Exploring Pears: This Ancient Fruit Has a Story to Tell
"The pear is the grandfather of the apple, its poor relation...which once, in our humid land, lived lonely and lordly, preserving the memory of its prestige by its haughty comportment."— Francois Pierre de la Varenne ("Le Cuisinier françois" one of the most influential French cookbooks)
From the above quote one might assume that Varenne regarded the pear as a "lesser" fruit, once heralded but now fallen into disregard in comparison to the well-known (and appreciated) apple.
Little did he know that 300 years later annual pear production in the world would exceed 23,580,845 metric tons.
I think that's a pretty respectable number.
However, The Story Began Long Before Varenne
Pears were grown long before that authority on French cuisine wrote the his famous book. Historians say that 7,000 years ago, in the foothills of Tien Shan, a Chinese diplomat became obsessed with pears. His fascination in the sweet fruit led him to abandon his career and begin a business of grafting and selling pear trees. The fruit that he produced, Pyrus communis, is said to be the mother of many of the varieties of pear that are produced throughout the world today.
Location of Tien Shan
From that mountain range in central Asia, the pear fruit of Mr. Feng Li spread to the north and south. At the same time wild pears were also growing in Europe. In The Odyssey, Homer named pears a "gift of the gods." Traces of pears have been found in prehistoric areas near Lake Zurich. And, Pliny wrote of them in his Natural History.
...the story traveled to the New World.
There were no pear trees in North America until the colonists arrived in the 1600s. Despite their best efforts a blight nearly wiped out the entire population. However, pioneers who migrated west in the 1800s had far greater success; the pear trees that they brought with them not only survived, but thrived in the rich volcanic soil and climate of the Pacific Northwest.
Where They Thrive Today
Today most pears grown in the United States are grown in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Oregon, and Washington, with the west coast states as the top three.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC):
- In 2014 Washington State was Number 1 in pear production with 832 million pounds, valued at $233.8 million.
- Oregon was Number 2 with 432 million pounds produced, valued at $127.4 million.
- California produced 378 million pounds, valued at $88.6 million.
Characteristics of Some of the Most Popular Pears
Best Used For
yellow-green freckled skin (forelle is German for trout)
small, sweet, delicate
eating raw; resembles an apple in both taste and texture
brown skin, white flesh
slender neck, firm
eating raw and baking. Maintain their shape when baked
yellow or red
thin delicate skin; sweet; soft and juicy
baking or canning
green or red
plump, egg-shaped; smooth skin; juicy and firm. The green variety is tart and citrus-like; the red is sweeter with a hint of cinnamon
eating raw, baking, poaching, roasting
apple-shaped, rough skin, crisp-crunchy flesh
eating raw, salads
red or green
sweet, thin delicate skin, juicy
baking, eating (with cheese!)
Why Do I Love Pears?
The most popular fresh fruit in the United States (based on annual consumption) is bananas. Apples come in as Number 2. Pears are slightly lower on the list, but I love them for their versatility. Pears can be used in every course of your meal, from appetizer, to salad, to main dish, and dessert.
Let me show you how.
Asian pears work perfectly in this appetizer--their clean, crisp flavor and texture are a perfect complement to the creamy cheese. There are no exact measurements; just these few simple ingredients will wow your guests:
Appetizer: Pear Crostini with Bleu Cheese and Honey
- one baguette, sliced on the diagonal in 1/2-inch thick slices
- extra-virgin olive oil
- one pear, washed, cored, and thinly sliced
- crumbled bleu cheese (Gorgonzola, Roquefort, or Stilton)
- fresh honey (any type will do--I like clover honey)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange baguette slices on rimmed baking sheet; brush both sides with oil. Bake until golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven. Top with cheese, then a slice of pear, and then a drizzle of honey. Serve warm.
Salad: Roasted Pear Salad with Greens
Here bosc pears are the best choice--firm yet juicy and slightly sweet. Bitter greens and a honey/sherry vinaigrette provide the perfect contrast.
For the salad:
- 8 firm Bosc pears, peeled, cored and cut lengthwise into 8 wedges
- 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small head radicchio, torn into bite-sized pieces
- 1 small head endive, sliced into fine shreds
- 1 bunch watercress, chopped (tops only)
- 2 large heads romaine lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
For the dressing:
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon honey
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup good quality olive oil
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Place pears in a large bowl; drizzle on olive oil and gently toss to coat.
- Arrange pears in a single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
- Bake in preheated oven 10 minutes. Flip pear slices and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until edges begin to brown and pears are tender. Let cool for 15 minutes.
- While the pears are roasting, wash and prepare the salad greens. There should be enough to total 15 cups. Place in large salad bowl.
- To make the dressing, mix together the shallot, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper in a small mixing bowl. Slowly add the oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking until the dressing has emulsified.
- Just before serving, add the roasted pears to the greens, then drizzle with dressing and toss to coat.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
(adapted from recipe featured in Epicurious.com)
Main Dish: Cider-Braised Turkey with Pears
I love the combination of slow-roasted savory turkey, salty-smoky bacon...and then the surprise of a bit of sweetness from pears and cider.
- 4 slices turkey bacon, diced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 whole garlic cloves
- 2 large turkey thighs or 3 turkey drumsticks (2 to 2 1/2 pounds total)
- salt and pepper
- 2 carrots, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 cups apple cider
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 2 bosc pears, cut in quarters and cored
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
- Dry the turkey parts with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
- Add the turkey bacon and olive oil to a large Dutch oven; heat over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until bacon is crisp. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Add garlic cloves to the pan and sauté until it begins to turn golden, remove from pan and set aside.
- Add turkey to pan, skin-side down; increase heat to medium-high and cook until well-browned, about 5 minutes. Turn to other side and continue to cook, about another 5 minutes, or until browned on both sides. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Add carrots and onion to pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the thyme and apple cider to pan. Bring to a boil and stir well, scraping the bottom of the pan to release brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Boil until the cider is reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
- Add the chicken stock; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and add the bacon and turkey.
- Cover the pan and place in oven. Cook for 45 minutes, then flip the turkey.
- Add the pear quarters to the pan. Continue to roast (without the cover) until tender, about 45 minutes. The turkey should have an internal temperature of 170 to 175 degrees F. Remove from pan, cover with foil, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
- Serve the turkey with the vegetables, pears, and braising liquid.
Dessert: French Toast With Brie and Caramelized Pears
So, you are probably thinking "french toast for dessert?" And to that, I say "why not?" Here you have a baguette (buttery and toasty), brie cheese (creamy and savory), and then top it off with luxurious pears, simmered in their own juices with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Does that not sound like dessert to you?
For the french toast:
- 1 baguette
- 3 oz. brie, chilled for easier slicing
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 egg, large
- pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon butter, divided
- Slice the baguette on the diagonal (this gives you larger slices of bread), making the slices about 1 1/2 inches thick. Discard the ends or save for another use.
- With a sharp knife, cut a slit in the bottom (crust) side of each slice. Slice the chilled brie into small wedges, about 1/4-inch thick and 1-inch square. Stuff one wedge of brie into each slice of baguette.
- In a shallow bowl, beat together the milk, egg, and salt with a wire whisk until well blended. Dip the baguette slices into the milk/egg mixture, turning to coat both cut sides.
- Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add 1 tsp. of the butter; as it melts tilt the pan to coat the bottom. Add as many of the baguette slices as will fit in the pan without crowding. Cook until golden brown on one side (about 2 minutes). Turn over and cook the other side until brown. Remove from pan and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining butter and baguette slices.
For the pear topping:
- 2 medium bosc, bartlett, or d'Anjou pears, pared and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon butter, softened
- Place sliced pears in mixing bowl; sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Stir gently to coat and let sit for about 30 minutes
- Heat butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add pears with their juices and cook, stirring constantly, until fruit begins to soften and juices become syrupy.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Lum