The Bartlett pear is one humble piece of fruit.

Its thin skin is freckled and sometimes scarred. Its color goes from seasick green to a more garish yellow. And no one wants a "pear-shaped" body.

But bite into a Bartlett and let nature take hold: Sweet juice shoots through your mouth. The fruit's flesh is meltingly smooth. And whether eaten out of hand or coiffed and styled into a variety of dishes and desserts, the pear is perfect when at its peak--no matter how it looks.

"When you get them at their ripest, I love the flavor," says Hugo Molina, who uses pears every day at the restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., that bears his name. "I think it's the natural juices that I love the most."

A medium-sized pear offers 4 grams of fiber and, like other fruits and vegetables, is low in fat.

California Bartletts are flowing from the trees this season, thanks to a cool, dry spring and late summer that have produced an abundant crop. Typically, California grows 60 percent of the nation's Bartletts, mostly from the Sacramento River delta, Upper Sacramento Valley and the Mendocino coast; this year growers predict a 10 percent increase in supply. The pear harvest began in mid-July, about a week later than normal, and is nearing the end. Pears are picked mature but still green. They will soften and develop their full color and flavor only off the tree. That means good-quality Bartletts should remain in markets through November, coming from cold storage.

"We try to get consumers to look beyond the outside; often the skin is just one aspect of the complete pear experience," says Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board, whose Web site describes pears as "voluptuous."

"The big difference this year is the visual quality of the fruit--we've had no weather damage. And the cooler weather helps produce a high level of sugar. Naturally they're already sweet, but this year they have an extra boost."

No wonder the Bartlett is a favorite of chefs, who have expanded it from its traditional role in desserts to supporting spots in appetizers, salads and main dishes.

Like most staples, a Bartlett isn't too demanding. Soak it in water with a little lemon juice after you slice it to keep it from browning. Cook it just enough, and it will hold its shape and texture and not fall apart unless overdone.