Veggie of the Week - Pears
sponsored by Coleman Farms
It's probably a couple of hot spells to go until the season of mellow fruitfulness is upon us, yet pears are beginning to appear in the Farmers' Market, and few things are as mellow and fruity as a pear.
Pears are a lot like tomatoes: they're acid and sweet, juicy and versatile. A look at the calpear and usapears websites will show you a vast range of recipes, for things you might not ordinarly associate with pears. They can, for instance, easily substitute for tomatoes in a salad - though you might want to tweak the dressing (more acid, less complexity) and add some nuts or smelly cheese. One of the nicest pizzas I ever had featured pears, nuts and some kind of blue or green cheese. Or imagine Pear Salsa: diced pears together with fine-diced red onion and chiles, maybe a bit of fresh ginger and cilantro, moistened with orange juice. But, like a fresh heirloom tomato, a really good pear eaten out of hand is hard to beat. This can be messy, since some pears, such as the Bartlett's I'm eating now, can be as juicy and sweet as watermelon (or sweeter, even).
Pears, like apples, have a long natural season, because different varieties ripen at different times, and a given variety will ripen at different times in different growing environments. Thus, you may find a particular variety at the Market for three weeks to a month, though not necessarily at the same vendor; and pears of some kind should be available into the period when the weather tells you it's the season of mellow fruitfulness, if it decides to this year, Santa Barbara weather being as unpredictable as it is.
Pear varieties differ in size and shape from the squat Bartlett to the svelte Comice and Anjou to the skinny Bosc. These are all European pears, Pyrus communis; there's also the jonathan-shaped Asian Pear, which is, fittingly, an asian pear, Pyrus pyrifolia. Pear varieties differ as much in flavor and eating quality, some being soft and buttery, some being a bit crunchy and gritty - qualities exaggerated in the Asian Pear - some concentrating their flavor on sweetness and some displaying surprising complexity, including shades of honey, wine and lillies, with suggestions of spices such as cinnamon, mace and vanilla.
Pears have a narrow window of ripeness, something like a banana's. The Bartletts in the photo, for example, are edible now, but the riper (more yellow) ones will be tender and very juicy and sweet, whereas the greener ones will be noticeably crunchy and maybe a little astringent. Given a few more days, they'll yellow and sweeten nicely, provided they haven't been picked too early; a few more days still and they'll turn mushy and insipid, with the predominant flavor being that of the slightly bitter skin. This pattern is shared by most pears, though the timing may differ. In any case, you want to keep a close eye on them, and beware that at least some pears ripen from the inside, so that color and sheen should be important indicators of ripeness, though 'slightly soft around the stem' is suggested by some authorities.
Mellow Fruitfulness, other views