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.