Pears - good or mediocre - can be an enigma to the cook. The flavor is so often bland, and the species we see throughout the year seem boringly predictable. European consumers demand more, which just may be the reason they get more.
Even when you have carefully chosen an unblemished, perfectly shaped half dozen, you must decide which day they are at their peak. They must have the right aroma and a subliminal softness when held in the palm of the hand.
Left one day too long, the flesh of the pear is too soft at the center and the skin toughens. Only experience eliminates such mistakes.
But the marvelous shape of pears makes them naturals for those fruit arrangements that we do so simply for winter centerpieces.
The following recipes for pears at the beginning and the middle of the meal can all be made with pears that have not quite reached their hour of perfection. Winter Antipasto Salad 2 anchovy fillets or 2 teaspoons anchovy paste 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard Freshly ground black pepper Salt, optional 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil 1 tablespoon minced parsley 3 firm, ripe pears 1 bulb fresh fennel, about 1/2 pound, trimmed, quartered, and cut in 1/2-inch slices or 3 inside stalks of celery, sliced 1 cup red radish slices 1/4 pound pepper ham, prosciutto, or West phalian ham thinly sliced 2 bunches watercress, coarse stems cut off
In a medium-size bowl, mash anchovy fillets with fork until reduced to a paste. Whisk in vinegar, mustard, pepper, and oil until well combined. Stir in parsley, and taste for salt.
Halve and core pears and slice thinly. Add to dressing with fennel and radishes and turn gently to coat with dressing. Store in refrigerator 30 minutes to an hour.
Cut ham into fine julienne. Line a shallow bowl with watercress, arrange salad on cress, mounding it slightly, and sprinkle with ham. Serve immediately as a first course to 6. Pork Chop, Parsnip, and Pear Stew 6 lean pork chops, about 3/4-inch thick 1 pound medium parsnips 2 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, finely minced 1 tablespoon cider vinegar 1 cup chicken stock, homemade or canned 2 large firm pears, Bosc or other for cooking 1/4 cup currant jelly 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper
Trim some fat from chops and render in a large frying pan. Add chops and brown both sides slowly. Salt and pepper lightly and continue to saute until pork is almost done, about 40 minutes.
Prepare parsnips and cut in large julienne about 1 1/2 by 3 inches. Heat butter in another skillet, add parsnips, brown slowly about 7 minutes. They will not be completely done. Cut each unpeeled pear in eighths.
After 40 minutes, add minced onion to pork chops and shake pan to distribute evenly. Saute 2 minutes. Add vinegar, tipping pan and stirring bottom to deglaze. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, and arrange parsnips and pears over chops. Partly cover pan and continue to cook gently, basting parsnips and pears often, about 15 more minutes.
When parsnips and meat are done, pears may maintain their crispness. Add currant jelly, spooning it in various sections of the pan and agitating juices to melt evenly.
Add cream and tip the pan to distribute it. Taste sauce and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Bring to a boil, basting ingredients and turning chops to make sure they are well coated with sauce. Serve on warm plates to 4 or 6. Pear Chow-Chow 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons dry mustard 1 teaspoon turmeric 1/4 teaspoon cayenne 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed 1/2 cup sugar 1 cup cider vinegar 1/2 cup dark seedless raisins 2 fresh hot green chilies, seeded and finely chopped, or 2 jalapeno peppers, pickled or canned, chopped 2 pounds firm pears
You may want to eliminate the cayenne and one of the jalapeno peppers. This chow-chow is very hot.
In a 3-quart saucepan, combine fresh ginger, garlic, salt, mustard, turmeric, cayenne, cumin seed, sugar, and vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer together 3 minutes over moderate heat.
Wash pears, core and cut, unpeeled, into 1-inch pieces. Add to spice mixture with raisins and hot peppers. Simmer over moderate heat, partly covered, until pears have softened and turned slightly transparent, about 20 minutes. Stir often.
Spoon into hot clean jars, cover tightly, and store in the refrigerator at least 2 days before using. If you plan to keep the chow-chow for any length of time, sterilize the jars. Makes about 5 cups. Baked Pears
For a simple dessert, peel one pear per person, cut in half lengthwise, and remove seeds. Generously butter a baking dish and sprinkle it with a little sugar. Put pears in the dish cut side down, sprinkle them with a little more sugar and bake at 375 degrees F. for 20 minutes. Pour a few tablespoons of cream over pears and bake for 15 more minutes.