Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pear-shaped Prose

Pear Trees, Gustav Klimt, 1903

One afternoon in our first year in Sumas, we arrived home from some errands to see a pickup in the driveway and a man’s legs up a ladder in our pasture. The rest of him was obscured by foliage. Completely unabashed when we walked over and introduced ourselves, he said he came every year to pick from “the best Bartlett tree in Whatcom County.” Sumas was like that. Another neighbor made an annual spring visit to harvest the impressive mole hills in our front yard. She said they provided the ideal potting soil--rich loam, brought to the surface and aerated by the work of those little mole feet--and she was right.

Certainly we had pears to spare: two giant Bartletts and a couple of winter Seckels overwhelmed us annually. Pear trees can easily bear for more than a century. Ours had been going strong for more than fifty years. Compared to apples with their pruning demands, and cherries with their proneness to wind damage and disease, pears are one of less troublesome tree fruits in NW Washington.

If there are problems, they are likely to come at the other end. Few people find fresh pears as addictively snackable as cherries, and they are more fragile and keep less well than apples. In the Sumas years we dried them, baked them, canned them, made cider both hard and sweet--and most years also took wheelbarrows full of wasp-munched windfalls to the cows and the hogs. (The chickens didn’t like them much.)

Washington grows more than a third of the pears produced commercially in the U.S., mostly in the Yakima Valley. Western Washington has relatively little commercial pear presence, but lots and lots of backyard trees, including one variety, the Orcas, that was identified on Orcas Island in 1972 and is sold through Cloud Mountain Farm among other specialty nurseries.

A February pear roundup
A couple of weeks ago I bought the Washington-grown varieties available at the Food Co-op that day and took them to my journalism class at Nooksack Valley High School. As a descriptive writing exercise, the students had to describe their impressions without any “opinion words”: no yummy, yucky, gross, tasty, nasty, scrumptious, etc. “But Ms. Morgan,” wailed one sophomore. “That’s my whole vocabulary!” Herewith, a selection of their impressions:

Bosc -- tough inside, encased in thick skin, no juice, hidden flavor, it kind of reminded me of what trees smell like in the summer, crunchy, mild, slightly sweet.

D’Anjou -- bursting juice, smooth skin; dissolves in mouth, very soft, smells like leaves, grainy, very sweet

Red d’Anjou -- rough skin, calm flavor, apple tasting, not a long-lasting taste, slightly bitter, grassy at first, sweet aftertaste, grainy; leaves the tongue evaporated

Concorde -- smooth inside, thick skin, slight juice similar to Red d’anjou, you can smell the sweetness, it’s soft and a little mushy but a little grainy, Smooth and subtle.

A couple of recipes
One way to establish your “longtime local foodie” kitchen cred is to haul out your copy of the Bellingham Farmers Market Cookbook from 1981. That’s back when the market was leading a hardscrabble existence over at the bus terminal, and we decided to compile a cookbook as a fundraiser. Gretchen Hoyt of Alm Hill Gardens was on that committee (as was I), which reminds me how long Ben and Gretchen have worked to promote sustainable local farming. Other familiar names in the local food scene include Lynn Berman, Holmquist Hazelnuts and Binda Colebrook.

Like most of the recipes in that funky comb-bound volume, this one for Stuffed Pears is simple and adaptable:

3 pears
3 tablespoons dried fruit
2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Peel, halve and core pears. Mix nuts, fruit, and lemon juice and fill pear cavity. Make a light sugar syrup with the 1/2 cup of water, or cook down 1/2 cup pear juice to form a light syrup. Place pears gently in syrup. Cover pan and steam pears 10-15 minutes until tender but not mushy. (Better undercooked than overcooked.) Remove pears. Thicken syrup with cornstarch and pour over pears.

My idea of the perfect pear pairing is a Comice with Roquefort. The sweet creaminess of my favorite pear matched with the even creamier texture and pungent bite of the cheese--oh my.

Here’s a different and admittedly weird-sounding pear/cheese combo, which I borrowed from Mediterranean Harvest (with attribution) to use in Winter Harvest. It’s good.

Côte d’Azur Tart

1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted (you could substitute local hazelnuts)
1 1/2 cups chopped Swiss chard
2 tablespoons currants or raisins, soaked in 3 tablespoons dark rum (optional) for 20 minutes
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
pinch of black pepper
3 cups peeled, cored, and sliced firm pears, apples or a combination of the two
pastry for a double-crust, 9-inche pie

Preheat oven to 375. Toast pine nuts or hazelnuts lightly in an ungreased skillet over medium heat and set aside.

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan, add chard, and cook, covered, over medium heat for 10 minutes, Drain and squeeze out all excess water once chard is cool enough to handle. (The chardy water is a good start for a vegetable stock.) Combine all remaining ingredients except the pears/apples in a large mixing bowl, then blend in the chard.

Smooth chard mixture evenly across bottom of pie shell and cover with fruit slices. Roll out remaining dough and cover pie, pressing to join edges. Prick top crust to let steam escape. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, until crust is browned and filling firm. Cover top crust with foil if it brown before filling is ready. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6

P.S. I’m only talking about European pears in this post. I’m no expert on the Asian varieties, though I find them beautiful, and their light, crunchy flesh refreshing.


wahine said...

Loved the students' descriptions, but no "Comice?" Cloud Mountain stopped selling them for about 5 years after a pretty rough storm took Tom's trees, but they were available in his barn again last fall. My mother-in-law sends me a case for Thanksgiving...I eat them almost all by myself and I can make them last through the middle of January. I think they are the juciest of all!

Lanester said...

Hi Wahine,

I'm with you on Comice--the juiciest, creamiest most wonderful pear. There weren't any at the co-op the day I was shopping for class.