Written by Tara Leonard
It takes patience to find a truly perfect pear, one with sweet, melting flesh and a buttery, seductive aroma. As the nights turn cooler, produce stands are overflowing with crisp, crunchy apples, that quintessential American fruit – bright, bold and ready-to-eat straight from an eager hand. Pears require more restraint, a self-control fueled by the knowledge that only with time can you unlock the superlative flavor of this underappreciated fruit.
That’s because most pears are picked in late summer and early fall when they’re mature, but not ripe. They’re put in cool storage for a period of time depending on their variety and shipped to stores while hard. Then the pears are brought to room temperature to finish the ripening process. Finding the ideal point between rock-solid and mushy is a balancing act that many consumers have yet to master.
“Pears are unfortunately sort of a poor step-sister to apples in this country,” says C. Todd Kennedy, one of California’s leading fruit preservationists and historians. “They don’t lend themselves to the way Americans eat fruit. Most people in this country think of pears as merely dry, flavorless, funny-shaped apples.”
It wasn’t always so. One of the world’s oldest crops, pears were domesticated in Europe and Asia more than 3,000 years ago. For centuries they were the subject of poems and paintings, praised for their lush fragrance and curvaceous shape. European pears came to America with the colonists, where large orchards were established. Then disaster struck in the form of a bacterial disease now known as Fire Blight, which decimated the import. (The name comes from the infected leaves which suddenly turn brown as though they’ve been scorched by fire.) Fire Blight made it virtually impossible to grow pears in the humid Eastern United States and still requires constant vigilance today, when Washington, Oregon and California grow 98% of the country’s commercial pears.
“When you don’t see them grown, they aren’t very popular,” Kennedy says. “Pears have become a specialized crop all on the West Coast.”
Luckily the Central Coast, with its warm summers and cool, but not freezing winters, is suitable for growing both European varieties and the less well-known Asian pears planted in California by Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush. Asian pears are sometimes called Apple Pears because even when ripe, they are crisp and firm with a globe shape.
“There are probably 30 to 40 different kinds of pears grown around here,” estimates Nicci Tripp of Theo’s Restaurant in Soquel. “It’s not a primary crop, but something people like to add for diversity.”
“We just sent our first petite pears to Nicci,” says Natalain Schwartz of De ja View Farm in Corralitos. Schwartz goes on to explain that she usually thins her Bartlett, Anjou and Fanstill pears so they have good air circulation and space to grow. Overloaded branches cause fruit to bump and bruise, and will often break before the fruit is ripe. “On this particular tree the fruit production is balanced and the fruit doesn’t touch one another, so we let it be. The pears were three inches at most!”
“You’re going to see a lot of pears on my menu in the upcoming weeks,” Tripp confirms. “I’m a firm believer that pears have to come sun-ripened off the tree. Much like everything else in the county, pears have a nice little season and then it’s time to move on. When they’re ripe and beautiful, as they are now, it’s a great couple of months. I hope to have pears into November when we start to get the rains.”
“Tree-ripened is okay with Bosc and Comice,” agrees Bill Denevan, who has spent the last 30 years as manager of Happy Valley Farm, overseeing 18 acres of dry-farmed Bartletts. “But Bartletts cause trouble. If you leave them on the tree too long they get pithy and taste terrible. Plus Bartletts have a tendency to drop their fruit and you can lose as much as a third before you pick. More people need to understand the nuances of growing and ripening them.”
Locals in the know include Kurt Christiansen of Oso Velloso Farm in Bonny Doon, with whom I chatted at the Westside Farmers Market. Christiansen has planted Bartlett, Warren and Bosc pears along with a variety of other fruit trees.
“Since we’re a small farm, we like having a lot of different things that change with the seasons,” he tells me. “Diversity brings health to the garden environment.”
Just yards away, Brandon Faria of Faria Farms in Watsonville was selling Asian Pears including the tender Ya Li and slightly tart Twentieth Century. He also grows large, orange Hosui and beautiful, bronze Shinko.
“I have English (European) and Asian pears,” Faria tells me. “They ripen up at different times, so I have fresh pears throughout the season. Soon I’ll have my Montereys, Comice and Red Bartletts.”
Faria also lets his pears ripen on the tree, but only when he can sell them quickly on the fresh market. “The English pears start rotting from the core out, so I pick when they’re just a little on the green side and sell them the same day at the farmers market or to my CSA.”
He explains that for many growers, it’s just not practical to ship large quantities of sun-ripened pears, which will over-ripen and bruise before they reach grocery shelves.
If you can’t find sun-ripened pears, let them ripen in temperatures between 65 and 70. The simple rhyme “check the neck” is a reminder that if a pear is soft around the stem, it should be ready. Keep pears refrigerated for longer storage. Remove them about a week before they’re needed to finish the ripening process.
Those who master this method will find pears a versatile kitchen companion, equally at home atop a warm cinnamon crisp or alongside savory pork tenderloin.
“I like to shave pears and put them in salads,” Tripp says. “I also do a lot of poaching with wine, liquors and aromatic spices like vanilla bean and ginger.”
While nothing beats the satisfying simplicity of sliced pears, cheese and a bottle of Merlot, you might also try layering pears with granola and yogurt for a healthy breakfast parfait or slipping thin pear slices onto a warm grilled cheese or quesadilla. 515 on Cedar Street also offers a scrumptious Anjou, gorgonzola and mint pizzetta on their lunch menu.
However you choose to eat them, now is the time to slow down and savor this classic seasonal offering. The apples can wait.
Common Pear Varieties
There are three types of pears -- the soft, dessert-style Europeans (also called Winter pears), the crisp, apple-shaped Asians, and hybrids between the two.
America’s most popular pear, buttery Bartletts are sweet and aromatic with yellow-green skin.
Best enjoyed raw, Comice pears are the sweetest and juiciest of the common pears.
The short-necked Anjou has a subtle flavor best suited for baking.
Green with a red blush, honey-flavored Seckels are most often used for baking.
The long, tapered neck of the Bosc holds it shape well when cooked.
Pale green when ripe, Warrens can be eaten out of hand.
To find these recipes and many more visit the California Pear Advisory Board at www.calpear.com
Baby Greens with Pears and Goat Cheese
4 to 6 ounces baby greens
2 firm pears, cored and diced
½ cup red onion, diced
1 cup pecans, toasted
4 ounces crumbled goat cheese
Balsamic vinaigrette dressing
Combine first five ingredients and toss gently. Add dressing to taste and serve immediately.
Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Pear Chutney
2 lbs pork tenderloin
1 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp finely grated orange peel
1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
½ tsp black pepper
3 slightly under-ripe pears, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tbsp finely grated orange peel
1 tbsp finely grated ginger
¼ tsp allspice
1 cove garlic, minced
2 tbsp dried cranberries
Rinse tenderloin and pat dry. In a large shallow pan, combine all marinade ingredients. Place pork in pan and turn to coat. Cover, place in refrigerator and let marinate several hours or overnight. Meanwhile, combine all chutney ingredients except cranberries in a medium saucepan; stir well to combine. Cover and simmer for 55 minutes over very low heat. Stir in cranberries and cook for 5 minutes more. Let cool. To prepare meat, place over medium hot coals and grill for 15 to 20 minutes, or until meat reaches 160 degrees internally, brushing liberally with marinade several times during grilling. Remove from grill and let stand for 5 minutes. Cut meat into 1/4-inch thick slices and serve with chutney.
Crunchy Pear Cheesecake
1 cup flour
¾ cups quick oats
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup butter
8 oz cream cheese, softened
½ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and sliced
¼ cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, stir to combine flour, oats, brown sugar and cinnamon. Stir in butter with a fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press 2/3 of the mixture into the bottom of a greased 9-inch pie pan. Bake for 15 minutes. In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese with sugar, egg and vanilla; spread over baked crust. Top with pear slices, remaining oat mixture and nuts. Return to oven and bake an additional 30 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before cutting.
Pear Bread Pudding with Brandy Sauce
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
4 large pears, cored and sliced
4 large croissants, sliced in half lengthwise
½ cup melted unsalted butter
2 ¼ cups whole milk
2 ¼ cups heavy cream
2 tbsp vanilla extract
For Brandy Sauce
½ cup unsalted butter
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2 eggs, lightly beaten
T tbsp pear brandy (optional)
Mix 2/3 cup granulated sugar and cinnamon together. Toss 2 tablespoons of cinnamon-sugar mixture with pears. Set pears aside. Brush exposed sides of croissants with melted butter and sprinkle liberally with remaining cinnamon-sugar. Arrange on baking sheet, cut side up, and bake for 5 to 7 minutes or until golden brown. Cool at least 5 minutes.
Butter sides and bottom of 9- by 13- by 2-inch glass baking dish; set aside. Combine milk, cream, eggs, 2 cups granulated sugar and vanilla in mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Place 1 layer of croissants, buttered side up, in glass dish. Arrange layer of pear slices on top. Repeat layers, ending with croissants. Pour egg mixture over all. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Place pudding pan with foil cover in larger pan of cold water on lower shelf in oven. Bake at 350° F for 2 to 2 1/2 hours or until sharp knife inserted in center comes out clean.
For Brandy Sauce: Melt butter and brown sugar in heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until well mixed and smooth. Remove from heat; cool slightly. Stir in cream; then stir hot mixture into beaten eggs. Return all to pan and heat just to boiling but do not allow to boil, beating vigorously all the while. Remove from heat and stir in brandy.
To serve, cut bread pudding into 12 squares and serve warm topped with Brandy Sauce. Dust entire plate with powdered sugar for added effect.