Pear Pairings

Pear tree ConferenceI’ve been working my way through this year’s crop of Conference pears, a pretty and productive English heirloom pear that Scott harvested from his kitchen garden orchard in early October and stored in a friend’s walk-in cooler for a month.  We retrieved them in early November and have been ripening several dozen at time. Conference pears are especially good for chutney because their firm flesh holds up to long cooking, but we’ve also been enjoying their creamy texture and honey-like sweetness with yogurt and in salads and desserts.  In all these preparations, I’m reminded that the sweetness of pears is a perfect match for spicy, sharp and pungent flavors.  A pear by itself is delicious, but paired with contrasting flavors it’s even better.

Pear closeup Conference

Chutney is the most dramatic melding of pear sweetness with strongly contrasting flavors.  The recipe I’ve made for the past few years calls for pears, vinegar, onion, garlic, yellow raisins, mustard seed, cinnamon, cloves and lots of candied ginger. As these ingredients cook down together, sweet and sharp, pungent and spicy fragrances fill the kitchen, reminding me of all the meals I’ll serve with this rich pear condiment, everything from cheddar cheese sandwiches and baked potatoes to savory tarts, curries and roasted meats.Pear chutney tray

Plain yogurt with its pleasantly acidic flavor is another perfect foil for pears.  Yogurt, fruit and granola have been our standard breakfast for years, fruit varying with the seasons.  The pear months are especially tasty times because fresh pears along with dried pears in the granola make a double pear experience, lots of sweet to match the tang of yogurt.

Pears, yogurt, granola

Fall and winter salads are a classic canvas for sweet pears and contrasting flavors.  The other night, inspired by a recipe for “Red Mustard Salad with Asian Pears and Pecans” in Alice Waters’ newest cookbook The Art of Simple Food II, I added sliced Conference pears and chopped toasted hazelnuts to a bowl of Scarlet Frills mustard, Giant Red mustard and arugula and tossed this beautiful blend of colors, textures and flavors with a dressing of white wine vinegar, diced shallot, grated fresh ginger, olive oil salt and pepper.  Spicy greens, hot ginger, pungent shallot and sharp vinegar met sweet pears in a salad combination I’ll definitely make again.  But before I do I’ll make a different salad that combines pears with Gorgonzola or another pungent blue cheese.  Arugula or mache would be good greens here and sherry vinaigrette.  Next, instead of cheese, I might combine just pears and greens and let mustard vinaigrette provide the contrasting sharpness.  There are so many variations on sweet pear salads. I’ll run out of pears before I run out of salad combinations.

Pear mustard salad with dressing

Finally, there are pear desserts that bring ginger and other spices into the mix. A few years ago our friend Peggy introduced us to Upside down Pear Ginger Bread Cake, a perfect dessert for fall and winter. Wedges of pear soften in sugar and butter beneath the baking gingerbread batter, and the finished cake, pear side up, offers mouthfuls of sweet caramelized pear and spicy, dark molasses cake.  And if there’s no time for baking, a perfectly ripe pear makes a lovely dessert too, maybe with a bit of candied ginger on the side.

Pear Gingerbread

Conference pears fill the gap between our September-harvest Orcas pears and the even later Comice pears.  Luckily I have a couple of boxes of Comice pears still in my friend’s fridge, ready to ripen when the Conference are gone. Comice is a classic dessert pear served all on its own but I know I’ll be slipping them into salads and breakfast yogurt too.

Pears comice

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Color in the Landscape and at the Table

Crabapples fallThere are still spots of color in our somber mid-November landscape, shiny red rose hips in the hedgerows, dull orange leaves on the willows, brighter yellow grape leaves on the arbor.  And at the edge of our lawn, three crabapples covered with their tiny fruit and autumn leaves combine red, orange and yellow into a gorgeous display above the still green grass.  I love these bursts of color and find myself wanting to reproduce them at the table.  Luckily, the kitchen garden offers a fruit and vegetable palette to play with, red-skinned apples, purple/red beets, yellow beets, orange carrots and many shades of greens.  The results give as much pleasure to look at as to eat.

For lunch the other day I made a carrot spread from roasted carrots, roasted garlic, white runner beans, ground coriander seeds and a little olive oil.  I’d noticed the recipe in the November Saveur magazine and had to try it, both for taste and for color.  I modified it a bit by using white runner beans instead of cannellini and by adding a little fresh sage and olive oil.  Unlike other carrot-spread recipes I’ve made, this one recommends roasted carrots, a great idea for bringing out rich carrot flavor.  And of course there is the rich carrot color, perfect next to red apples. With arugula and whole wheat bread, it made a delicious sandwich.

Carrot spread

Salads offer endless ways to bring in color.  For a salad the other night, I used some of the roasted carrots left over from the spread, added roasted red and yellow beets and arranged them on a bed of spicy, golden frills mustard a tasty green new to me that I planted in August from seeds my sister Sarah gave me. Red wine vinaigrette perfectly blended the flavors of spicy greens and sweet, colorful roots.

Beet, Carrot, Mustard salad

And soups! At a lunch for girlfriends last week, my friend Allison made us a delicious creamy orange winter squash soup and, artist that she is, garnished our bowls with softened and slightly sweetened dried cranberries and crumbled sage leaves.  I’m inspired to try orange soups too, either carrot or squash, and experiment with toppings like chopped beets or roasted red peppers and parsley or mint.  Even a little diced apple would be pretty and good.

As fall advances, the landscape colors will fade into browns and grays but thanks to the kitchen garden bright colors will continue at the table.

Still life carrots, beets 11:13

Honey Boat Delicata

I harvested winter squash on the fall equinox again this year.  Light green Sibley, dark green Burgess Buttercup, Nutty Delica, and Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert and bright orange Eastern Rise and Potimarron are all cured and stored in a cool, outdoor closet while their sweetness develops, but tan and green striped Honey Boat Delicata has been ready to eat for the past several weeks and I’ve been adding the rich, sweet flavor of this perfect little squash to all sorts of dishes.

Delicata squash in basket

Honey Boat is a delicata variety bred by Dr. James Baggett at Oregon State University. Adaptive Seeds, my source for seeds this year, describes it as “long like a true delicata but with a copper skin instead of the typical yellow. Certainly the sweetest winter squash we have ever grown.”  I planted only Honey Boat this year because I’d been a little disappointed with the productivity and flavor of the yellow delicatas from both Fedco and Johnny’s last year.  I’m really happy with it and will keep growing it though I’ll also keep looking for another good yellow delicata.

Like all the delicata varieties, Honey Boat has the advantages of small size and thin skin. A typical 12-16 ounce squash serves two nicely. The quickest way to prepare it is to cut a squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, lightly oil the flesh, place the halves cut-side down on a sheet pan and bake them at 400 degrees for about twenty minutes.  Friends of mine tell me that they often stand at the counter and eat these sweet treats right away, skin and all, but when baked delicata halves do make it to the table, they are a wonderful side dish.

Delicata squash sliced

The thin skin of most delicata varieties is tender enough to eat though I’ve found that the skin of Honey Boat is not quite so tender as skin of other delicatas so I’ve been peeling it.  After cutting the raw squash in half lengthwise and removing the seeds, I use a vegetable peeler to skim off the skin.  The skinless halves are then ready to cut crosswise into half moons, lengthwise into strips or with one more crosswise cut into dice.  Tossed in a little olive oil, spread in a pan, and roasted at about 375, all of these shapes soften and brown in fifteen minutes or so.

These little nuggets of rich squash flavor are a perfect served hot as a side dish.  I piled some next to mushroom risotto and grilled radicchio the other night.  Diced pieces are also wonderful added to a pasta sauce or risotto.  Roasted slices are just as tasty as those very popular sweet potato fries and half-moons are pretty on pizza, topping a base of Gorgonzola cheese.  For another cheese combination, emmer farro and roasted delicata squash pieces topped with melted Gorgonzola cheese create a satisfying blend of contrasting textures and flavors.

Radicchio & Risotto on plateDelicata squash pizza

Delicata squash, farro, gorg

Another delicious way to serve these delicata bits is to cool them to room temperature and toss them into salads.  I’ve been doing that a lot this fall, adding them to bitter greens, mache or arugula, mustard or kale or a mixture of these hardy fall and winter greens.

Delicata Squash and mache salad

In a few more weeks, the big squash will be sweet enough to eat and I’ll start cooking them.  Sibley and Burgess will be first and then the rest as we move from Thanksgiving to Christmas and on into the New Year.  For now, though, these little Honey Boats satisfy my love of winter squash.  And those that are left when I turn to the big squash will stay sweet for several months longer so we can keep enjoying them as fall gives way to winter.