Cook Asian pears at your peril
By David Hagedorn,
Here’s what you end up with when you try three times to make a savory gratin using Asian pears: something else entirely.
In a stubborn attempt to bring a bad idea to fruition, I ignored the advice I often dispensed when I was a restaurant chef. “The reason why this hasn’t been done before is because it has been done before,” I’d say, leaving the cooks to intuit the rest of the critique. “And it was awful.”
How I came to experiment with Asian pears was serendipitous. Last month, I attended the taping of a radio show at Poste Moderne Brasserie. On every table were large, unblemished Asian pears, one of my favorite fall fruits.
These pears bore no resemblance to the pale, bruised specimens typically found in grocery stores. They came from Subarashii Kudamono (“wonderful fruit” in Japanese), an orchard in eastern Pennsylvania begun in the 1970s by Joel Spira, an Asian pear enthusiast and inventor of the electronic dimmer. With his botanist wife, Ruth, Spira developed and patented five of the 10 varieties of Asian pear he grows and sells.
I ordered various samples, plus derivative products: golden dried Asian pear slices and extra dark dried slices; and a concentrated, caramelized spread with the consistency of applesauce and the color of wine-infused Marmite.
Asian pears differ from European pears in that they are ripe when harvested and are meant to be crunchy. Tasting the various ilks of Subarashii fruit convinced me the Asian pear could be the love child between a pear and jicama with some melon thrown in. Its flesh is cool, crisp, juicy and firm, with diverse notes.
I found the varieties basically interchangeable. Some were denser than others; some were floral, where others evoked butterscotch or apple.
Asian pears, a common ingredient in Korean barbecue marinades, contain enzymes that tenderize meat. That was the driving force behind my recipe for a Thai skirt steak salad. The idea was to use Asian pear in the meat marinade and as one of the ingredients in the salad. I peeled and cored one and pureed it with fish sauce and soy sauce for salt and body, seasoned rice vinegar for acid and toasted sesame oil for flavor.
The predominant flavoring was Thai red curry paste, which added hot chili zing, lemon grass and ginger in one ingredient instead of three. I chose beef skirt steak, a thin, affordable cut from the flank, known to be both flavorful and tough. This would test the marinade’s mettle.
I marinated two eight-ounce rectangles of steak in some of the pear puree, then seared them in a hot, lightly oiled cast-iron skillet. I blotted the meat dry on paper towels first so the sugar in the marinade wouldn’t burn.
The Asian pear did not discolor or denature the protein in the same way that acid-based marinades do. The meat was definitely tender after an hour; a half-hour wasn’t sufficient and two hours weren’t necessary. You always have to take into account the size of what you are marinating. A thin piece of beef shouldn’t take more than an hour.
I opted for standard ingredients you might find in a Thai salad: blanched green beans (I wound up preferring thin asparagus tips — more flavor), red bell pepper julienne, shredded Savoy cabbage (more delicate than white cabbage, less stalky than Napa), red onions, scallions and cilantro stems, much more flavor-packed than the leaves.
The next day, I refashioned leftovers into a Thai curry by warming the salad in a wok with hot coconut milk mixed with extra curry paste, adding the beef at the end. The idea was to get the ingredients hot enough but not overcook already-cooked components. I served the dish over brown rice.
Sticking with the salad theme, I made an arugula salad with thin shavings of Asian pear and dressed it in a light blue cheese dressing with bacon. No reinventing the wheel here; just giving it a different rim. The idea was to use the fruit as you might shaved fennel in a salad.
Confidently, I embarked on a gratin — no matter that I knew Asian pears were watery and notoriously resistant to cooking. Their cell structure just doesn’t break down like that of other fruits. But still I sought to tame the beast.
I wanted to treat the pears like potatoes. I kept the slices round (using a mandoline and then a cookie cutter to remove cores), poached them slightly in heavy cream, stacked them (my neat slices broke as I did this) in a gratin dish rubbed with ginger, as you would with garlic for a potato gratin. Adding Gruyere cheese, I deduced, would impart a savory edge. I put the casserole on a lined baking sheet and awaited my bubbly, creamy glory.
After 45 minutes, a knife stuck into the center indicated the pears were still crunchy. Same thing 15 minutes later. After another 15 minutes, I just took it out of the oven. There was so much water in it, the pears had drowned and the Gruyere had curdled. The pears were still not soft.
Okay, I could fix all that. For the next try, I used fewer pears, sliced them thinner, halved and coated them with cornstarch, a la apple pie. I used one cup of cream instead of three. Result: The liquid was thicker, but still thinner than I wanted.
For the third try, I added layers of brioche crumbs (to absorb more liquid and hopefully make attractive striations in the gratin), even more cornstarch and double the cheese, as if it would all magically transform into a luscious Mornay sauce.
Well, it looked lovely. As I attempted to remove a neatly cut stack of it, the fruit slices slid off their foundation like a California house.
I didn’t even taste it.
So here’s the deal. Unless you’re cooking Asian pears to death and concentrating their flavor, as in a jam, it’s not worth the effort. The fruit’s subtle, haunting flavor disappears and its effect, like its texture, becomes uninteresting.
If ever there was a lesson in “less is more” to be learned, this was it.
My thoughts turned to the tuna tartare I had recently tasted in a restaurant, which had diced Asian pear in it, little bursts of crunch and brightness.
I ran to the store, bought large, pristine sea scallops and made a simple relish by cutting neat half-inch cubes of Asian pear and tossing them in pureed Asian pear seasoned with minced jalapeno, salt, lime juice and seasoned rice vinegar for sweetness and acid. That was it.
I lined up ultra-thin slices of scallop, topped them with relish (the enzyme and acid would “cook” the scallop a bit, I reasoned, like seviche) and finished them with piles of grated red radish skin and a dash of chili oil.
Five simple bites that brought both the scallop and the pear to light in blissful harmony.
The idea I had for the dried fruit, to make Newton filling from them and use gingerbread dough to envelop it, worked out as I had hoped. I cooked the dried fruit with enough water, Asian pear dessert wine, pear spread and cardamom to puree it into a thick filling.
I researched all kinds of gingerbreads and formed my own recipe, coming up with the right balance of shortness (the richness from butter) and durability. The dough needed to be pliable enough to roll around the filling without breaking and remain soft after baking. An egg provided protein binder and added moisture.
I employed a Martha Stewart method to form the Newtons. I rolled the dough into a rectangle, piped filling down the center, sealed the rolled log with egg wash and patted it into a squared-off shape.
They turned out beautifully. Fearing that the spices in the dough would overpower the pear filling, I was too timid the first time out.
Reviewing my hits and misses, I decided that I deserved a cocktail. So I made one, using Subarashii Kudamono Asian pear dessert wine as a base. To enhance its pear essence, I added pear juice, a soupcon of freshly grated ginger and vodka (a neutral alcohol), shook it over ice and strained it into a martini glass. For a garnish, two balls of fresh Asian pear on a bamboo skewer, to resemble cocktail onions.
I tested the cocktail several times, to get the proportions right, of course. Immensely satisfied with the outcome, I amended a prior credo: Sometimes the reason something hasn’t been done before is because no one has thought of it yet.
All the Asian pear products used in the accompanying recipes are available at www.wonderfulfruit.com. Dried Asian pears are available at some Whole Food Markets and dessert wine and Asian pear wine are available at Central Liquor in Washington. Hagedorn will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: firstname.lastname@example.org.