By Laura Pensiero, RD
With almost 3,000 varieties of pears to consider, we’re going to stay focused on the most popular and truly homegrown. The most common varieties found at our local farmers’ markets include Aurora, Anjou, Comice, Seckel, Highland, Asian, Bartlett, Red Bartlett, and Bosc.
Montgomery Place Orchards harvests an unimaginable variety of both apples and pears. While you won’t find their fruit at local farmers’ markets, a trip to their own stunning farmstand at the corner of Routes 199 and 9-G in Red Hook will have you leaving with more than a bag of dazzling pears.
Through thousands of years, pears have been grafted, cherished, and celebrated as “gifts from God,” “butter fruit,” and symbols of immortality. Today Washington and Oregon are the leading pear growing states, but the Hudson Valley makes a healthy contribution to establishing the U.S. as the leading pear producer worldwide. The two varieties that best resist insects, mites, and fungus in our area are Bosc and Bartlett.
Pears at their best are crisp, juicy, floral, and seductive. Some fruit tell you exactly when they’re ready to detach from their mother plant. Pears are a perfect example—an easy tug, they’re ripe and ready; a lot of twisting and wrestling, better wait a few more days or even a week.
Once off the tree, look for fruit that is not rock hard but where a gentle squeeze provides a little spring back, especially at the top neck. With so many varieties of different shapes and colors, a good rule of thumb is to look for a slight lightening from its original hue as a sign of ripeness. Imperfections
should not be seen as signaling poor quality. Orchard fruits, especially when organically grown, show dings, dents, and blemishes from weather, bug bites, and other uncontrollable forces. Think of these scars and scrapes as signs of character, and just work around them.
Pears have so many baking and culinary uses. Their sweet flesh is an extraordinary addition to salads with slightly bitter greens like arugula, spinach, and mizuna and salty cheeses such as blue, gorgonzola, feta, goat cheese, or Manchego. Toss in some toasted nuts, and even some tart cranberries or pomegranate seeds, and you’re talking a fall salad. The most popular Skizza™ (thin crusted pizza) at my restaurant is the Bianca – house made fig jam, Coach Farm goat cheese, shaved pears, Sky Farm arugula and a drizzle of house-infused truffle oil. The paper thin pear slices makes the pie, and I’d have plenty of people to reckon with if I ever took the Bianca off the menu.
Aside from salads and the obvious tarts, galettes, quick breads, and cakes, pears can lend seductive elegance to cocktails and especially sauces. A reduction of a deep stock, aged balsamic vinegar, chopped pears, and perhaps a smidge of ginger can make your roasted holiday duck a whole new experience.
Some tips for cooking and interpreting amounts in recipes:
2 medium pears = approximately 1 cup sliced pears.
4 medium pears = approximately 1 cup pureed pear.
3 medium pears = approximately 1 pound of pears
Nutritional notes: With their skin on, which is perfectly edible, pears rank among the highest fiber fruits. It’s also the type of fiber that helps attract water, which slows digestion. This helps delays the emptying of your stomach and makes you feel full, which helps control weight. Slower stomach emptying may also affect blood sugar levels and have a beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity, potentially helping control diabetes. Soluble fiber can also help lower LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol by interfering with the absorption of dietary cholesterol. Pears, like apples, also contain a whole spectrum of flavonoids, a large grouping of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
Laura Pensiero, a registered dietician, is founder and creative force behind Gigi Hudson Valley, which operates the award-winning Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck and a catering business. She is author of Hudson Valley Mediterranean cookbook.
Roasted Pears with Candied Spiced Nuts
This is an easy “in season” dessert for entertaining or for every day. If you don’t have time to candy nuts, they can easily be purchased at most supermarkets, and most certainly at the wonderful Adam’s Marketplace (locations throughout the Hudson Valley).
Makes 4 servings
¼ cup (4 tablespoons) butter
4 firm but ripe pears, halved and cored, skin on
¼ cup packed cup light brown sugar
¼ cup local pure maple syrup (Fitting Creek Farm in Ghent, or Crown Maple in Dover Plains are noteworthy local producers)
4 cinnamon sticks, halved
¼ teaspoon allspice
1 cup Candied Spiced Nuts (recipe below)
Ice cream (vanilla or hazelnut) or whipped cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 350F. In a small saucepan, melt the butter then add both the brown sugar and maple syrup. Add the cinnamon sticks and allspice, and stir to blend. Transfer the butter mixture to a roasting pan just large enough to fit pear halves in one layer. Place the pear halves face down in the pan, shaking a bit to coat flesh side with butter/maple/brown sugar/spice mixture. Bake about 20 to 25 minutes, or until pears are tender. Using tongs, flip pears so that they are cut side up and spoon pan sauce over them. Return to oven about 5 more minutes, or until they are golden and bubbling. Remove, let cool slightly, top with candied nuts and a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream.
Candied Spiced Nuts
I love these crunchy, slightly sweet and spicy nuts sprinkled over salads, enlivening cheese plates, and topping sweet orchard fruit desserts. Extras can be enjoyed on antipasti plates or with an evening cocktail.
Makes 4½ cups (18 servings)
1 egg white
½ pound shelled walnut halves
½ pound shelled almonds
½ cup sugar (preferably superfine)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon allspice
Pinch cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 250˚F.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg white and 1 tablespoon water until frothy. Add nuts and stir to coat them completely. Transfer nuts to a strainer or sieve and allow to drain for about 5 minutes.
Combine sugar, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, salt, coriander, and cayenne in a large plastic bag and shake vigorously to blend. Add half the nuts to the bag and shake to coat thoroughly. Remove and place nuts on a large baking pan. Repeat with the remaining nuts and add to pan. Shake pan to distribute nuts evenly. Bake for 15 minutes, then gently stir, smoothing them back into a single layer. Lower oven temperature to 200˚F and bake until nuts are caramelized and crisp, about 45 minutes. Midway through baking, rotate pan to ensure even browning.
Allow nuts to cool completely. Store in airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
– Adapted from Hudson Valley Mediterranean: The Gigi Good Food Cookbook (HarperCollins/Pensiero 2009)