Lacking the exotic skin of a pineapple or the flashy color of a raspberry, pears seem humble, even homely. Fashion magazines' propensity to classify bottom-heavy body types as "pear-shaped" probably hasn't improved the fruit's reputation. This is a mistake—the pear is a versatile fruit that shines sweet as well as savory.
Though there are more than 3,000 varieties of pears, only a handful of the so-called European varieties—Bosc, D'anjou, Bartlett, Comice, and Seckel—generally appear in the local market. Wayne Talmage, a veteran organic grower in Paonia, is doing his best to introduce Colorado to more. On his 60-acre White Buffalo Farm, Talmage grows seven varieties, including red and green Bartletts and the more exotic Shinko, Hosui, and Shinsheiki. Rounder and crisper than the common Bartlett, the last three are Asian varieties resembling apples in both texture and shape. The harvest times for European and Asian varieties are different, Talmage cautions, so if you've tried one from a grocery store and don't like it, try again. "Many growers pick [Asian pears] on the European standard, which doesn't work," he says.
At the grocery store, don't bother looking at the color of the fruit—with the exception of the Bartlett, most pears don't change color when they're ripe. The best way to check for ripeness is to give the pear a little love—hold it and squeeze its shoulders near the stem.
Some recipe ideas: Toss pears with Gorgonzola cheese and greens, sauté them in butter, simply eat them, or try the pear-cranberry compote from Amy Vitale, co-owner of Tables. As a side dish, it pairs nicely with a cheese plate, ham, chicken, or pork.
RECIPE: Pear-Cranberry Compote
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 2 cups orange juice
- 1/2 cup finely diced onion
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoons port
- 3 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 cup dried figs, quartered
- 3 pears, peeled, cored, and diced
Place cranberries in a small, nonreactive bowl and add orange juice just to cover. Set aside. Over medium heat, sauté onion in butter until slightly caramelized, then add port and stir for 1 minute. Strain cranberries over a bowl to catch the orange juice, and add cranberries and a little bit of the juice to the pan. Reserve the remaining juice. Add lemon juice and sugar and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the figs and pears and sauté for 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper; add more orange juice if necessary for texture. Place in bowl and refrigerate until cool.