Alan Tangren: Farewell to summer?
You may be surprised to learn that pear season starts in mid-summer! Some uncommon varieties ripen mid to late July. Have you heard of Harrow Delight, Moonglow or Rescue? Maybe not.
The first pears we usually see in the market are almost certainly Bartletts, which begin their harvest cycle in late July and August.
Bartlett pears play a huge role in my family history. My grandfather Christian and my uncle Ernie Bierwagen raised pears for decades in Chicago Park, shipping carloads by rail from the packing house in Colfax to markets in the East.
The harvest for most pear varieties peaks in late summer and early fall. Unlike most other tree fruits, pears must be picked in an immature state, as soon as they reach the proper sugar level, even though the skin is still green.
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 to cure properly 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 nineteenth century, a few years after it arrived in New England from Europe, where it is better known as Williams’ Bon Crétien. (This is where Pear Williams liquor gets its name.)
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 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 and is equally tasty.
Bartletts need only a few weeks off the tree to ripen, but they don’t hold as well as some varieties and have a relatively brief marketing season, usually from August through September.
Comice pears are harder to find, but well worth looking for. They are the most perfect pear for eating fresh. 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 to finish ripening 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, so they are ideal for baking or poaching.
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”, but there is no difference in fruit quality. Their dense flesh is rich, sweet and aromatic.
Shop grower’s markets early in the season, especially for Comice and Bartlett. Supermarkets and produce stores will have pears from storage well into spring.
Shopping for pears requires advance planning. You may be lucky enough to walk into a store or at a farm stand and find perfectly ripe fruit, but don’t plan on it. They are best ripened at home. This may take a few days or up to a week.
Buy pears while they are still firm and unbruised. Handle pears carefully at the market and at home; they bruise easily. Choose pears that are firm, intact and unblemished. Pick them up and smell the aroma. The best smelling pear will taste best.
Ripen pears in a loosely closed paper bag at room temperature, and check their progress daily. Perfectly ripe pears will give slightly at the neck when pressed gently.
You can refrigerate ripe pears for several days before using.
A perfectly ripe Bartlett or Comice pear is a dessert all its own. Serve with soft ripened cheese, especially blue cheese if you like. A few lightly toasted walnuts will make the experience even better.
Fresh pears are great in salads, with bitter greens like frisée and chicory. Later in the season, combine slices of pears and firm Fuyu persimmons.
Pears star in baked desserts. Pear pie, crisp and cobbler are a few of my favorites. Latley I’m happy with pear clafoutis; peeled, sliced and baked in a custard.
Stuffed baked pears, with an almond and Amoretti stuffing, makes and elegant dessert with your own home-made vanilla ice cream.
Pears preserve very well. When I was growing up we always made a batch or two of pear honey; pears cooked down with sugar and lemon slices. Look into any good preserving book for other ideas.
Warm baked pears make an easy and aromatic dessert.
6 medium size ripe pears, Bartlett, Bosc or D’Anjou
1-1/2 cups Marsala or other sweet wine
½ cup 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.
As well as saying farewell to summer, this will be my good bye to all you faithful readers. It has been a privilege to share my thoughts and experience with you. I want to encourage you to forage for the best, local, organic produce you can find, and serve it with generosity.
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 email@example.com
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