Pity the pear. Its cousin, the apple, got all the lead roles in history. Pears, after all, played no part in the Garden of Eden or the discovery of Newtonian physics. And whoever heard of Johnny Pearseed?
For a brief historical moment, however -- in Colonial America -- pears rivaled apples in popularity. They were used to make wine, sauce, preserves, and even a sort of hard cider. Now, it's nice to report that this bulbous fruit is currently staging a comeback.
There is good reason, of course. Pears are delectable not only in desserts, but also in soups, poultry and vegetable dishes.
Some of the hard-flesh varieties, like Seckels and Asian pears, also are good in salads. Then there's cheese, particularly goat cheese and brie, which when teamed with pears is another way to enhance this flavorsome fruit.
There are more than 3,000 varieties of pears around the world. They can be grouped into two broad classes: the soft-fleshed European varieties and the hard-fleshed pears from the Orient. Soft-fleshed pears include the Comice, Bartlett and Anjou, while the hard types include Seckel and Asian pears.
The Comice pear, also called red pear, is the crown prince of the peardom. Its bright red skin (occasionally, you'll find a green-skinned one) covers a fine white flesh that's as fragrant as perfume. Most of our Comice pears come from Oregon's Hood River Valley, where they are picked by hand and individually packaged. The Comice pear is excellent both for cooking and eating out of hand.
The Bartlett, most widely grown pear in the United States, was imported from England in the 18th century and named for one Enoch Bartlett, a merchant from Dorchester, Mass. (In Europe, the Bartlett is known as the Williams.) The Bartlett pear has a yellow skin (sometimes tinged with red) and sweet fragrant juice reminiscent of muscatel wine.
The Anjou, which takes its name from a town in the Loire Valley of France, is a large pear with a short neck and yellow-green skin. Its smooth-textured flesh has spicy, almost winy aftertaste.
The Bosc pear is recognizable by its long tapering neck and russet skin. The texture is slightly grainy, the flavor mildly acidic.
The Seckel pear is a small, crisp, hard pear named for the Philadelphia farmer who first grew it. The skin is russet or green-brown; the neck is slender, like a Bosc pear. The flesh is snappy and crisp with a grainy, almost sandy consistency. They begin to appear at the market in September and are all but gone by Thanksgiving. They are good for pickling and canning.
The Asian pear is a relative newcomer to the American larder, but it has been grown in the Orient for centuries. Round as an apple, the Asian pear has a green-brown skin speckled with russet. An audibly crisp texture is its main virtue, as the flavor is rather bland.
Anjou, Bosc and, to a lesser extent, Comice pears are available year round, but they are at their best in autumn. Seckel pears can only be found in the fall. Most pears are picked under-ripe: let them ripen at room temperature until fragrant and palpably soft.
Pears for pies should be soft and ripe: if you don't have time to let a green pear ripen, poach it in a simple syrup until tender.
After peeling pears, rub them with cut lemon to prevent discoloration. To core, cut the fruit in half and use a melon baller to scrape out the seeds.
RIPE PEARS WITH BRANDIED GOAT CHEESE (4 servings)
This recipe was inspired by fromageon, a traditional Gascon dish made with goat cheese, sugar and Armagnac. Use a soft, mild goat cheese, like Monterey chevre or Montrachet.
2 very ripe pears
1/4 pound soft, mild goat cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 tablespoon Armaganc or cognac
Freshly grated nutmeg
Peel the pears and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the core with a melon baller or paring knife. Rub the pears with cut lemon to prevent them from discoloring.
Just before serving, prepare the cheese mixture. Cream the cheese in a bowl with a wooden spoon or whisk. Add in the sugar and Armagnac and beat until smooth.
Using a piping bag fitted with a star tip, pipe a rosette of cheese mixture into each pear half. (Alternatively, place a spoonful of cheese mixture in each pear.) Grate a little nutmeg over each pear and serve at once.
Note: the sugar has a tendency to make the cheese melt. It is important that you serve this dish right away.
Per serving: 219 calories, 3 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 173 mg sodium.
DUCK AND PEAR RAGOUT (4 servings)
I first tasted this dish at the La Varenne cooking school in Paris. The best fruit for this dish is a ripe Comice pear. Poire Williams is pear brandy -- if unavailable, substitute cognac.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon oil
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup veal or beef stock
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon Poire Williams or cognac
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Cut the duck in quarters: two leg/thigh sections and two breast/wing sections. Lightly score the duck skin with a paring knife, but do not cut into the meat. Discard any pieces of fat. Season the duck with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the duck pieces, skin-side down, and cook for 5 to 6 minutes per side, or until thoroughly browned. Pour off the fat as it accumulates in the pan. Reduce heat and cook duck pieces for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until cooked. Transfer the duck to a platter and keep warm. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of fat.
Meanwhile, peel, quarter and core pears. Rub with cut lemon to prevent discoloring. Brown pears in duck fat in skillet over high heat. Discard fat from pan and add brown sugar and butter. Cook over high heat for 1 minute, or until sugar begins to caramelize. Add vinegar and stand back: Mixture will hiss and sputter. Stir with a whisk until sugar and pan juices are completely dissolved.
Add the stock and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the pears are tender. Transfer the pears to the platter. Dissolve the cornstarch in the Poire Williams. Whisk this mixture into the sauce and simmer for 30 seconds. Correct the seasoning, adding salt, pepper and Poire Williams to taste.
Just before serving, warm the duck and pears in the sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once.
Per serving: 978 calories, 44 gm protein, 32 gm carbohydrates, 74 gm fat, 26 gm saturated fat, 206 mg cholesterol, 394 mg sodium.
HOT PEAR SOUFFLE
This hot souffle' is simplicity itself, consisting of fresh pear pure'e leavened with beaten egg whites. If Poire Williams is unavailable, substitute Calvados or apricot brandy.
1 pound ripe pears
5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon Poire Williams
5 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Butter and additional sugar for the souffle' dish
Peel, core and dice pears. Pure'e them with 3 tablespoons sugar and lemon juice in a food processor. Place pure'e in a saucepan and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, or until about 1 cup remains. Dissolve cornstarch in the Poire Williams. Stir this mixture into pure'e and boil for 30 seconds. Correct seasoning, adding sugar and lemon juice, to taste.
Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the cream of tartar after 20 seconds. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar as the whites stiffen. Stir 1/4 of the whites into the hot pear pure'e. Gently fold this mixture into the remaining whites with a rubber spatula.
Thickly butter a 5-cup souffle' dish and sprinkle with sugar. Spoon the pear mixture into the souffle' dish. Smooth the top of the souffle' with a wet spatula and run your thumbs around the inside edge of the dish to prevent the souffle' from sticking.
In a preheated 400-degree oven, bake souffle' 15 to 20 minutes or until puffed and cooked to taste. (To tell when souffle' is done, poke the side of the dish: souffle' should be firm on the outer edge but slightly wiggly in the center. Serve immediately.
Note: For heightened drama, you can flambe' before serving. Warm a few tablespoons of Poire Williams in a saucepan and ignite it with a match. Make a hole in the center of the souffle, using two spoons, and pour in the flaming brandy.
Per serving: 262 calories, 5 gm protein, 36 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium.
-- Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.