Perfect Pears

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

Labeled "butter fruit" by Europeans, pears are members of the rose family. Like apples, they have a central core with seeds. An underrated fruit, these seasonal treasures contain more fiber, potassium, and folic acid than their apple cousins.

Wild pears originated in western Asia and were eaten in prehistoric times. They were cultivated in the Roman Empire, and later they became a favorite fruit in Italy. In seventeenth-century France, pears were so popular that more than 300 varieties were grown. Early American colonists brought tree stock cuttings from Europe, and Franciscan monks planted pear trees in California missions. There are now around 5,000 varieties throughout the world, but only a dozen or so are available to us commercially. A seasonal crop, most of the pears in the United States are grown in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Selection, Storage, Uses, and Varieties

Unlike most fruit, pears ripen better off the tree. If left on the tree to ripen, pears develop grit cells and the texture becomes mushy. They ripen from the inside out, so when choosing ripe pears, select firm, unblemished specimens that have a slight give when you press near the stem with your thumb. If you still aren't sure, ask a produce worker to help you select the best pears. If your pears are quite firm, place them in a paper bag to ripen. To hasten the process, add an apple or banana to the bag; both give off ethylene gas that accelerates ripening. Once ripe, they should be eaten immediately or stored in the refrigerator for a few days, or they will quickly become mealy. Pears destined to be cooked can be firm and not quite ripe.

Pears can be added to any recipe that calls for apples, and they can be substituted in any recipe for which you would use this fruit. Be sure to add lemon juice to prevent pears from turning brown. Fresh pears are great juiced; served raw in green, vegetable, and fruit salads; or simply sliced and spread with almond or cashew butter for a quick snack. They can be dried, canned, cooked in savory dishes, simmered in compotes, served bubbling hot in a cobbler or crisp, baked in fruit juice, grilled, or cooked and puréed then added to scones and quick or yeast breads. Look for the following popular varieties in the grocery store:

Egg-shaped with a small neck, these pears are available in both red and green varieties. Excellent for cooking and eating fresh. Anjou pears are available from October through May.
Unlike other pears, Asian pears are known for a hard, more granular flesh and a distinct crunch when bitten. They look more like apples than pears and are ready to eat when you buy them. There are many varieties, and the flavor ranges from delicate to strongly floral. I once tasted one that had a hint of butter rum flavor. Select Asian pears for their aroma, and store them for up to a month in the refrigerator. They can be cooked as well as eaten raw. The season is usually from August through November.
Red or yellow with a definite aroma, Bartlett pears range from medium to large and have a bell shape. These sweet and juicy fruits are excellent raw but also can be cooked. They do not store as well as other varieties because of their thin skins. They are available from July to January.
Brown or yellow with flecks of green, these pears are long with a narrow neck and a classic shape. The flesh is cream-colored with a buttery texture. They are sturdy and hold up well in lunch boxes, and they have an excellent flavor when cooked. Bosc pears are usually available from October through May.
A round shape with almost no neck, Comice are the sweetest and juiciest of all pears. A medium, yellowish-green pear with pink or brown speckles, the thin skin is easily damaged. These pears are best served raw. The season for Comice pears is September through March.
A Bartlett cross that is produced in Australia, Packham pears are greenish-yellow with light russet flecks. Medium-sized with small stem ends and wide irregularly shaped bottoms, these pears keep fairly well. Mostly imports, they are available from June through October.
Bite-sized with a green skin and a perfect pear shape, these little gems are wonderful dessert pears. Crisp and sweet, Seckel pears are good fresh or cooked. Poaching in a fruit juice or port wine is a terrific way to cook them. They are the perfect size for a child's lunch box, but they are really just fun to have around. They are available from September through January.

Reisling-Braised Kale and Pears With Basmati Rice

(Serves 4)

This creation is complemented well by a bean dish, such as canned, drained aduki beans simmered with acorn squash, seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with crushed sesame seeds.

  • 1-¾ to 2 cups water
  • 1 cup brown basmati rice
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 carrot, sliced thin (about 1 cup)
  • 3 cups chopped kale
  • 2 Bartlett, Anjou, or Bosc pears, cored and cut into chunks
  • ½ cup Reisling (a white wine) or water
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • Salt to taste

Bring 1 3/4 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add rice, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes. Check to see if rice is done and water is absorbed. If rice is not done but liquid has been absorbed, add 1/4 cup water and continue to simmer until done. Let rice sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

While rice cooks, prepare kale and pears. Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onions and jalapeños and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and cook until onions are soft. Add garlic, carrots, and kale. Stir and cook for a few minutes. Add pears and wine or water, stir, cover, and cook until kale is soft. Remove cover and blend in rice. Add lemon juice and salt to taste. Stir and cook until heated through.

Total calories per serving: 246 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 39 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Sweet And Spicy Yams And Pears With Toasted Pecans

(Serves 6)

The sweetness of yams and pears is balanced with lemon, cayenne, and pungent ginger. The soft purée is enhanced with the crunch of pecans for a perfectly balanced side dish.

  • 2 yams, washed, peeled, and cut into chunks (about 5-6 cups)
  • 2 Anjou or Bartlett pears, cored and cut into chunks
  • 2-3 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ cup lightly toasted, finely chopped pecans

Steam yams and pears until soft, about 10 minutes. Place in a bowl and mash with lemon juice and cayenne. Squeeze the ginger over the yam mixture so only the juice is expressed into the yams. Discard ginger pulp. Stir to blend, then add salt to taste and mix again. Mix in pecans just before serving.

Total calories per serving: 253 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 48 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 12 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Maple-Sautéed Pears

(Serves 6)

*These sweet pears are great served with vanilla soy yogurt or as a frozen dessert topping.

  • 2 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • 3 large Bosc or Anjou pears, cored and cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons maple syrup
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 Tablespoons currants, soaked in ¼ cup water

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add margarine and pears. Stir and cook until pears are soft and begin to brown on all sides. In a small bowl, combine maple syrup, almond extract, and salt. Drain water from currants. Add maple syrup mixture and currants to pears, stir, and cook for a few minutes until maple syrup begins to bubble up.

Total calories per serving: 106 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 23 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 47 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Creamy Rosemary, Acorn Squash, and Pear Soup

(Serves 4)

  • 1 pear (any variety), cored and cut into chunks
  • 3 cups water, divided
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1 cup baked squash
  • 1 cup silken tofu
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine pears, 1 1/2 cups water, and rosemary in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Purée in a blender with baked squash, tofu, and remaining 1 1/2 cups water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Return soup to pan and reheat for about 5 minutes before serving. Garnish each serving with a sprig of rosemary.

Total calories per serving: 99 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Coconut-Cranberry-Pear Sauce

(Makes about twelve ¼-cup servings)

This is a tasty version of cranberry sauce with just a touch of coconut. Coconut flavoring is usually near the extracts in natural foods stores. Agar, a red sea algae, is an excellent vegetarian gelling agent. It is also available in natural foods stores.

  • 1-½ cups fresh cranberries
  • 2 pears (any variety), cored and cut into small chunks
  • One 8-ounce can pineapple chunks or crushed pineapple
  • 2 Tablespoons Malibu Rum or 1 teaspoon coconut flavoring
  • 2 Tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate
  • 1 Tablespoon agar flakes
  • Pinch salt
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 2 Tablespoons grated coconut

Combine all ingredients, except coconut, in a saucepan, and simmer for 20 minutes. Pour into a glass serving dish, sprinkle with coconut, and chill for about 1 hour, or until firm.

Total calories per serving: 54 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Hazelnut-Orange Asian Pear and Beet Salad

(Serves 8)

Cooking and reducing the orange juice gives this dish more flavor and creates a dynamic salad that is perfect for entertaining. Hazelnut oil is often available at specialty and natural foods stores. If you can't find it, use olive oil.

  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 4 cups diced beets
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon hazelnut or olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 Asian pears, cored and diced
  • ½ cup toasted, chopped hazelnuts (optional)

In a small saucepan simmer orange juice until it is reduced to 1/4 cup. While orange juice is simmering, steam beets until tender, about 12-15 minutes. Rinse beets under cold water when done.

Combine reduced orange juice, balsamic vinegar, oil, garlic, salt, and cayenne. Mix well. In a large mixing bowl combine beets, Asian pears, and orange-balsamic dressing. Stir until well coated. Refrigerate for about 1 hour before serving. Garnish top with chopped hazelnuts, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 74 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 14 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 200 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Pear Crisp With Cranberries

(Serves 8)

This dessert is a little less sweet than traditional desserts, but it offers a satisfying blend of texture and flavor. The maple syrup in this topping makes it almost crunchy. Use Anjou, Bosc, or Packham pears, and if you can't find fresh cranberries, substitute dried cranberries. Spelt and kamut flour are available in natural foods stores.

  • ½ cup cranberries
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 Tablespoons arrowroot or cornstarch
  • 1-½ cups dry rolled oats
  • 1-½ cups spelt, kamut, or whole wheat flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ cup maple syrup
  • ⅔ cup nonhydrogenated vegan margarine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine pears, cranberries, juices, and arrowroot or cornstarch in a 2-quart casserole dish.

In a large mixing bowl combine oatmeal, flour, and baking soda. Mix well. In a blender or with a hand blender, mix maple syrup and margarine together until thick and creamy. Stir into oat mixture, and stir until well blended. Drop oat mixture on top of pears and cranberries. With a spoon, spread the mixture around more evenly. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top is brown and crispy and the pears and cranberries are bubbling up.

Total calories per serving: 429 Fat: 17 grams
Carbohydrates: 68 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 284 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Pear-Walnut Bread

(Makes 1 loaf, about twenty 2-oz. slices)

Check the date on the yeast before using to make sure it is fresh. The flour measurements are always approximate.

  • 2 large Bosc or Anjou pears
  • ½ cup water, divided
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons baking yeast
  • 1-½ cups whole wheat flour
  • ½ cup unbleached flour or additional whole wheat flour, or more as needed to create a stiff dough
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup lightly toasted, chopped walnuts

Core and slice one pear, and combine with 1/4 cup water and cinnamon in a small saucepan. Simmer until soft, about 7-10 minutes. Purée in a blender or with a hand blender until smooth. Add 1/4 cup water. When pears feel warm to the touch, sprinkle yeast over the top, and mix in. Wait a few minutes until the mixture bubbles up.

After 5 minutes, add the whole wheat flour, and stir about 100 strokes. Add 1/2 cup unbleached flour (or whole wheat if you are using all whole wheat), salt, and oil, and stir 100 strokes. The dough should be stiff; add more flour if necessary.

Lightly oil your hands, gather dough into a ball, and turn out onto a lightly floured counter. Knead the dough — fold and turn dough and push down in a rhythmic motion — for about 1 minute. Coat a bowl with olive oil, place dough inside of it, and cover with a piece of plastic wrap that has been brushed with oil. Let it rise in a warm place (75-80 degrees) for about 45 minutes. Poke the dough with your finger. If it springs back easily, it has not finished rising; if the indentation remains, punch the dough down.

While the dough rests, core and finely dice the remaining pear. Turn dough out onto the floured board again. Knead in pear and walnuts. As you knead, add in more flour as necessary; this will keep the pears from making the dough too soggy. Continue until the pear is kneaded in and the loaf is smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a round peasant loaf and place on a baking sheet dusted with cornmeal or lined with parchment paper. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. When dough has risen, slice a 1/2-inch cut diagonally across the top of the loaf. Place in the oven for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for 40 minutes or until loaf sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom. If it doesn't sound hollow, return to oven without the baking sheet for a few more minutes. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack. Let cool before slicing.

Total calories per serving: 90 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 16 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 59 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Berry-Poached Pears

(Serves 6)

Pears are great poached in any type of fruit juice, but red raspberry juice gives them a festive color and yields a simple dessert for holidays. Look for organic frozen raspberry juice concentrate in natural foods stores.

  • 3 or 4 Anjou or Bosc pears, peeled andcored, or 6 whole Seckel pears, peeled
  • 1-½ cups water
  • ¾ cup frozen raspberry juice concentrate
  • 2-3 Tablespoons Grand Marnier or 1 Tablespoon finely chopped orange zest
  • Lemon soy yogurt (optional)

Place the pears in a saucepan with water, juice, and Grand Marnier or zest. Gently simmer for about 20 minutes or until pears are soft. Remove from heat, and let pears cool in the poaching liquid. The longer they cool, the more they absorb the flavor of the poaching liquid. Serve with a dollop of lemon soy yogurt.

Total calories per serving: 159 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 37 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 19 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to the Vegetarian Journal. She lives in Washington State.