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A taste of pear-fection

Curvaceous, sweet, in an array of colors from bright green to tawny red to sunset yellow and with an unusual texture that changes as it ripens, the pear may be one of the most beautiful and satisfying of winter fruits.

Pears are versatile, a tasty addition to salads, main dishes or desserts, and they are a good source of vitamin C, providing 10 percent of the daily requirement. They’re also an excellent source of fiber, providing 24 percent of the daily requirement.

Most common varieties of pears originated in Europe, specifically France and Belgium, which is one reason pears are a favorite ingredient in French cuisine. At Pastiche Bistro and Wine Bar, a French-style cafe in Milwaukee, chef-owner Michael Engel is definitely a fan, describing the pear’s unique taste and texture as unctuous or buttery, setting the pear above its more pedestrian companion winter fruit, the apple.

“Pears have a distinct mouth-feel,” he says. “Apples are kind of boring that way; they always feel the same. A pear will move around in your mouth a little, and you’ll taste different things, just like a good wine.”

But pears can be frustrating because they are picked “green” and must sit out on the counter for a day or two, or longer, to reach peak ripeness. This delayed gratification makes it difficult to plan a meal around pears if the dish depends on the pear being perfectly ripe.

For impatient cooks, however, an advantage of pears is they can be used in certain recipes before they are ripe and still produce fine taste.

Underripe pears can be poached in simple syrup, left plain or favored with sweet spices, and emerge with their characteristically smooth texture.

Served with a bit of whipped cream, ice cream or caramel sauce, the poached pear is an elegant dessert — and takes less than half an hour. What’s more, poached pears are almost impossible to ruin, given the fruit’s stable culinary properties.

The best way to test for ripeness is to apply gentle pressure to the neck of the pear. If it yields, then the pear is ready to eat. Pears ripen from the inside out; waiting until the body of the pear is soft will mean the pear is overripe for eating, but it may still be suitable for some cooking applications.

Once pears ripen, they can be placed in the fridge to slow the process and extend their shelf life.

Pears take to spices and flavorings well and with a consistency that Engel appreciates in his busy commercial kitchen.

He can always rely on his pear tartes tatin to come out well every time; his apple tartes tatin, on the other hand, can be problematic.

“Apples are tricky. There are so many different kinds of apples, they have different properties . . . they’re more inconsistent.”

His recipe for caramel and poached pear semolina cake, based on a traditional French dessert, is elegant and satisfying, Engel says. The “addition of poached pears brings out the flavor of the rest of the ingredients in a nice, round manner.”

Caramel and Poached Pear Semolina Cake

The poached pears can be done a day ahead

4 ripe pears, peeled, halved and cored

1 bottle (750 liters) of sweet white wine such as riesling

2 1/2 cups sugar (divided)

2 vanilla beans, split in half and scraped well

Zest and juice of 1 orange (zest in long strips)

Zest and juice of 1 lemon (zest in long strips)

4 star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

Pinch of ground cardamom

3/4 cup golden raisins

3 cups whole milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup farina or Cream of Wheat

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

Caramel:

1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup water

Place pears in a large saucepan with wine, 2 cups sugar, vanilla beans and seeds, orange and lemon zests and juices, anise, cinnamon and cardamom. Liquid should cover pears. (Don't worry about having too much as it can be reused either for pears or fruit compote.)

Bring pears to a simmer and cook until tender, about 20 minutes, depending on their size and ripeness. It is better to overcook them slightly than to undercook them. When done, set aside to cool.

To make cake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Warm a 9-inch cake pan by placing it in the oven as it preheats.

Plump raisins by soaking them in water to cover for at least 30 minutes or in boiling water to cover for 10 minutes. Drain before using.

In medium saucepan, bring milk and salt to a simmer, then add farina or Cream of Wheat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Continue to stir, making sure mixture doesn't scorch, until it thickens. Remove from heat, add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and vanilla extract and let cool about 15 minutes.

Make caramel: Place ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring only enough to moisten sugar as mixture comes to a boil. Increase heat to high, and as sugar begins to brown, gently swirl pan to make sure it caramelizes evenly.

Be careful, as mixture is very hot and will stick to your skin if it spatters.

When caramel is a deep amber color, remove from heat and continue with main cake recipe.

Pour caramel into warmed cake pan, tilting pan around to coat bottom evenly. Pat pears dry and arrange on bottom of prepared cake pan, cut side up, with stem end toward center and bottom end toward rim.

Stir beaten eggs and golden raisins into cooked farina or Cream of Wheat mixture.

Scrape mixture over pears in cake pan and bake until a knife or toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cake rest in pan 10 to 15 minutes, then run a knife around inside of pan to loosen. Invert it, still in pan, onto serving plate.

Carefully remove pan and let cake cool to room temperature. Serve with sweetened whipped cream or ice cream (vanilla, butter pecan or pear ice cream).

Makes one 9-inch cake.

-- The Wichita Eagle—03/02/11

Roasted Pear and Delicata Squash Soup with Parmesan Croutons

This velvety smooth soup can be made up to 3 days ahead.

2 lbs. Delicata squash or butternut squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeded

2 firm but ripe D'Anjou or Bartlett pears, cut in half lengthwise and cored

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups canned low-sodium chicken broth (divided)

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cups 1/2-inch cubes of French or rustic white bread, crusts removed

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush flesh of squash and pears with olive oil and place, cut side down, on rimmed baking sheet. Roast in preheated oven until tender when pierced with a fork, about 30 to 35 minutes. Leave oven on.

Use a spoon to scrape out flesh of squash and pears, and put in food processor fitted with a metal blade. Discard skins. Puree until smooth. Add 1 to 2 cups of chicken broth and continue processing until smooth. Put this mixture in a 3 1/2- to 4-quart saucepan and add remaining chicken broth with cream, nutmeg, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, to make croutons, place bread cubes in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, add Parmesan, and toss until thoroughly coated. Spread in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until toasty brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, ladle soup into soup tureen or individual soup bowls, garnish with croutons, and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

-- The Wichita Eagle—03/02/11

Breakfast Pear Smoothie

1 ripe pear, cored and chopped

1 large orange, peeled

1/2 cup vanilla soy milk

1 cup ice

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until thick.

Makes 2 servings

-- The Wichita Eagle—03/02/11

Bibb Lettuce Salad with Gorgonzola and Fresh Pear Dressing

3 large ripe Bartlett pears (divided)

1/3 cup water

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon fresh tarragon or scant 1/4 teaspoon dried

1 to 2 tablespoons cider vinegar (divided)

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (divided)

2 to 3 heads bibb lettuce, rinsed and dried

1 cup (about 4 oz.) crumbled Gorgonzola or blue cheese

1/2 cup dried cranberries

Peel, core, and chop 1 pear. Place those pear pieces, water, sugar and tarragon in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until pear pieces are soft, about 5 minutes, depending on ripeness of pear. Do not let all the water evaporate. Cool.

Pour pear and liquid into a blender and blend until smooth. Add some vinegar and lemon juice to taste. Taste and adjust sugar and acid to make a sweet-tart dressing, adding a little water if needed to thin. Refrigerate until cold.

Core and thinly slice remaining 2 pears. For each serving, arrange 3 to 4 lettuce leaves on a salad plate. Top each with some sliced pear, 2 to 3 tablespoons Gorgonzola, some of the dried cranberries, and drizzle with 2 tablespoons dressing. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

-- The Wichita Eagle—03/02/11

Fresh D'Anjou Pear Tart

3 oz. almond paste

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

2 eggs

3/4 cup hazelnuts, roasted and ground

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 prepared 9-inch tart shell

4 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted

4 firm, ripe D'Anjou pears, peeled, cored and sliced about 1/4-inch thick

Juice of 1 lemon

4 oz. apricot preserves, melted and strained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together almond paste and sugar. Add butter and mix until smooth. Add eggs, mixing well after each addition. Add ground hazelnuts and vanilla and mix. Brush melted chocolate on bottom of prepared tart shell and pour in filling. Bake in preheated oven 35 to 40 minutes, until filling is lightly browned and set in center.

Cool tart on rack. When tart is cooled, toss pear slices gently with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. Arrange pear slices in concentric circles on tart. Brush completed tart with strained apricot preserves. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

-- The Wichita Eagle—03/02/11

Blue Cheese Foam With D'Anjou Pear

5 oz. blue cheese

2 cups heavy cream

Salt, pepper

1 red d'Anjou pear

2 cups good quality port

Crumble the blue cheese and mix with heavy cream. Use an emulsion blender to blend until creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon blue cheese mixture into pastry bag fitted with tip of choice.

Reduce port down to 1 1/2 cups. Slice pear into 16 thin slices. Pipe blue cheese foam onto each pear slice, and top with a small amount of port reduction. Makes 16 appetizer servings

-- The Wichita Eagle—03/02/11

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