Pear trees bending under the weight of ripe fruit are a sure sign autumn is drawing in. And biting into a sweet and juicy specimen is one of the loveliest treats of the season.
Pears come in a myriad varieties, from long and elongated to plump and near-spherical, pastel green through to yellow and bronze. When ripe, they can be crisp and firm or soft and juicy, deeply perfumed or delicately flavoured. And whether whipped up into classic crumbles or served with strong cheeses, pears are infinitely versatile.
Broadly speaking, pears fall into two categories according to Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society: dessert pears for eating, and cookers …for cooking! In practice, though, eating pears are the ones most likely to be found at the greengrocer, supermarket or market.
It’s wise to choose your pears with care, as perfection can be elusive. Many people are unaware that pears are among the few fruits that don’t ripen on the tree, insteadimproving in flavour and texture only after they’ve been picked. That is to say, pears are harvested when they’re mature but not yet ready to eat.Only when left at room temperature do they slowly sweeten and soften, ripening from the inside out.
Once you’ve bought or picked your pears, pop them in the fruit bowl and check for ripeness daily. Gently press the neck – take care, pears bruise easily – and when they yield to a little pressure, they’re ready to eat. Once good to go, pears can be stored in the fridge to slow the ripening process.
What to do with pears? The question is, where to begin? Pears have a kinship with so many different ingredients they work well in diverse sweet and savoury dishes.
Pears chopped and tumbled into pies, tarts and crumbles – with or without skin –are hard to beat as nights develop a chilly edge. They crave sweet spice – cinnamon, cloves, star anise, allspice, nutmeg and more – so, sprinkle these into the mix. Pears also partner happily with other autumnal fruits like blueberries, apples and even plums.
Dark chocolate is the perfect partner for pears, it could be argued, as the fruit’s mellow sweetness is an excellent foil for cocoa’s bitter notes.Stud the top of a chocolate sponge cake with pear halves for a squidgy and comforting winter pudding.
Poached pears might evoke 70s dinner parties or hotel dessert trolleys from a bygone age but, really, they’re an eternal joy. Peel, leaving the stalk intact, and rub all over with the cut side of a lemon to prevent the flesh browning. Trim the base so the pears can sit flat, and them arrange snuggly in a pan. Pour in enough sweet wine, sweetened red wine or sugar syrup (perhaps spiked with lavender and bay, or a cinnamon stick) to reach the stalk. Simmer until tender enough to yield to a gentle poke with a fork.
Reduce the cooking liquor to a syrup, pour over the pears and serve as is, or with softly whipped cream, creamy ricotta or chocolate sauce. Or slice the poached pears and serve with salty hard or blue cheese.
If your pears are less than optimal, chop and cook down into compotes or jams – both are delicious swirled through homemade cinnamon ice cream. Spiced pear chutney is fantastic served with cheese and crackers by the fire. Spooned into jars and tied with a ribbon, all of the above make thoughtful Christmas gifts.
Don’t overlook pears for a role in savoury dishes, as their mellow fruitiness works beautifully. Roast them with root veg (celeriac, turnips and parsnips are superb), add to a pan of onions you have cooked down until sweet and sticky with fresh thyme. Add stock, blitz and season to taste.
Hearty winter salads welcome pears too.Combine with contrasting flavours like bitter leaves (rocket, endive and radicchio); salty things (bacon, pecorino or Parmesan); strident blue cheeses; roasted root vegetables; grains; and sharp dressing made with good olive oil.
Roasted meats are often paired with apple, but the honeyed sweetness of pears is equally lovely. Pop peeled pears in the roasting tray alongside a joint of pork, a whole duck or even a chicken; mash the slow cooked fruit for a sauce or incorporate into the pan juices for a gently fruity gravy.For a vegetarian version, simply bake a whole halloumi instead.
Pears are firm friends with; sweet spices, chocolate, bacon, salty cheese, blue cheese, roast meat, bitter leaves, walnuts, apples, blackberries.
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