Prepare for the pears
One of the things I like best about fall, besides the fact that cascading cashmere is far more effective than skimpy sundresses as fat camouflage, is that the cold weather brings fabulous, fresh pears. Unlike many people, I greet the annual Harry and David shipment from Aunt Bunny with genuine enthusiasm that borders on rapture, rather than the usual “How the hell are we going to eat all these friggin’ pears?” And I want you to join me.
Here’s the skinny on pears:
For eating: Comice is by far the best. Bartlett will do (canned pears are Bartletts).
For cooking: Seckel or Bosc. They’re grainy.
Anjou can be used for either, though they’re not the absolute juiciest.
Pears are picked when they’re still quite hard and inedible, because if they’re allowed to ripen on the tree they get all mushy and nasty. Once a pear is picked, it generally takes from five to ten days to get ripe, depending on what kind it is. Refrigeration will retard ripening, but I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to put pears in the fridge – you’re playing with fire, or ice as it were – and they’ve probably already been refrigerated in transit at least once.
So, you usually have to let pears sit on the counter for a while before you can eat them. How long, you may be asking, and well you should. In truth, there are so many variables that it’s really a crapshoot every time you haul these bad boys through the front door. Mostly it depends how long they’ve been sitting out in the store already. Pears that have been hanging around at room temp for several days may be ripe or they can get there in a day or so.
Hard pears can take a while to ripen fully, but you can speed up the process by closing them in a brown paper bag with a banana and leaving the whole rig on the counter for a day or two. Bananas produce some kind of gas that speeds ripening in fruit, but if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to consult Wikipedia or someone with a fully functional brain. I don’t have adequate mental storage capacity for any kind of science, and anyway it’s boring, which is probably why I so frequently chose to skip chem lab back in the day. You’d think I’d have retained something after three tries at passing it, but when I attempt to retrieve even the tiniest tidbit from the periodic table all I come up with are images of shoes or reasons to choose the underwire demi-cup over the backless balconette bra for daytime, which is at least physics, though certainly not chemistry.
Anyways, back to produce. I realize the uncertainty of the ripening process poses serious logistical problems when planning a dinner party, but into each life some rain must fall, so let’s just try and enjoy the shower. On the bright side, you can poach unripe pears and they’ll taste just fine. So usually, when I’m planning to serve them to company, I have a cooked and an uncooked option at the ready. Makes sense, no?
Any decent cookbook will provide instructions on how to poach a pear. I like to use red wine – cheap shiraz usually. It’s not rocket science, but if you need guidance check this out. Just add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and your guests will think they’re eating at Ina’s, or at least in the home of a reasonably competent cook.
Oddly enough, my favorite pear recipe calls for walnuts and fig jam, two ingredients I am lukewarm about at best. Together, however, they really sing. As an added bonus, you can serve this as a dessert (after a heavy-ish meal) or as a starter for a lighter one.
Here’s my recipe:
- Take about half a jar of fig jam and heat it in the microwave, then let it cool for a couple of minutes while you assemble the salad. You’ll want more jam if you’re serving the dish as a dessert, less if it’s a savory starter.
- Peel, core and slice two ripe Comice pears and divide among four plates. Get arty with the arrangement or don’t. Up to you, entirely a mood thing.
- Crumble some good goat cheese, in my opinion the tangier the better, over the pears.
- Strew some toasted walnuts (pecans are nice too) over the pears and cheese. Do toast the nuts. It makes all the difference. You can roast them in the oven or cook them in a dry skillet.
- Drizzle the slightly cooled, melty jam over top and serve. For dessert, I like to serve this with a chilled glass of sweet wine, such as the delightfully crisp and not too sweet Clean Slate Riesling. It works with the starter too, come to think of it.