Alan Tangren: Choose Asian pears to ease into fall
Dear Alan: As fall comes, close, the choice of fruit dwindles pretty fast. What do you look for at this time of year?
Alan: Right now I like to use Asian pears to bring variety to the fruit bowl. They have a crisp texture and a sweet, mild flavor. But they look more like an apple than a pear.
Because Asian pears are not as tart as typical apples or pears, their sweet flavor can seem muted. Because their crunchy texture is often accented by gritty “stone” cells that are a part of all pear genetics, they are sometimes called sand pears.
European pears need to be picked before they ripen, in order to have the proper texture and flavor. But Asian pears are allowed to ripen fully on the tree, and keep very well in cold storage.
Asian pears came to California with Chinese immigrants at the time of the Gold Rush. But we grow only a few of the more than 3,000 named varieties that are appreciated in Japan and China.
Probably the most popular variety here and in Japan is Twentieth Century. It embraces all of the good qualities of Asian pears; sweet, slightly tart flavor, and crisp, juicy flesh. Their thin yellow skin is easily bruised, so they must be handled carefully.
You might also find Shinseiki; it is a little firmer and grittier. Chojuro has yellow/brown russeted skin, and hints of butterscotch in the flavor.
A Chinese variety, Ya Li is one of the few that is pear-shaped. It has green skin, even when ripe. It has smoother flesh than some other varieties and fewer stone cells. So it’s important to taste at the market to get the ones you like.
Asian pears start to appear in the market in midsummer, but they are available well into fall. Because they are ready to eat as soon as they are harvested, they are easy to select. Choose fruit that is firm, but not hard; free from bruises and holes in the skin.
Ask for a taste if you are at the farmer’s market, as different varieties have different levels of sugar, texture and flavor. Asian pears keep well at cool room temperature for a week or so. Otherwise refrigerate with good air circulation.
Asian pears are easy to prepare. Just peel and core as you would an apple, and cut into wedges or slices.
Like all pears, Asian pears will start turning brown as soon as they are cut and peeled, and should be served right away. Those in a salad can be tossed with a little lemon juice or vinegar to keep them from browning.
My favorite way to use Asian pears is in fall salads. They go well with bitter greens, like arugula and chicories. Add some lightly toasted walnuts or hazelnuts to add even more crunch, or some crumbled cheese.
Serve wedges with prosciutto or other cured meats. They are delicious alongside blue veined cheeses like Roquefort or Gorgonzola. Try them with a soft ripened Camembert or Brie.
One combination I like as a first course before a rich meal is a salad of Asian pears and walnuts.
Asian Pear and New-Crop Walnut Salad
½ pound new-crop walnuts in the shell
1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
¼ cup olive oil
Lemon juice (optional)
3 Asian pears
4 Belgian endives
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Shell the walnuts and carefully extract the meat to maintain whole halves if possible. Spread on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until just golden and smell nutty. It should take only a little more than five minutes.
Place on a clean kitchen towel and rub gently to remove some of the skin.
Whisk together the vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. Taste and add a squeeze of lemon juice if needed.
When ready to serve, peel, core and slice the pears. Cut the endive in half and remove any core, then slice into lengthwise strips. Toss the pears and the endive with the vinaigrette and crumble in the walnuts.
Arrange on small plates and serve immediately.
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 Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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