The Perfect Pear

This luscious fruit brings sweet sophistication to a variety of fall dishes.

October 08, 2003|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Pity the pear. Somehow it has never achieved the popularity in the United States of that other fall fruit, the apple.

Maryland agriculture officials know how many acres of apples are grown in the state, but they don't keep track of the pear crop. The orchards that do grow pears have them in quantities far smaller than apples.

Yet this fruit that Homer called the "gift of the gods" brings subtle, fresh flavors to a variety of fall dishes.

Poached and drizzled with raspberry coulis, pears make a sensuous and elegant dessert. Paired with gorgonzola cheese, pecans and linguine, they create a comforting and rich main dish. Made into a salsa, they complement pork, fish and game. And baked into pies, tarts and turnovers, they are a sweet alternative to apples.

"Pears are very versatile. You can use them in desserts, salads, in juice," says Edward Kim, chef/owner of Soigne restaurant in Riverside, which serves Asian pears in salads and in a beurre blanc to accompany marlin and Hawaiian ono.

Pears were first grown in the Caucasus Mountains thousands of years ago, and there are more than 5,000 varieties, although fewer than a dozen are commonly found in American supermarkets. Those include Asian pears and several varieties of European pears, such as the brilliant Red Bartlett, the crunchy Bosc, the golden Yellow Bartlett, the juicy Anjou and the tiny Seckels.

Their colors range from red to green to yellow to brown. Their sizes, shapes and textures also vary, depending on the variety.

A medium pear provides 4 grams of fiber or 16 percent of the recommended daily allowance. Pears are also one of the sweetest fruits, containing more levulose, a natural sugar, than any other fruit, according to the Northwest Pear Bureau.

Unlike most fruit, pears benefit from being picked before they are ripe. If left too long on the tree, their texture becomes mealy and their skin easily bruised.

At Shaw Orchards in Stewartstown, Pa., most of the pears were picked last month and have been held for the past few weeks in cold storage. "If we give them a cold treatment, they won't be gritty," says orchard owner Mary Shaw.

She grows 5 acres of pears - four kinds of Asian pears, as well as Red Bartletts and Magness, which Shaw calls her favorite to eat out of hand.

Most pears in this country are grown on the West Coast. On the East Coast, they are susceptible to blight. This year's rain made it even more difficult to grow pears in Maryland and they are a bit smaller than usual, says David Hochheimer, owner of Black Rock Orchard in Lineboro.

He grows six kinds of Asian pears, Red and Yellow Bartletts, Magness, Bosc, Red Anjou, Seckel and Keiffer, an older variety that is popular for canning.

Hochheimer recommends ripening pears at room temperature. "When they give to the pressure, they are pretty much ripe," he says.

European pears will usually ripen in two to four days, although the Bosc and Seckels will not get very soft.

The Asian varieties are usually sold ripe or nearly ripe. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

With the arrival of fall, pears are back on the menus at some of Baltimore's most popular restaurants.

At Linwood's in Owings Mills, pears are poached and paired with venison, diced into a salad with blue cheese and almonds, and baked into tarts.

"Pears match very well with game food and richer foods," says sous-chef John Ryback.

"The way people feel is how they eat," says Linwood's executive chef Tom Devine. "When the weather turns cold, they think about pears, apples and mushrooms. You almost start to crave those things."

Although pears are usually found in fall and winter dishes, Chef Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions Catering uses them throughout the year on menus for his catering business and wine dinners. One of his most popular creations is a savory cheesecake with pears. He also uses the fruit in salads, in a jicama cole slaw and even as a garnish for mashed potatoes.

"I think they are really refreshing," he says.

Pear and Blue Cheese-Cake

Serves 6

1 shallot, diced fine

1 whole pear (Bartlett or Bosc), peeled and diced into 1/4 -inch cubes

1 tablespoon butter

1 sprig fresh thyme

2-3 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped fine

2-3 chives, diced fine

4 1/2 ounces cream cheese

1 1/2 ounces blue cheese

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

Saute shallots and pear cubes in butter. Finish with fresh herbs. Turn off heat. Let cool.

In a mixer, beat cream cheese until very soft. Add blue cheese for about 30 seconds, leaving it blended, but still chunky. Fold in egg. Beat for another 30 seconds. Add pear-and-shallot mixture, salt and pepper.

Spray ramekins with cooking spray. Fill almost to top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve with salad of tossed fresh greens with pear vinaigrette (see recipe).

Pear Vinaigrette

Makes 1 cup

1/2 pear, unpeeled

1/2 cup light olive oil

1/4 cup rice-wine vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon honey

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