Persnickety about Pears

I’m picky about pears. Visually, they’re stunning. Their womanly shape is so graceful and earthy, the perfect symbol for fall in red, green, yellow, and brown. But like apples, their texture varies widely depending on their ripeness, variety, and the way they’ve been stored. I think when they’re at their best they taste sweet, buttery, and delicate; firm but not crunchy with just the right amount of juice that you don’t have to eat them over the sink.

Cultivated by Chinese in 5000 B.C. and mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey as a “Gift of the Gods”, pears have a long and beloved history with human beings. Pear trees were brought to the east coast of America with French pioneers but the growing conditions weren’t right, so it wasn’t until they reached the Northwest river valleys that pears were cultivated with success on our soil (and still are to this day).

Pears ripen best off the tree, which is why they are always hard at the supermarket. To ripen pears, just let them sit at room temperature out of direct sunlight. You can also put them in a paper bag which contains the ethylene gases they release and speeds up the process (add a banana for more speed). Once ripe, they’ll last three to five days. To stop the ripening, put them in the fridge. Pears don’t freeze well unless you’ve made them into a cooked or pie filling (with sugar).

The best way to tell if a pear is ripe is to press the neck gently around the stem. If it gives, then it’s ready to eat. If you’ve waited too long and your pear is too soft, use it pureed in a smoothie or a soup like butternut apple pear or sweet potato ginger pear.

Just like apples, pears have a range of tastes and textures, from buttery and succulent to crisp and crunchy. For pear enthusiasts, they may be described as having vanilla, citrus, woodsy, floral, and honey flavors. Bartletts are known for their ultra-pear flavor and extreme juiciness.

Cooking with pears is interesting for chefs, since you can go in a savory or sweet direction. As sommeliers know, pears are delicious with wine and cheese, though the softer varieties may be harder to slice and serve. Firm pear varieties like Concorde, Bosce, and Anjou are better for cooking. Garnishing with whole or sliced pears on a seasonal fall menu is ideal–just be sure to soak any slices in a lemon water bath to prevent browning as the flesh will oxidize when it makes contact with the air.

Serve this incredible appetizer at your next autumn party.

Crostinis with Balsamic Glazed Pear and Goat Cheese (from USAPears.com)

  • 2 pears
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 24 thin toasted slices of crusty baguette
  • ½ cup spreadable goat cheese
  • ½ cup slivered toasted almonds

Slice pears into 12 thin vertical planks. Cut planks in half lengthwise, and then again horizontally (48 slices).

Heat vinegar, butter, and honey in large shallow pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Add pear slices and cooking for 1 more minute, turning once.

Put 2 pear slices and a teaspoon of goat cheese on each slice of bread and top with almonds.