Published October 17, 2006
The Oregonian/Food Day

Complex flavors, a versatile treat
Buttery-rich pears enhance both sweet and svory dishes--but let's talk about desserts. Autumn desserts.

Pears have a long history of being upstaged by apples, which enjoy perennial popularity in pies and lunchboxes, for archery practice and for kissing up to the teacher. Francois Pierre de La Varenne, the legendary 17th-century French chef, wrote, "The pear is the grandfather of the apple, its poor relation, a fallen aristocrat . . ." Or maybe the Avis of the fruit world -- not the number one choice, but an earnest contender.

There's something about biting into a perfectly ripened pear that sets it apart from its fellow pome fruit (that's what pears, apples and quince are). True, no pear will provide the same satisfying crunch of peel against teeth, but you'd have to eat a lifetime of apples before duplicating the deliciously messy intensity of a pear slurped over the kitchen sink, sweet juices dripping from your chin.

The pear has a complex character: a rich, buttery quality that complements savory ingredients like pork and game; a creaminess perfectly suited to a sorbet, or risotto; a heady, sweet perfume that begs for a sharp cheddar or the nuttiness of an aged parmigiano-reggiano.

Remarkably versatile, pears cross gracefully between the realms of sweet and savory. Their subtle sweetness, reminiscent of honey, citrus and spices, pairs as nicely with almonds, chocolate, ginger and port as it does with unexpected flavors -- licorice, triple creme and salty blue cheeses, foie gras and butternut squash.

Fortunately, here in Oregon, we don't have to choose between great apples and great pears: We've got plenty of both, and they're coming into their peak season.

I've created some dessert recipes that feel traditional and right for fall, yet a little different. You'll see that the recipes have several components to them (I can't help it, I'm a pastry chef), but you'll be glad to know that if you're short on time, the pound cake and gingerbread are excellent on their own, as are the poached pears and the pan-glazed pears.

Bring a ripe pear to perfection on your countertop Pears are harvested in late summer and early fall, but, like apples, they're often cold-stored and available year-round. They are one of the few fruits whose complex flavor and unique texture improve dramatically when ripened off the tree. Pickers learn to recognize when the fruit is mature but still firm; they time the harvest so that the pears reach the market when pears have achieved the perfect balance of sweetness and texture. You'll often find them still slightly firm on the market shelves, and will need to ripen your pears for a day or two at home on your counter.

Look for firm, heavy, unblemished fruit. Color isn't an accurate key to the ripeness of many pears, but firmness is: A ready-to-eat pear will yield slightly when pressed near its stem. The best pears for eating (Bartlett, Anjou and Comice) tend to fall apart when cooked and are better enjoyed out of hand. Varieties that hold up well to cooking (Bosc, Seckel and Forelle, or slightly underripe eating pears) should be handled with care, cooked slowly and gently.

The faintly grainy texture of a pear's raw flesh seems to smooth out magically when poached or incorporated in doughs and batters for baking. When roasting pears, use more butter and less heat than you would with an apple. Remember, the process of poaching a pear is more like coddling an egg, meaning the gentler the heat, the better.

Pick a peck of pears; here are the varieties

Bartlett is the variety of pear most widely grown in North America. Its bell shape and green skin make it the quintessential picture of a pear all of us carry around in our heads. When ripe, the skin is bright yellow and the mildly musky flesh is sweet and juicy. Bartletts are excellent for canning, poaching and eating raw. Red Bartletts share the same attributes and boast a vibrant red skin that is especially striking in a salad.

Bosc pears are long-necked and slender, with a mottled greenish-brown skin. They are pleasantly aromatic but somewhat less flavorful than other varieties. It's their dense, dry flesh that wins them big points with bakers; they won't dampen doughs and batters, and they retain their shape beautifully. Bosc pears are favored for poaching, roasting, broiling and grilling.

Anjou (sometimes called d'Anjou) pears are large and round, closer in shape to an apple. The skin of a ripe Anjou is light yellow-green, or red. Its smooth, white flesh is sweetly perfumed with spicy notes. This flavorful, all-purpose pear is good for eating and baking (as long as holding its shape isn't important).

Comice pears closely resemble Anjou, with a similarly voluptuous shape. The green skin gives way to a fine-grained flesh whose delicate flavor verges on buttery. Comice pears are a wonderful option for eating fresh.

Seckel and Forelle pears are smaller varieties that aren't as readily available as those listed above, but both are worth seeking out. They poach beautifully and are tailor-made for dessert, especially the Forelle, whose flesh has a rosy hue.

Ellen Jackson is a Portland food writer and pastry chef.

©2006 The Oregonian

Original recipes included:

Old-Fashioned Sticky Gingerbread With Honey-Poached Pears and Cider Sabayon (selected as a Food Day “Favorite Recipe of 2006”)

Pan-Glazed Pears With Frozen Caramel Mousse, Chocolate Sauce and Marcona Almonds

Roasted Pear Cake With Cardamom Custard Sauce