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Chef John Foster: Use the apple, of course, but take a moment to consider the pear, the forgotten fall fruit

The mention of fall and winter fruit conjures images of apples, pumpkins and cranberries. Fruit vibrant in both color and flavor, and well suited to the dishes that provide warmth and comfort at a family get-together or a chilly night at home.

Of the three, apples are probably the most utilized during these seasons, not only for their flavor and texture but their versatility as well. Spanning the menu from start to finish, apples can star as the main attraction, or ably support as a flavor component. But let us consider a distant cousin to the apple and the bane (or boon) to every Harry and David Fruit of the Month club patron, the pear.

Yes, you heard it right, let’s give it up for the pear, the forgotten fall fruit. This poor thing can’t seem to find a home in most holiday meals and remains somewhat of an outsider to most of us. With a season running anywhere from August to March, pears hit their peak when we most crave the sweet juicy goodness that they provide. Typically, more yielding than an apple the ripe pear can best be described as decadent. Poets and romantic writers will call to mind the sensuality of the character with references to the fruit. The classic pear shape of a woman suggests the sensual literary history of the fruit. Asian symbolism attributes the fruit to long life and fertility, a certain type of yin to the apple’s yang.

Perhaps it’s because the apple industry does a great marketing job, or the price of the pears is off-putting (they can be more expensive). It could be that pears are more fragile, perishable to the point of frustration as they seem to go from underripe to mush in a matter of hours. There are a lot of reasons we don’t think of pears, but let’s take a moment to examine several very good reasons why we should!

Flavor would be the primary reason to give pears a whirl. Ranging from a deep and almost musky sweetness to a floral creaminess, the pear may not have the number of varieties that the apple does, but the flavor profile makes them well suited to the same types of preparation.

With origins in central Asia, and “finishing schools” in France, Belgium England and America the pear varieties that are most prevalent are well defined and remain relatively unchanged by popular demand. Comice, Bartlett, Bosc, Anjou, and the more regional Seckel are probably the best-known varieties and they all have their quirks that make them favorites.

I grew up with Bartlett, what I would consider to be the workhorse of pears. Sweet and fleshy, it also has the inherent graininess that pears are known for, some would say a flaw that apples do not possess. As it turns out the graininess is part of the fruit’s fiber makeup and varies from one variety to the next. The Seckel pear, with probable roots in this country, has less evident texture and is often described as creamy, something an apple can only aspire to.

Each variety will have definitive flavor elements that come out. Most can be described as some variation on a floral theme, nuanced and delicate, never really aspiring to the tartness of a good apple. These differences from its cousin set it apart when it comes to eating the pear, and to add some complexity to the pear’s profile, the ripeness of the fruit is far more essential to the pear, and far easier to recognize. Soft and yielding texture usually belies sweet succulent bites of pear are a skin’s width away. Slicing the pear may be more civilized, but a large bite yields far more pleasure.

Under-ripe pears take their natural place in the elements of a salad because of the texture that may be off-putting when the pear is ripe. Shaved thin, and dressed with a light vinaigrette, the flavor still comes through and the texture is subtle but effective, just enough crunch to satisfy the palate. Perhaps the best way to distinguish the pear is to serve a perfectly ripe Seckel with an aged bleu cheese, and oatmeal crackers. Creamy sweetness with the bite of bleu cheese and the earthiness of the oatmeal tops off a wintertime dinner quite well. If a cheeses course doesn’t suit you then try a pear tart with the more robust Anjou or Bartlett, a sweet crust and a bit of ginger mixed in with the pear. Poached gently, sliced thinly and arranged in a fan around the crust it can also match nicely with a hazelnut pastry cream.

Finally, for the traditionalist there is the poached pear in port wine. I serve it with spiced candied walnuts and whipped cream. I reduce the poaching liquid for my sauce, and I like to serve it warm. Beyond dessert, the subtle flavors of pear can be found in preserves, in jams, and even in chutneys. Pear chutney with roast lamb is a twist on tradition and substituting pears for apples in a pan sauce can dial back the texture without limiting the flavor of fruit. Don’t hate the pear because it isn’t an apple, embrace it as the brother (however distant) it can really be.

Roasted pear with a walnut crust, honey goat cheese filling and a red wine balsamic reduction

This is a play on words as the pear is peeled nicely, poached in red wine water and balsamic vinegar, hollowed out from the bottom, rolled in crushed sugared walnuts and baked until the walnuts are brown. The goat honey mix is to your taste without taking too much of the tartness away. Use equal parts of water, red wine and balsamic to reduce until it is a light syrup when warm. To be on the safe side make sure you reserve the very bottom of the pear and slice a thin “plug” which seals the hole shut so your goat mixture doesn’t seep out. The poached pear will take the walnuts evenly and the sugar aids in caramelization. If not whipped cream, try mascarpone or even a dollop of yogurt.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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