A New Hampshire friend with a very old farmhouse and a very old pear tree had to share the harvest with a great moose who wandered out of the forest every year when the pears were at their peak. They were an ancient variety from the original orchard, with a bartlett flavor but only slightly larger than a seckel . . . seedy and bothersome to eat out of hand, but Malcolm and the moose thought they were marvelous.
Their division was fair. The animal picked only what he could reach, and Malcolm got all the rest. In fact the very best were on the top branches and he peeled, cored and poached every one in a light vanilla syrup. It was the house dessert. Plain. Not even a spoonful of sweetened cream. The clarity of the pear flavor, he said, was all.
Unique varieties like Malcolm's are common throughout pear-growing regions but, like some wines, they don't travel well. The rest of us who are dependent on the food markets must settle for whatever the growers have developed as good shippers and good keepers. Again like wine, their excellence most often depends on price. Those big, juicy, intensely perfumed pears are very, very expensive.
Yet even supermarket varieties sometimes yield rare perfumes if time and talent are devoted to the search. The trick is, when you find an unblemished, perfectly shaped half-dozen to take home, to decide which day they are at their peak. They must smell right and have a subliminal softness when held firmly in the hand. Left one day too long, the flesh turns mushy at the center and the skin toughens. It's pear roulette, and only experience gained the hard way eliminates mistakes.
A produce man asked about winter pears advised his customers as follows: "If it's a bosc, make sure that the background color beneath the russet is yellow and not green. An anjou should have a sweet aroma." Finally, he said, "Always buy the extra-fancy grade." A terse and honest answer.
Purists consider pears necessarily eaten raw for dessert, perhaps with a rich, runny chunk of cheese. But their uses go far beyond even Malcolm's house dessert. Their sweet burst adds a delicately fruited dimension to savory dishes, thus turning their subtlety to an asset.
ANTIPASTO PEAR SALAD (6 servings) 2 anchovy fillets 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon dijon-style mustard Freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil or a combination 1 tablespoon minced parsley Salt if necessary 3 firm, ripe pears 2 stalks celery, thinly sliced 6 to 8 radishes, thinly sliced 1/4 pound Genoa salami, thinly sliced 2 cups shredded mixed lettuce -- boston, romaine, chicory
In a 3-quart bowl, mash the anchovy fillets with a fork until they are reduced to a paste. Whisk in the vinegar, mustard, pepper and oil until the dressing is well combined. Stir in the parsley and taste to see if salt is necessary.
Halve and core the pears and slice thin. Add to the dressing with sliced celery and radishes and turn them all gently to coat with the dressing. Store in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour.
Cut the sliced salami into fine julienne. Line a shallow bowl with the shredded lettuce, arrange the pear salad evenly over the lettuce and sprinkle with the salami. Serve immediately.
POTATO, PEAR AND SMOKED SAUSAGE SALAD (6 to 8 servings as an hors d'oeuvre, 4 or 5 as a main course) 3 medium-size boiling potatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds 1/4 cup cider vinegar 1/4 cup oil 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 3 scallions, finely chopped (reserve some green leaves) 1/2 pound smoked sausage, preferably in natural casing 3 large, firm pears 1/2 cup sour cream 1/4 cup mayonnaise 1/2 teaspoon curry powder 1/2 head romaine
Steam potatoes until tender in a saucepan with two inches of water. Combine vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and scallions in a bowl and beat vigorously. When the potatoes are done, peel, cut in thick slices and then slice in bite-size pieces. Stir gently in the dressing to coat the potato without breaking it up. While the potatoes are cooking, boil the sausage in water to cover for 10 minutes. Remove the casing and slice thinly. Keep hot in the saucepan drained of water. Sliced unpeeled pear thinly. Combine sour cream, mayonnaise and curry powder.
Line a shallow serving bowl with the romaine. Spread the potatoes with all their dressing on the lettuce and arrange the warm sausage and pears evenly over them. Top with the curry dressing, sprinkle with reserved scallion tops, and toss gently at the table.
BAKED PORK CHOPS WITH PEARS (6 servings) 6 pork chops, 3/4- to 1-inch thick 1 clove garlic, halved 1 teaspoon rosemary Salt and pepper 1/2 cup chicken stock 3/4 cup dry marsala 3 firm pears 1/4 cup heavy cream
Trim some of the fat from the chops and render in a large skillet or shallow casserole. Add the garlic to the hot fat and saute' until it just begins to brown. Add the rosemary and stir 30 seconds. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and brown the pork chops on both sides. Salt and pepper liberally and place the pan or casserole into a 350-degree oven.
Bake for 20 minutes. Drain off all the fat and add the chicken stock and marsala. Continue to bake the chops, basting them every 5 minutes, for 20 more minutes.
Halve unpeeled pears lengthwise and remove the core with a melon baller or small spoon. Place a half pear, cut side up, on each chop and baste with the pan juices. Continue to bake and baste often until the pears are soft but still retain their shape, and the chops are done, another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove chops to a warm platter, topping each with half a baked pear. Whisk the cream into the pan juices, which will have reduced substantially, and heat. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Pour the sauce around the chops and serve immediately.
PEAR CHUTNEY (Makes about 5 cups) 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons dry mustard 1 teaspoon turmeric 1/4 teaspoon cayenne or to taste (optional) 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed 1/2 cup sugar 1 cup cider vinegar 2 pounds firm pears 1/2 cup dark seedless raisins 2 fresh hot green peppers, seeded and finely chopped, or 2 jalapeno peppers, pickled or canned, chopped
In a 3-quart saucepan, combine fresh ginger, garlic, salt, mustard, turmeric, cayenne, cumin seed, sugar and vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer together for 3 minutes over moderate heat. Wash the pears, core and cut unpeeled into 1-inch pieces. Add them to the spice mixture with the raisins and hot peppers. Simmer over moderate heat, partially covered, until the pears have softened and turned slightly transparent, about 20 minutes. Stir often. Spoon into hot clean jars, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator at least 2 days before using. If you plan to keep the chutney for any length of time, sterilize the jars.