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Living and cooking in pear-a-dise

Eating a pear that has been properly grown, ripened and stored can be one of life's most fabulous culinary experiences.

And except for the apple, I can’t think of a single other fruit that is so complementary to both sweet and savory sidekicks. Be it cheese, pork, chocolate or creme Anglaise, the humble pear plays its role to perfection. And with a late-harvest Gewurztraminer or fine, sweet Sauternes, well, the experience is truly grand.

But to achieve such culinary drama, you have to take some care at the front end. Unlike other tree fruits, pears achieve their best flavor and smoothest texture when ripened off the tree. Tree-ripened specimens tend to develop an unpleasant sort of graininess and mediocre taste.

This off-tree ripening process requires patience, and it proceeds best at room temperature. And since they ripen from the inside out, if you're not vigilant, it's easy to miss a pear's peak performance. Most varieties have very little color change as they ripen, so the best test is to cradle the fruit gently and test it for firmness — or the lack thereof. When the stem end yields to gentle pressure from your thumb, the pear is ripe. At this stage, it will also give off a heavenly aroma.

If you feel compelled to hasten the ripening process, you can place the fruit in a paper bag to trap the pear's natural ripening agent, ethylene gas, as it's emitted from the fruit. To slow down the process — at least for a couple of days — or to maintain it once it's ripened to the desired state, place it in the refrigerator.

Certainly, local pears can be found in just about every state. But as you probably know, Oregon and Washington provide 84 percent of the nation’s fresh crop. For lots of ideas and recipes, go to www.usapears.org.

Meanwhile, in order to have a plentiful supply through the weeks ahead, pick up a box full very soon and start the ripening process in your own kitchen.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Pears, Wild Rice and Toasted Hazelnuts

3 acorn or dumpling squash

Freshly ground pepper

freshly ground nutmeg

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup wild rice

1-1/2 cups chicken broth (canned is OK)

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 large rib celery, finely chopped

2 firm pears (preferably Bosc or Anjou), peeled, halved lengthwise, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 teaspoons minced fresh sage

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves

1/3 cup minced fresh parsley

1/3 cup raw hazelnut kernels, toasted and chopped hazelnuts (see note below)

1/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut each squash in half crosswise. Scoop out the seeds and strings. If necessary, trim the top and bottom so that the squash sit firmly and place them on a rimmed baking sheet, flesh side up. Sprinkle each half with a little pepper and nutmeg to taste. Using 3 tablespoons of the butter, dot each half with some. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake the squash just until moist and tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the rice, chicken broth, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender, about 40 minutes. When the rice is done, most of the water should be evaporated.

Meanwhile, in a 10-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Swirl to coat the pan, then saute the onion, garlic, celery, and carrot until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the pears and saute 2 minutes longer. Cover the pan, adjust the heat to medium-low and cook the mixture until the vegetables are just crisp-tender, about 3 minutes longer. Add the sage, thyme and parsley and cook 1 more minute. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice, sauteed vegetables, pears, hazelnuts and cranberries. Adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste, if desired. Mound the rice mixture into the squash halves, dividing it evenly. Cut the remaining tablespoon of butter into six chunks. Dot each stuffed squash with the butter. Cover with foil and bake in a 350-degree oven until heated through, about 20 minutes.

Toasting hazelnuts: Place the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn. Remove from the oven and tumble out onto a clean dish towel. Rub the nuts to remove the brittle outer skin.

— Recipe adapted from Pear Bureau Northwest

Pear-Cranberry Crumble

Crumble Topping:

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup old-fashioned (not quick cooking) oats

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

Pinch of salt

13 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and well chilled

Filling:

5 cups peeled, cored and sliced pears

3/4 cup dried cranberries, plumped in hot water (or rum)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch of kosher salt

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Vanilla ice cream (optional, but delicious)

To prepare the topping, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar and salt. Using a mixer, beat in the cold butter and mix on low speed until the topping just begins to come together and resembles large bits of chunky dough. Transfer the topping to a shallow container, breaking it up a bit. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To prepare the filling, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the pears, cranberries, lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, salt and flour. Toss the ingredients lightly to coat evenly and pour into a 1-1/2 quart shallow baking dish. Top with the crumble topping, breaking up any large clumps with your fingers and spreading it evenly. At this point, there may be areas that aren’t completely covered with topping, but don’t worry because it will spread a bit as it bakes. Bake until the topping begins to brown and the filling is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Remove the crumble from the oven and let it cool somewhat before serving. Delicious with vanilla ice cream.

Makes about 8 servings.

— Adapted from “Bistro Cooking At Home,” by Gordon Hamersley

Upside-Down Pear Ginger Cake

Fruit Layer:

3 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 ripe pears

Cake:

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 cup water

2/3 cup unsulphured molasses

1 tablespoon grated orange zest, optional

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Big pinch of ground cloves

2 large eggs, beaten

lightly whipped cream, sweetened to taste

To prepare the Fruit Layer: Melt the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup over very low heat in a flameproof 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan (the pan should be 2 inches deep), stirring until the butter has melted and blended smoothly with the sugar and syrup. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside while preparing the fruit.

To prepare the pears, peel and core. Cut the fruit into 1/4-inch wedges; overlap the wedges closely in the pan over the butter mixture; set aside.

To prepare the Cake: measure the butter and water into a saucepan; heat, stirring, just until the butter melts. Add the molasses and orange zest (if using); cool to lukewarm.

Meanwhile, sift together into a mixing bowl the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves. Add the water/butter mixture and stir just until moistened. Whisk in the eggs. Pour the batter over the fruit. Lift the pan a few inches above the counter and drop it onto the counter a time or two to settle everything snugly.

Bake the cake in a 350-degree oven 45 to 50 minutes, or until it has shrunken slightly from the sides of the pan and a cake tester emerges dry after probing the center.

Cool 5 minutes in the pan, then turn the cake out onto a serving plate. If bits of fruit stay behind in the pan, lift them with a thin spatula and fit them into place.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature, accompanied by the whipped cream.

— Recipe adapted from "Mrs. Witty's Home-Style Menu Cookbook," by Helen Witty

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com.