Alan Tangren: Pears in summer?
Ask the forager
Dear Alan: I’m surprised to see Bartlett pears in my local store the last week or two. I thought pears were a fall fruit. Can you explain?
Alan: Although some uncommon varieties ripen in July, the first pears we usually see in the market are almost certainly Bartletts, which begin their harvest cycle in early August.
The harvest for most pear varieties peaks in late summer and early fall. They must be picked in an immature state; their flesh will become unpleasantly mealy and dry if left to ripen on the tree.
Many varieties require a period of a few weeks or even months in cold storage before bringing out to room temperature to finish ripening, either on the store shelf or at home.
Most of our favorite pear varieties were perfected in France hundreds of years ago. The Bartlett got its sturdy American name early in the 19th century, a few years after it arrived in New England from Europe, where it is better known as Williams’ Bon Crétien.
It is the most widely planted pear in North America and the most popular in the world.
Nevada County was famous for growing high quality Bartletts that were shipped all over the country, until the trees were attacked and killed by a serious pest in the early 1960s. Using new disease resistant rootstocks, local growers are planting more Bartletts again.
With their juicy, sweet, buttery flesh, Bartletts are the classic summer pear. They are medium to large in size and have a thick neck, but are clearly pear-shaped. When ripe, their skin is golden yellow. The variety Red Bartlett has, of course, dark red skin.
Bartletts need only a few weeks off the tree to ripen and have a relatively brief marketing season, from early August through September.
Comice pears are harder to find, but worth looking for. They are the most perfect pear for eating. The very juicy, fine-textured flesh has a lovely winey aroma. Their tender skin is a pale greenish yellow when ripe.
Bosc and D’Anjou pears are available over an extended period, and can be brought out of storage as late as springtime. D’Anjou are short-necked, almost cone shaped, and have fine-textured tender flesh and pale green skin when ripe. Their firm flesh is good for cooking.
Bosc is the most useful and commonly available variety for cooking. The fruit is graceful looking, with a long tapering neck. Some Boscs have more of the bronze coloring of the skin referred to as “russeting.” Their dense flesh is rich, sweet and aromatic.
Handle pears carefully at the market and at home; they bruise easily. Choose pears that are firm, intact and unbruised. They are best ripened at home. This may take a few days or up to a week.
Keep them in a loosely closed paper bag at room temperature and check their progress daily. Ripe pears will give slightly at the neck when pressed gently.
Warm baked pears make an easy and aromatic fall dessert.
6 medium Bosc or D’Anjou pears
1-1/2 cups Marsala or other sweet wine
½ cup of sugar
Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut a sliver off the bottom of each pear so it will sit flat. Arrange in a ceramic baking dish just large enough to hold the pears comfortably. Pour the wine over the pears and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake the pears for about an hour, basting every 15 minutes or so with their cooking juices, until they can be easily pierced with a knife.
Serve with some of the juice drizzled over and a dollop of whipped cream or mascarpone.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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