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A&E >  Food

Seasonal Kitchen: Pears offer a variety of flavors, textures throughtout the season

In season from late summer through late winter, pears are one of the few fruits that actually ripen off the tree. Unlike apples and other tree fruit, when left to ripen on branches, they can become mealy on the inside while their outer flesh remains hard and tannic.

The first pears to arrive to the Pacific Northwest were brought by early settlers in the 1800s. Since then, they have flourished. It seems they love our volcanic soil, warm days, cool nights and abundant rain. They thrive in the shadows of our mountains. As more sophisticated irrigation systems and growing techniques developed, pear orchards began to expand throughout the river valleys from north-central Washington all the way down through southern Oregon.

Washington growers produce more pears than any other state, primarily juicy, sweet Bartletts. Sometimes called “summer pears,” they are probably the most common pear, available in mainstream grocery stores most of the year. They arrive green and hard, but after a few days on the kitchen counter, they transform into soft, juicy fruit with golden skin.

Smoother and sweeter than their yellow cousin, Red Bartletts are similarly good for canning and preserves but also are a much better choice for eating out of hand.

Tall, golden-brown, long-necked Bosc pears are an heirloom variety – crisp, bright, less sweet, yet boldly flavorful. They are a favorite for poaching and baking since their firmer texture means they retain their elegant shape when cooked. Eaten out of hand, they have a firm, crunchy, texture with an earthy, musky sweetness.

A small, sweet, fat pear bursting with incredible pear flavor is Comice. Hailing from Angers, France, it’s the ultimate pear to pair with cheese. It’s flavorful enough to handle strong, pungent cheeses like Gorgonzola, Cambozola and Camembert.

Anjou pears are short, squat and very plump. They almost look as if they have no neck, which gives them an egg-like appearance. Both red and green varieties have smooth skin, with flesh that’s juicy yet firm and flavor that is balanced: sweet and bright with a hint of spice. Green Anjous stay green, even when fully ripened. An all-around pear, Anjous are good for baking, poaching and grilling, or eating raw.

My favorite is Seckels. The smallest of all commercially grown pears, these are, to my eye, perfect in shape and size and have the added benefit of making beautiful arrangements and centerpieces. They are exceptionally sweet when ripe, so sweet in fact that they are often referred to as “sugar pears.” With velvety crisp flesh and notes of champagne, Seckels are delicious out of hand and pair well with cheese and wine. Roasting them transforms the grained, juicy flesh into a decadent side dish. Some believe Seckels are the only true American pear, thought to have been found growing in the wild in the Northeast. Hardy and self-fertile, they offer abundant spring blooms on a semi-dwarf tree.

Asian pears, often called “apple pears” because of their crisp texture and shape, are in no way related to apples. Rather, they’re a cross between two varieties of pears. Cultivated in Japan for more than 3,000 years, they differ genetically from European pears.

And, of course, a trip to the local farmers market will help you discover even more varieties. Locally, Cliffside Orchards offers a few interesting varieties sure to please the palate. Most farmers will let you taste before you buy. Just make sure to ask if the pears you end up bringing home are best eaten crisp or should be allowed to soften.

Because pears ripen from the inside out, be sure to “check the neck” by applying gentle thumb pressure to the neck or stem end of the pear. If it gives, then the pear is ready. If it is still firm, let the pear sit at room temperature and check daily for ripeness. Placing pears near bananas seems to help ripen them even more quickly.

Toasted Farro with Pear, Hazelnuts, Romano and Arugula. (Sylvia Fountaine)
Toasted Farro with Pear, Hazelnuts, Romano and Arugula. (Sylvia Fountaine)

Toasted Farro with Pear, Hazelnuts, Romano and Arugula

2 cups dry farro

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon maple syrup

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cracked pepper

½ cup crushed roasted hazelnuts

3 large ripe pears, sliced

Handful baby arugula

1 ½ ounces shaved or grated Romano cheese

Toast farro in a large pot over medium-high heat until lightly toasted and golden brown, about 5-6 minutes. Pour 8 cups water over top the toasted farro and add a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and boil uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Once done to you liking, drain and place in a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients, gently tossing as you go. Serve warm for a vegetarian main, or chill and serve as a side salad.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Pear, Balsamic Onion and Gorgonzola Pizzettes. (Sylvia Fountaine)
Pear, Balsamic Onion and Gorgonzola Pizzettes. (Sylvia Fountaine)

Pear, Balsamic Onion and Gorgonzola Pizzettes

1 red onion, very thinly sliced into rings

2 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch salt

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Pinch pepper

1 teaspoon sugar or honey

16 ounces pizza dough, divided into two balls (or divide into 4)

1 garlic clove, smashed

1 cup grated Mozzarella

1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

2 pears

Handful arugula

Preheat oven to 450 degrees or set grill to high heat

Let dough rest on a floured surface 20 minutes.

In a large skillet, saute onion in oil, over medium high heat, stirring frequently 3 minutes. Lower heat to medium, add a pinch salt. Continue sauteing 10 minutes or so until onions begin to caramelized and become soft. Add balsamic, sugar and pepper. Continue to cook about 3-4 more minutes, until balsamic reduces. Set aside.

Divide dough and stretch into 2 or 4 very thin ovals or rounds.

If grilling, place directly onto the hot grate, and grill 2 to 3 minutes (until you develop nice grill marks) and flip and grill other side. Set aside and repeat, or if grill is large enough feel free to do more than one at a time.

Rub each crust with smashed garlic, divide and sprinkle the cheeses, top with pear slices and either place in a hot oven to finish or return to the grill, placing on top of a sheet pan.

Alternatively, you can bake the pizzettes in the oven on a sheet pan or hot pizza stone, topping the raw dough with cheeses and pear, then placing in the oven. Bake until the pizzettes are cooked through, 9 to 11 minutes, remembering that the thinner the crust, the faster they will cook.

Pull out from the oven, top with the caramelized onions and a sprinkling of arugula and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Pear and Bourbon Smash consists of ripe pear and ginger, with hints of maple and citrus. (Food section / Sylvia Fountaine Special to Food)
Pear and Bourbon Smash consists of ripe pear and ginger, with hints of maple and citrus. (Food section / Sylvia Fountaine Special to Food)

Pear and Bourbon Smash

¼ cup sliced ripe pear

1 thin slice fresh ginger

2 ounces bourbon (or whiskey)

½ ounce maple syrup

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

4 dashes orange bitters (or regular bitters)

Orange zest

Muddle fresh pear and ginger in a shaker. Add bourbon, maple, lemon, bitters and ice. Shake well, strain using a fine mesh strainer. Pour into a small cocktail glass with a couple ice cubes and garnish with orange zest.

Yield: 1 cocktail

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home.

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