by Donna Marie Desfor
Crisp. The very word sounds like Autumn — the very thought of which sends me clamoring for a kitchen. I’m ready to don those fluffy sweaters and fire up my stove; indulge in richness, and comfort; cook sauces and bake breads. I don’t care much that September, at least in these parts, is still full-on Summer. The weather has changed, and so has my mood — I need to create flavors that capture the essence of this transition. I want heat, but not intensity; I want savory, but not suffocating.
What could define the essence of “crisp” better than a pear? It is, quite possibly, the very definition of Autumn. Crisp. It satisfies my need for the season yet to come. But it gets me creative and back in my kitchen.
Said to represent sensuality and longing, artists have long used the pear as a provocative measure of our innate desires. One of the most appealing and desirable of the fruits, it is exotic and sexy, sweet with its juices and endless in its appeal. How appropriate, then, that the pear introduces Autumn and gets me back in touch with my kitchen instincts — my intuitive sense of when, of how much, and for how long.
Admittedly, yes, pears are available year-round. But if you’re smart enough to pay attention, you know with one bite that these are not the same pears as the ones you’ve been tasting all year. They’re firmer, sweeter, their flavor is brighter, and their juices a bit thicker. That once mealy texture from prolonged movement and warehouse storage is now buttery smooth. If you hold them right under your nose and breathe deeply, you find that they actually have a sweet, floral aroma — a feat you’re unlikely to repeat at any other time of the year.
The varieties available are numerous, and the flavors they combine with brilliantly are equally abundant. And when it comes to cooking or baking, it’s not too terribly difficult to choose among them, at least in our GM Test Kitchen. Hands down, our favorites are the Bosc variety, and with good reason: Their sweet flavor and dense flesh make them the perfect match for high heat and extended cooking times. They keep their shape and taste, and under a knife they slice cleanly, and are easily manipulated into a dice.
Some may think September too early for a hearty dish like risotto. But before you join the nay-sayers, consider what the addition of a sweet caramelized pear and the heady, haunting, aromatic qualities of allspice, cinnamon, and ginger conjure up in your mind. That is exactly why this recipe works.
Pears — of just about any variety — are made to marry with the exotics of spices (ginger, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice); fruits (lemons, cranberries, and apples); cheeses (blues (of just about any variety), brie, parmesan and aged); nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans); and wine, including wine vinegar (balsamic, especially aged).
Depending on the variety you choose — and there are several hundred from which you can choose — any dish becomes a succulent course with the hint of sweetness that makes even hearty flavors appealing in the waning days of summer. What I find absolutely stunning, though, is the taunting way the flavor of pear dances with savory components. Combining the two satisfies my desire for unabashed flavor, without drowning me in thick heaviness that the season just isn’t ready for.
It may sound odd, but when you think of savory herbs and introduce pear, your mental mouth can imagine the exquisite way the flavors meld. Aromatic and full in the mouth, the sweet pushes, and the savory pulls. There is a complexity that is compelling, but never confusing, which is why these pear fritters are a delight. Their earthiness is balanced with savory herbs, the sweet pear serves as a counterpoint to the seasoned batter, and the sauce is undeniably the flavor of Autumn.
Pears should spark all sorts of possibilities in your mind beyond the traditional, dessert-type recipes (though we will happily deliver a few of our favorites in the weeks to come). The diversity our Test Kitchen offers with this month’s lead recipes should get your creativity ripening and your flavor buds bursting. And if nothing else, we’re hoping to inspire you back into the kitchen and to your stove; it’s time to fire those babies up and get ready for a whole lotta Harvest cooking. Welcome sweet, sensual, pear-luscious September. Welcome home to your kitchen.
Photo: Kelly Cline
Donna Marie Desfor is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.