, cut them into quarters, and then cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Add to the pot, and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat, and let sit until cool.
While the pears are cooling, combine the pecans and maple syrup in a small bowl with 1/2 tsp salt. Stir to coat well, then place the pecans on a parchment lined baking sheet, and bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees F for 10-12 minutes, or until browned and crunchy.
Assemble a dressing by combining 1 tbl dijon mustard, a few glugs of balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in 1/4 cup of walnut oil (or olive).
To assemble the salad, dress the salad leaves with a good spoonful of the dressing, then pile a handful onto each serving plate. Arrange the cheese, onions, pears and pecans over the top, then spoon a little more dressing over the plate and serve. A toasted slice of a dark, molassesey and raisin flecked bread would be a nice accompaniment.
Vanilla poached pears drizzled in warm chocolate
If I could have pears just one way, this would be it. After I discovered this recipe, I made it for desert a week straight. I think showcases that pears are just heavenly and divine, no questions asked. This is based off of a recipe in Nigel Slater’s Tender Vol II, but I have cut down the sugar a little and played around with the chocolate sauce to get it just right.
- 4 pears
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- a vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise
- a squeeze of lemon juice
Bring the sugar, water, vanilla and lemon juice to a boil, then turn down and leave to simmer. Peel the pears and cut them in half, removing the cores with a sharp pairing knife. Slide them into the syrup, and simmer until they are easily pierced with a knife, about 35 minutes depending on the ripeness of the pears. When the mixture has cooled a little, remove the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds into the syrup, stirring to incorporate them in.
For the sauce:
- 1 cup good dark chocolate, broken into pieces (75% is divine)
- 1/8 cup strong black coffee
- 1/4 cup cream
- 2 tbl butter
Melt the chocolate, coffee and cream in a heavy bottomed saucepan, on very low heat. Once the chocolate is mostly melted, take off the heat, add the butter, and stir until smooth.
Place 2 pears halves on each plate, and drizzle the chocolate over.
Variation: If you have a very ripe pear, don’t bother with the poaching. Just whip up some chocolate sauce, cut the pear into wedges, and dip in.