Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer.
Descended from wild pears in Europe and Asia, domestic pears have been under cultivation for the last 3,000 years. Over the centuries, crossbreeding and hybridization have given rise to varieties that are estimated to number anywhere from several hundred to several thousand. Of these, only about one dozen are grown commercially in the United States, and only a handful are likely to appear in Juneau stores this month.
If left to fully ripen on their trees, pears can turn bitter and develop a gritty texture. They must be harvested before they are fully mature, which makes them an ideal shipping fruit. When they arrive in stores between late summer and early spring, depending on the variety, they should be just about ready to eat.
When shopping for pears, look for fruit that is firm but not too hard, and avoid those that are soft. To test for ripeness, check the flesh near the stem - if it yields a bit when pressed and has a sweet aroma, the pear is ready to eat. Pears that are not ready can be ripened simply by leaving them in a bowl at room temperature. Once they are ripe, however, pears spoil quickly, so they should be consumed as soon as possible.
In general, pears are good raw and cooked, and they are equally suited to sweet and savory dishes. I often enjoy them thinly sliced and tossed in a salad of bitter greens and walnuts, where their sweetness is nicely balanced by a red wine or balsamic vinegar. When chopped and cooked in the style of apple sauce, pears make a fine accompaniment for roast chicken or pork.
Perhaps the simplest of all desserts is a sweet ripe pear served with a wedge of a creamy cheese such as brie, or an exceptionally strong one such as Roquefort, Romano or sharp cheddar. In cooked desserts, pears are well complemented by the flavors of nuts (especially almonds), vanilla, honey and ginger.
Pears commonly available in Juneau stores
The Bartlett is the most common of all pears grown in the United States and usually is available starting in September. Large and bell-shaped, Bartletts turn from pale green to slightly yellow as they ripen. Sweet and smooth textured, but sometimes on the bland side, the Bartlett is your average all-purpose pear.
The Anjou (or d'Anjou) is similar in color to the Bartlett, but slightly smaller and squatter in shape. Sold from October through April, the Anjou usually is quite juicy with a soft texture and hints of honey and apple on the tongue.
The red Anjou is a less common relative of the Anjou and it is smaller with a reddish brown skin. The one that I sampled was as juicy as the standard Anjou, but slightly tarter in flavor with a crisper texture and thicker skin.
The Bosc has a distinctive long neck and a brownish hue. Although it is juicy and wonderfully aromatic, the Bosc has a tougher, thicker skin and firmer flesh than some other types of pears. These qualities make it one of the best suited for poaching and baking.
The Comice is one of the harder-to-find pears, but certainly my favorite. Rounder than the other types described here, the Comice ranges from pale green to yellow. Particularly sweet and juicy, the Comice has an extraordinarily buttery mouth feel. It makes a perfect dessert on its own or partnered with a good cheese.
Asian pears more closely resemble apples in their round shape, but they are a pale-yellow color, often speckled with brown. Although their crunchy flesh is similar to that of apples, Asian pears have an aroma and flavor all their own that is reminiscent of honeydew and lavender.
One good way to decide how to use your pears is to consider the varieties that are available, since each type has its own distinct characteristics. For the poached pear dessert recipe here, I would recommend going with firm Bosc, Anjou or Asian pears. You can use pears that are slightly under ripe as they will soften nicely as they cook. The pears should be peeled before poaching, but depending on the appearance and the serving size that you want, you either can poach them whole, or halve and core them. The core can be scooped out neatly and easily using a melon baller.
This is one of my favorite winter dessert recipes because of its flexibility. Exactly the same technique can be used to prepare delicious poached apples. You can mix and match the seasonings depending on your taste and what else you are serving. Lemon or orange zest, ground cinnamon or cloves, almond paste, or a shot of rum, brandy or Grand Marnier all make nice additions to the poaching liquid. In place of the white wine you can use red wine, port, Marsala or sherry for different, but equally tasty, results.
The fact that the cooked fruit can be stored for a day or two in the refrigerator covered by its own poaching syrup makes this a very good recipe for preparing ahead of time. Make sure to bring the pears to room temperature before serving. You can reduce the poaching syrup until it is thick enough to use as a sauce drizzled over the finished pears or freeze it and use it again the next time you poach fruit.
The poached pears are excellent served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, caramel sauce, crushed nuts, almond cookies or pound cake.
1 bottle dry white wine
2 cups water, or more as necessary
112 cups sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 one-inch piece of peeled ginger
6 firm ripe pears
1. In a pan large enough to hold all of the pears in one layer, boil the wine, water and sugar until the sugar has dissolved, then immediately lower the heat so that the liquid is just barely simmering.
2. Peel the pears (and, if you would like, cut them in half and scoop out the cores) and add them to the liquid as soon as each one is peeled to prevent them from turning brown. If the liquid does not completely cover the pears, add just enough water to cover them. Make sure the liquid is steaming hot, but not boiling.
3. After 15 minutes, turn off the heat and cover the pot. After another half-hour the pears should be tender throughout when pierced with a knife. Allow them to cool in their own syrup and serve.
Ben Bohen is a local caterer and food writer.