Grow a Pear
Article by P. Allen Smith
Apples have always been more popular than pears, and I’ve often wondered if Eve had eaten a pear instead of an apple if that would still be the case. Though the poor pear may not be associated with Christendom, like apples, they can be baked in tarts, preserved in jars, or paired with cheese and eaten raw. And this time of year, pears can and should take center stage.
It all starts with the tree.
I love to grow pears espalier style, an old-school method where the tree is planted near a wall or structure and the limbs are trained to grow alongside a frame, rather than straight up into the air. For our forefathers, this growing method meant fruit could be picked without a ladder, and the trees would take up less space. But even though I have access to ladders and room to grow, I simply enjoy the challenge and the process. My go-to espalier design is the candelabra, where the branches grow out and then up, to look like a row of candles. My Jewish friends call it a “pear menorah.”
And espalier trees planted in this way can form a natural wall, barrier, or backdrop in your garden. However, espalier can be tricky. Sometimes, I start a project and Mother Nature, or even her stubborn offspring, will have other plans. I keep a few of my failed espaliers – killed by a rampant case of fire blight — as a reminder that she holds the final wild card.
Picking the Right Pear
Anyone who has bitten into a gritty Bosc, expecting the sweetness of an Anjou, will tell you not all pears are created equal. They vary in sweetness, flavor and juiciness, so the variety you choose for your recipe is important. Here’s a quick primer:
Kieffer – My favorite variety to grow, mainly because they’re the only ones I’m very good at. They’re a lesser-known variety developed in the 1860s in Pennsylvania and can thrive in northern and southern states. The trees produce beautiful blooms, and the fruit is great for canning and baking. My mother and my aunts would finely shred Kieffers for pear honey and used them in preserves and pies.
Green Anjou – The sweetest, most prevalent pear. It’s an all-purpose fruit that’s juicy, mellow and delightful raw but also great for baking and roasting.
Red Anjou – Like the Green Anjou but sweeter, and with a hint of spice replacing the citrus. Opt for this one when you want to add some color to your plate.
Bartlett – Typically used for canning, and generally not eaten raw. This variety has lots of juice, so it’s best for purees or baking.
Red Bartlett – Like green Bartlett but a little sweeter, so it’s eaten raw more often, but also great for preserves.
Bosc – Tall and brownish with firm flesh which is best for baking and poaching, and perfect for tarts.
Concorde – Another all-purpose pear, slightly more tart than the Anjou, but still good when raw. Great for baking but because it doesn’t brown as quickly once you cut it, it’s ideal for garnish. In season: September to February.
Seckel – A small variety with soft insides that’s best eaten raw. These are so sweet, sometimes they’re called “sugar pears.” Try pairing with cheese and wine.
Comice – Another juicy and sweet pear with silky flesh and a mellow flavor. Best raw.
Forelle – You will know this pear by its speckled skin, which resembles a trout. It has a firm, crisp flavor much like a green apple.
Starkrimson – Tell-tale red coloring holds a soft and juicy variety with a floral, almost perfumy flavor, which mellows out when baked. Use to add unexpected color to tarts and other pear desserts.
Spinach, Pear and Cranberry Salad
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup thinly sliced red onion, chilled in cold water for 30 minutes
1/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries
8 cups lightly packed fresh baby spinach leaves, stemmed if needed
2 firm but ripe pears (do not peel), quartered lengthwise, cored, and cut into long, thin slices
2/3 cup sliced almonds
To make the dressing:
• Combine the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, sugar, and salt in a mason jar.
• Throw in a pinch of pepper.
• Secure the lid on the jar and shake vigorously until blended well. Then set aside 2 tablespoons.
• Put the 2 tablespoons of dressing in a bowl and stir in the dried cranberries. Set aside. This will soften the cranberries so they’re not so chewy.
• Strain the red onions. Chilling the red onion slices in cold water will crisp them up and take away the raw onion taste.
• In a large bowl, put 8 cups of fresh spinach, your sliced onions, and 2 thinly sliced pears. Give the remaining dressing in the jar one last shake and pour it over the salad.
• Add the cranberries and toss so the dressing fully coats the spinach. Serve immediately.
Makes about 4 servings.