Roasted Pears

This year was a great pear year. Our Orcas, Highland, Conference and Comice pear trees all produced many pounds of pears, 526 pounds to be exact. We’ve already dried boxes of fast-ripening Orcas pears, filling the food dehydrator every day for over two weeks and packing gallon jars with these chewy pear treats. The Highland, Conference and Comice, all of which require a chilling period before ripening, are stored in a generous friend’s large fridge, giving us the luxury of a slower pace and longer pear season as we bring out and ripen one box at a time.

While I was waiting for the Highlands to reach perfect ripeness, I came across a recipe for roasted pear and rainbow chard salad. I wasn’t so interested in eating raw chard from my winter kitchen garden, but I was really intrigued by the idea of roasting pears. The recipe author emphasized that pears that aren’t quite perfectly ripe become “sweetly delicious” when roasted. She’s right. It’s a magical transformation and the resulting pears are perfect for all sorts of uses. And even though this method is recommended for not-quite-ripe pears, ripe pears gain wonderful flavors from roasting too.

Pears roasted prep

To roast pears, cut them in half lengthwise and cut out the core. Next, remove a bit of skin and pear from the outsides of the pear halves to create a flat surface. Finally, cut each half in half again so that you have four half-to-three-quarter-inch slices of pear. Arrange on a sheet pan and brush with either olive oil or melted butter. I’ve found that the olive oil adds a nice flavor for salads while the butter is tastier for desserts or breakfast. Roast at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning them after ten minutes so both sides caramelize and brown. You can also roast the pear halves instead but I find the thinner slices cook more evenly and have more tasty caramelized surfaces.

Pears roasted in pan

Instead of chard as a salad green for roasted pears, I turned to burgundy colored Fiero radicchio and light green Pan di Zucchero, both upright growing bitter greens, but any pungent green such as arugula or red mustard is a great match for sweetly caramelized pears. My friend Diane had the same idea, writing: “Today’s salad…was radicchio and goat cheese.  The recipe called for raisins soaked in balsamic, but I thought hey, I have those pears which are great roasted…so I added some balsamic to the roasting process and oh my. Wonderful.”

Pears roasted salad

Pears and pork are also a perfect pairing. The other night I served pork sausage, roasted pears and cornbread to accompany poblano chile soup. Another night, roasted pears were a perfect side for a pasta sauce of sautéed chard, onion and bacon. And then there was roasted pear and bacon pizza for an informal dinner and for a more formal meal pork chops with darkly roasted pears on the side next to sautéed red onions, wild mushrooms and chicory.

Pears roasted bacon pizza

Pears roasted w: pork chop

Breakfast and dessert turn out to be more great venues for roasted pears. Fresh pears are great with yogurt and granola but roasted pears add their pleasant caramel softness to breakfast. And for dessert, roasted pear slices on their own are lovely; added to cream, ice cream or custard they would be lovely too.

Pears roasted granola

There are half a dozen more boxes of pears in my friend’s fridge so many opportunities to find more uses for roasted pears. I’m already imagining something new for the Thanksgiving table. I just saw a recipe for roasted pears with roasted Brussels sprouts. I’ll try it between now and T-day.

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A Kitchen Garden in Canyon Country

We took a road trip to the canyon country of southeast Utah for several weeks in October, making our way from one park to the next, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase/Escalante, Bryce and Zion, hiking up close to the hoodoos and fins, slot canyons and whimsical spires of this fascinating red rock country. Amid all the wonders of this dry high desert, yet another wonder emerged in a gentle valley next to walls of gray Navajo slick rock, a thriving kitchen garden producing vegetables enough to supply a restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill.

HBG from our farmSince 2000 Blake Spaulding and Jennifer Castle, the owners and chefs of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah have been creating breakfasts, lunches and dinners from this garden and from local beef, lamb and pork, eggs, cheeses and fruit, all with the help and support of the Boulder community. Several friends had praised the restaurant, one writing: “I think Debby would be interested in their menu and philosophy.” When we arrived for dinner mid-way through our travels, a sweet, handwritten “From our Farm” sign at the restaurant entrance listed vegetables that would be on the menu. In the dining room pumpkins, braids of garlic and all sizes, shapes and colors of winter squash decorated the ceiling beams and room divider, celebrations of the fall harvest. After a week and a half of desert camping meals that had nearly exhausted our supply of vegetables from home, we realized we’d reached an oasis.

HBG interiorMy Dinner Jenchilada, an enchilada named for Jen Castle, was farm pumpkin “rolled in organic corn tortillas, baked in a spicy sweet corn habanero cream sauce” surrounded by roasted chunks of delicata squash and sweet red carrots, curls of zucchini & pueblo brown rice pilaf. Scott’s Spicy Green Chile Juniper Lamb Posole, “shredded Boulder-raised lamb shoulder” came with a brown sugar corn muffin to crumble into the flavorful broth. Revived by this wonderful food, we knew we needed to return the next morning for breakfast.

Scott ordered the Breakfast Jenchilada, a morning version of the amazing dinner entrée: “corn tortillas, torn and toasted, smothered in an authentic red chile sauce with jack cheese served with a sage potato pancake brown rice & beans, and a just-made flour tortilla.” Still craving vegetables, I ordered the Blaker Standard, “two poached farm eggs on brown rice with sautéed greens and our poblano crema” and thoroughly savored the sautéed chard that surrounded the eggs and rice.

By this point, the only thing that could increase my happiness would be seeing the garden that produced this food. “Of course,” our waiter said when we asked if it would be possible to visit the garden. “We love people to visit.” He gave us a map.

HBG gardenFramed by the gray Navajo slick rock formation known as the Sugar Loaf, rows of carrots, beets and lettuce stretched out lush and green. A farm intern watering fruit trees near an irrigation pond offered to show us around. The spicy fragrance of peppers filled the air and our guide pointed to another woman using a torch to burn back pepper plants, explaining that the charred leaves would enrich the sandy soil.  Behind her, corn stalks stood dry and brown, setting off a row of blue/green kale.

HBG pepper torchingIn a hoop house, tiny sprouts of mustards and other hardy greens were just emerging against the sandy brown soil.  Nearby, multicolored corncobs dried on a rack. Brown speckled white beans were also drying in the sun and our guide said that the plan was to grow even more beans for the restaurant in the year ahead.

HBG hoop house

HBG corn cobsHBG beans dryingHere was the farm half of the farm-to-table restaurant, but this farm was blooming in the desert, as odd and puzzling as the fantastic formations of rock and color that define this area and just as magical.

We left Boulder and Hell’s Backbone Grill with a copy of Spaulding and Castle’s With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant (2004). It’s a cookbook in the sense that it has recipes but even more it’s the story of the forces, natural and spiritual, that have shaped Hell’s Backbone Grill. We’d been relying on David B. Williams’ field guide A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country (2013) to help us understand the geology and ecology of this region, reading a few pages each night to learn names to describe the formations we were seeing and to understand the natural forces that created them. With a Measure of Grace gave us the same understanding of place, showing through photos and words that the garden and gardeners are one part of a wide community of people all working together to make Hell’s Backbone Grill the magical place it is, every bit as magical as the landscape that surrounds it.

HBG book cover