Foraging for Flavor: A perfect pear

I am inspired by pears. It's hard to say what I love most about them.

Let's start with their lovely shape. Pears are decidedly sexy. Sweet and juicy at the peak of ripeness, pears have that distinctive sensuous curvature: so lean at the top and lusciously rounded at the bottom. When halved, a tiny heart surrounding the seeds is revealed. With the shape, texture and flavor of a pear in mind, describing someone as "pear-shaped" is actually quite a nice compliment.


For the longest time I didn't really like pears, regardless of their beautiful shape, color or symmetry. I attribute this to my mother's nagging reminders that pears are an excellent source of fiber and vitamins. Mama is always right, at least in this case. One pear typically houses about seven grams of fiber, more than can be found in a serving of typical breakfast cereal. And they are a healthy source of Vitamin C, copper and potassium.

It's possible I didn't turn to pears the way I did other fruits because where I grew up they were so prevalent. Oregon and Washington produce 84 percent of the nation's pears. If you were to visit the valleys where pears and apples are grown, you might wonder how that statistic is possible.


The lowland is arid, rocky and covered in sage brush: perfect for rattlesnakes yet shockingly lacking in native trees. Pears arrived via the wagon trains and since the early 1800s, orchardists have painstakingly carved out verdant orchards in the volcanic soil and cool shade of Northwest mountain ranges, expertly tapping the mighty Columbia River for irrigation.

Thousands of lowland valley acres are planted with long, seemingly endless lines of pear trees that stretch from the shoreline of rivers to the edge of cliffs and hills.

These days many orchards have turned to a method of espaliering the trees in order to optimize exposure to sunlight and to plant more trees per acre. In some places along the river, one can see the lines of espaliered trees in rows that emphasize the hilly geography of the region and, with a little imagination, might wonder if they weren't in Italy or France.

This time of year the crop can be found at the end of each row, settled in large wooden crates that are sometimes piled perilously high, awaiting pickup for a ride to town on the railroad.

Besides their captivating curves, abundance of nutrition and tenacious nature, pears are of course simply delicious. Much like apples, pears can be prepared slightly firm, or can be cooked all the way down to a puree.

Pears are great for sweet and savory applications. They are as delicious roasted with chicken or pork as they are poached with wine, baked with dried fruit or slipped into a custardy pudding. They pair well with the ancient flavors of the Spice Road: almonds, pistachios, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and vanilla, and are equally palatable with tangy, smooth, salty cheeses.

Here are several of my favorite pear recipes. I especially love French pear tarts, pear frangipane and pear sorbet. But these recipes are a little more practical, versatile, adaptive and easy for just about any meal. Once you learn a method, such as roasting or poaching, you can develop a pear obsession of your own. With a little practice, the perfect frangipane will be just a pear away.

I embarrassingly cut myself pretty good while slicing pears the other morning. By evening I decided a cocktail was the remedy, and I found this recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks. I had to share!

Pear Side Car

By Master Mixologist Ryan Magarian, from Kathy Casey's "Northwest Table"

1/8 orange, separated

Superfine sugar in a shallow bowl


1 1/2 ounces vodka

1/2 ounce pear brandy

3/4 ounce simple syrup

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Pinch of ground cloves

Paper-thin slices of pear for garnish

Rim a cocktail glass by first wiping the edge all around with the orange. Then dip the rim into the superfine sugar.

Squeeze and drop the citrus wedge into a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice. Measure in the vodka, brandy, simple syrup and lemon juice. Cap the shaker and shake vigorously at least 10 times.

Strain into the glass and dust the surface of the drink very lightly with clove. Garnish with a pear slice.


Try an artisan pear brandy, such as Oregon's delicious Clear Creek. A high-quality brand will really make a difference here.

A perfect vehicle for accompanying seasonal produce, roasted pears can be paired with diced and roasted root vegetables in a salad of hearty greens. Here is a more delicate application that uses pumpkin seeds leftover from Halloween carving. You could replace the pepitas with most any roasted nut or even lightly seasoned lentils.

Mixed Greens with Roasted Pears, Candied Pepitas and Salty Cheese

For the roasted pears:

2 firm baking pears

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 tablespoon honey or agave nectar

Slice pears into thin slices, about 1/3 inch thick. This is best achieved by halving the pear, then slicing each half into about 4 other pieces. When I tested this recipe, I tried 1/4-inch, 1/3-inch and 1/2-inch slices. Somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 is best. Less than 1/4 is too thin -- the slices will be dry and chewy.

Combine melted butter and honey or agave nectar. Lightly brush both sides of the slices, place in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast at 500 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn and bake 5-10 minutes more or until the surface of the pear is very lightly golden and the sugars have barely caramelized. Remove and set aside.

For the champagne vinaigrette:

1/2 small shallot

Pinch garlic

2 teaspoons dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Dash of white pepper

1/4 cup Champagne vinegar

3/4 cup grapeseed, olive or canola oil

In a food processor, process shallot and a small bit of a garlic clove until finely minced. Add dijon mustard, honey, salt, white pepper and Champagne vinegar. Process to combine. With the machine running, add in oil in a slow, steady stream. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

For the candied pepitas:

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 tablespoon honey, agave nectar or raw sugar

1 teaspoon or so sea salt

1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

Dash of cayenne pepper

1 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

Combine melted butter, honey, agave nectar or raw sugar, salt, pumpkin pie spice and cayenne pepper. Toss pumpkin seeds in this mixture then turn out in a single layer onto a sheet pan and bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes or more, or until just golden.

For the salad:

Mixed greens

Dried cranberries, apple, pear, fig, papaya or date for garnish

Bleu, gorgonzola, stilton or Roquefort cheese for topping

Place a nice bit of mixed salad greens in a bowl. Don't be afraid to try different types of greens! Layer with slices of roasted pear. Garnish with bits of dried cranberries, apple, pear, fig, papaya or date. Dress with the champagne vinaigrette. Sprinkle with pepitas and top with a bit of really good bleu, gorgonzola, stilton or roquefort cheese.


Poached Pears


Poached pears should be tender but still toothsome. Serve warm or at room temperature with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Drizzle with caramel and garnish with raspberries. You can reduce the cooking liquid to make a delicious dessert base, or use it to flavor cocktails, chilled soups, sauces or vinaigrettes.

If you want to serve adult poached pears, try adding pear brandy to the poaching liquid, or use white or red wine instead of water or juice. Leaving the pears whole, standing up to poach is especially elegant. Be sure to peel, core and slice the very bottom off the pair to create a flat surface.

2-3 ripe but firm Bartlett or Bosc pears, peeled, cored and halved

1 1/2 cups water

2 cups or more pear nectar

1 vanilla seed pod

1 cinnamon stick

2-3 whole cloves

1-2 star anise

1-inch slice fresh ginger or a couple pieces dried ginger

1/2 cup raw sugar, agave nectar or honey

Place pears, spices, sweetener, water and enough pear nectar in a heavy medium saucepan; bring to a simmer. Cover with a piece of parchment paper, then with the pan lid, and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the pears are very tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Cooking time will depend on the ripeness of the pears. Cook until cooked through but not so tender the pear is mushy or falls apart.

Pear Sauce and Pear Butter

Turn poached pears into pear sauce or pear butter! Pear sauce is best made with a food mill. Simply cook until tender, strain the spices and pass through the mill. Season to taste.

Pear butter is made by cooking the sauce down to a thicker consistency. Pear butter requires some stirring muscle and a close eye at the end to make sure it doesn't burn on the bottom of the pan. It makes a wonderful hostess gift, and it's delicious with toast, scones, biscuits or as an accompaniment to any number of harvest-season side dishes such as roasted root vegetables or parsnip soup.

To make pear sauce:

Remove poached pears from juice or water (do not use wine or liquor). Reserve the cooking liquid and spices. Mash the pears roughly with a potato masher. I like to leave chunky bits, but mash more and add a little cooking liquid as needed for a smoother consistency.

For pear butter:

Cook mashed sauce uncovered, over medium-low heat, stirring often so the puree does not scorch. Cook, continuously stirring as the pear reduces and thickens, about 20 minutes or so. Remove from the pan and let cool.

Pear Compote

Another recipe that can be used in sweet or savory applications, as a garnish or a side.

2 cups frozen pearl onions

2 cups apple juice

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 whole cloves

1 vanilla bean

1/4 teaspoon allspice

2 firm pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 12-ounce bag frozen cranberries

Bring juice, sugar, lemon and spices to a slight boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add onions and pears. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes.

Add cranberries and cook until cranberries start to pop. Cook a little longer until the compote starts to thicken, then remove from heat and cool.

Tips: The sugar helps the compote to firm up, creating a jam-like consistency. You can use less sugar, and I often do. Just note that the compote won't be as thick as a chutney or jam. You can also use water instead of the apple juice, but the juice is sweet and tart and adds a little something to the compote.

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