Like many families across the country, mine once looked to gift-fruit giant Harry & David to deliver the most premium pears.
Now that I've lived for more than a decade in the Rogue Valley, my coast-dwelling parents circumvent mail-order and entrust me to provide their annual pear fix. And with so many types of local pears — Comice, Bosc, Bartlett, D'Anjou and Seckel — for the picking at pennies per pound, it's no trick to furnish this treat.
3 ounces almond paste
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup shelled hazelnuts, roasted and ground
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (9-inch) prepared tart shell
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted
4 firm, ripe D'Anjou, Bartlett or Bosc pears, peeled, cored and sliced about 1/4 inch thick
Juice of 1 lemon
4 ounces apricot preserves, melted and strained
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cream together the almond paste and sugar. Add the butter and mix until smooth. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing well after each addition. Add the ground hazelnuts and vanilla and mix to combine.
Brush the melted chocolate on the bottom of the prepared tart shell and pour in the filling. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until filling is lightly browned and set in center.
Cool tart on a rack. When the tart is cooled, toss the pear slices gently with the lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. Arrange pear slices in concentric circles on the tart. Brush the completed tart with strained apricot preserves.
— Recipe from Pear Bureau Northwest, courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
That's how self-professed "pear nerd" Cristie Mather describes the distinctive fruit in her role as director of communications for Pear Bureau Northwest. This collective of 1,600 growers in Oregon and Washington produce 84 percent of the nation's pears, a harvest about five times smaller than the annual apple crop.
"They're not seen as an everyday fruit — they're exalted," says Mather. "People think, 'Oh, that's for special occasions.' "
Harry & David founders — brothers of the same name — perhaps originated the stereotype in the 1930s by staking their Medford company's future on selling pears for the holidays. Three years after shipping their first pears for Christmas, Harry and David Holmes were so successful that they created a "Fruit-of-the-Month Club" and soon trademarked the phrase.
Although the program popularized pears year-round, it bears reiterating that pears have a season, which usually starts in September, sometimes the month before or after. However, pears' unique sensitivity to temperature keeps them from converting their starches to sugar while in cold storage. That means — picked green — pears can be sold throughout fall and all winter.
And unlike many fruits that suffer from the chilly confines, pears ripen to juicy sweetness when left out on the kitchen counter for a couple of days. The best way to test for ripeness is to apply gentle pressure to the neck of the pear, says Mather. If it yields, then the pear is ready to eat. Because pears ripen from the inside out, a soft-bodied pear will be an overripe pear.
Meal planning can be difficult if it relies on still-ripening pears, but Boscs, D'Anjous and Seckels can be cooked before they attain their peak. Some recipes even call for underripe pears, particularly if the preparation entails peeling. Poaching is the classic technique in this case. Baking also remedies underripe pears.
Of course, corpulent Comice — aka "Royal Riviera" — is the ultimate eating pear, perfect on cheese plates or — if still a bit firm — this classic tart. While the season supplies all the Comice I can eat, I make a point of searching out Seckels from the few orchardists who still bother to cultivate them, given their small size. The tiniest pears, Seckels, says Eden Valley Orchards co-owner Anne Root, are "little hidden jewels."
Identified as a separate variety in the 1700s near Philadelphia, the Seckel is the sweetest pear: 18 percent sugar compared with 15 percent in a Comice or Bosc, according to David Sugar of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point. Size aside, a crimson blush cements Seckels' "cutest pear" persona. Tucking a few amid some sprigs of grapes and wedges of cheese makes for unparalleled presentation.
Reach Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, The Whole Dish, at www.mailtribune.com/wholedish, see her Facebook page or follow thewholedish on Twitter.