As with so many types of fruit, the Pacific Northwest is blessed with an abundance of pears, growing 84% of the fresh pears sold in the US. As many as eight different varieties are grown in this region and they are readily available in the market from late summer into spring. Bored with much of what winter has to offer in terms of produce, I have tried cooking with several different varieties of pears lately. My favorite produce market frequently has a big variety to choose from: Bosc, Red Anjou, Green Anjou, StarKrimsom, Asian and Comice.
I know that pears have been in season for months now. I guess I am a little late to the game, but aside from an occasional glance at a pear tart I have never thought much about cooking with pears. Suddenly inspired, I searched the Internet and came across some great pear tips. I also found several sources that suggested Bosc pears were the best for cooking. Ever an eager student, I set out to find some Bosc pears to experiment with. Unfortunately the Bosc pears were hard while some of the other varieties had a little give and promised more flavor. In the end I picked up a few pears of several different varieties to try.
The Character of Pears
Pears ripen best off the tree. I try to choose pears at the market that have a very slight give when gently pushed with my thumb. Then I bring them home to adorn the corner of my kitchen counter for several days. At this stage their shape and texture are ideal for a study in still life. They are quite pretty as they ripen but are sometimes tempermental. They should be carefully attended to since they grow impatient as that stage is reached. When ripe, a pear should be eaten at once or stored in the refrigerator for up to a few days.
For poaching, baking or roasting, pears should be used before they are perfectly ripe. In my experience, the variety of pear you cook with is less important than its degree of ripeness. Comice, Anjou and StarKrimson all tasted good cooked, provided they were nearly ripe when used. Too ripe, and they fell apart. While I wouldn’t say their perfect sweetness was wasted, I would have preferred to eat the perfectly ripened pears raw. Yet if the pear is too hard, cooking it might soften it but it won’t impart the delicate pear flavor that waiting another day or two while it ripens on the counter will.
While I was browsing for information on varieties of pears I stumbled across some recipes that sounded wonderful. This one for Roasted Pears sounded so exotic and yet easy to prepare. I have to say, it turned out to be everything I hoped for: simple, savory and delicious. These pears would be great on a salad or served as a side dish with pork or chicken. I think they would also be interesting with ice cream or vanilla sugar cookies. I love the surprising variety of flavors in the first bite!
Roasted Pears with Rosemary and Thyme
4 firm ripe pears, cored and quartered
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of minced fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon of minced fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of ground pepper
Pinch of ground dried sage
Toasted hazelnuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a small bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, minced thyme, minced rosemary, salt, pepper and sage until thoroughly combined.
Brush the pears with the mixture.
Place pears on a baking sheet or broiler pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, a little less if the pears are very ripe, a little more if they are under-ripe. For best flavor, brush with the herb mixture several times while baking.
When the pears are tender when pierced with a fork, remove from the oven.
Arrange on a serving dish and top with toasted hazelnut pieces.
Note: Candied Hazelnuts can be substituted for the toasted hazelnut pieces. To add this sweet touch simply melt one Tablespoon of butter in a small skillet, over medium-low heat. Add one Tablespoon of brown sugar and mix well. Add hazelnut pieces and stir slowly but constantly until the nuts begin to brown. Remove from the heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Then break up the pieces and scatter the candied hazelnuts over the pears.