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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Drying Orcas Pears

We have half-a-dozen different varieties of pear trees in our kitchen garden orchard. Red Clapps and Ubileen are early season pears good for eating soon after picking. Comice, Conference and Highland are late season storage pears, creamy and full of pear flavor by Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And mid-season there’s Orcas.  If I could have only one pear tree, it would be Orcas.  We actually have two.

This variety originated on Orcas Island, hence the name, and is listed in the Slow Food Ark of taste with this description: “A fall pear suitable for fresh consumption, canning, and drying. Discovered on Orcas Island, Washington, by Joseph C. Long in 1966. Roadside seedling of unknown parentage.”

What good fortune that horticulturist Long noticed this tree.  Perhaps he was drawn to it because the pears are so beautiful.  Or maybe he took some pears home and let them ripen and found how delicious they were, juicy with a mild pear flavor.  Perhaps he watched the tree over several years and saw how vigorous and productive it was.  All of these qualities are true of the descendants that grow in our garden and I’m grateful that Long shared his discovery with other orchardists and nurseries.

Each year since they started producing, our Orcas pear trees have set a heavy crop that’s ready to pick by mid-to-late September.  Scott thins out about half of the pears in June, leaving a tree that’s still loaded with fruit.  Over the years, yields have ranged from sixty to one hundred pounds. This year Scott picked them on September twentieth, filling three boxes with sixty-six pounds of fruit.

Deciding when a pear is ready to pick is challenging.  We rely for guidance on a tattered page saved many years ago from Sunset magazine.  There’s a harvest calendar based on Mt. Vernon, Washington research, but the writer adds this useful advice: “You can double-check the harvest dates by seeing how easily your pears come off the stem.  Lift them and tug.  If you have to twist and pull hard, as if breaking a green twig by hand, you’re too early.  If the pears snap off cleanly, they’re probably ready to harvest.  If they’ve begun to drop and you haven’t started picking, you’re probably on the last side.”  Scott starts checking early for that clean snap.

The pears are still hard but that’s because like most pears, Orcas pears ripen off the tree.  We put them in a cool, dark room and in a week or two they start to ripen, but not all at once, fortunately.  They are ripe when they turn yellow and the area at the stem yields to light pressure.  I check on them daily and find a couple dozen ripe pears each day, just the right amount to peel, slice and put in the dehydrator to dry.  We enjoy them fresh, too, but drying has become our favorite way of preserving the flavor of these lovely pears.

To dry them, I cut each pear in quarters, remove the core from each quarter, peel off the skin, and then slice each quarter into thirds or fourths and lay the slices on the dehydrator tray.  (I have a NESCO Gardenmaster food dehydrator model FD 1010 that takes up to thirty stacking trays; I have eight trays.)  They dry in about eight hours and are ready when they are still supple but no longer moist. Each dry slice is full of concentrated pear flavor.  I store them in gallon jars and use them throughout the winter for snacks.  Scott also cuts up a cup or so to add to each batch of granola.  And along with apples which I’ll dry later, they make a Christmas gift my family looks forward to.

Drying pears is labor-intensive but only for about an hour or so a day for a week or two.  And there’s a pleasant rhythm to the task.  Pick up a pear and admire its shape, each one a variation on the classic pear shape, some more elongated, some squatter, some a touch asymmetrical. Notice the color.  The skins of ripe Orcas pears all have a warm yellow undertone with a very light stippling of green and brown but differ one from the next in the amount of red/orange blush. Decide where to cut and move through the steps of coring, peeling, slicing, arranging and then move on to the next pear. Each task takes some attention but the mind can also wander.

I think of fall as a time for this kind of work.  Shelling beans is another task that takes a little attention but leaves most of the mind free to contemplate the beauty of the fruit or vegetable, perhaps take in the view from where you’re sitting or standing and enjoy the end of the busy summer season while anticipating the quieter days of fall.