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It’s been editor against the pears, and the pears have been winning.

Food and Drink / Column

Pear game

It was me against the pears, and the pears were winning

If I’ve come to understand anything about our home over the two decades we’ve lived here, it’s that there is no predicting from year to year the bounty that we might expect from our various fruit trees in the backyard.

Several weeks after my wife Susi and I moved in, we were buried in an avalanche of beautiful, sweet, white-fleshed peaches. A few years later — 2003, if I recall correctly — we ceremoniously harvested the apple.

This fall, we have experienced the Year of the Pear.

We should do something with all those pears, Susi said. I came home a couple of weeks ago and found that our friend had gone in the backyard and filled a plastic storage tub the size of a large file drawer to overflowing with green-skinned, crispy pears — Anjou, if my Google skills are serving me well.

I developed some decent cooking skills in the years after I left journalism early in my professional career for a job designing cookbooks. I would take pages from the designs of books in progress home and try my hand at making the recipes. (When I mentioned that to our publisher client’s editor, she had an immediate reaction to my earnest, twentysomething ambition for self-improvement. “I hate you,” she hissed over the phone.)

In the years since I got back into journalism, those same kitchen skills have atrophied. For a variety of reasons, it’s been a tough year and a tougher fall. I thought it would be a good stress relief to get back on the horse — or back in the fruit tree — and have some fun in the kitchen making something other than a newspaper — and, along the way, making some good use of those pears.

I made seven pies and tarts for friends and family. (“You get a pie! You get a pie! Every-body-gets-a-pie!”) Emboldened, I went back outside to fill a plastic laundry basket with more pears. It burst under the mounting pressure of what ended up being about 300 pieces of dense, crisp fruit.

But I was undeterred, and I now have frozen filling for 10 more pies. I have made a batch of pear chutney. I’ve cooked down a third big batch under duress, to do something — anything — with them before they went bad.

I subsequently refilled the original tub with about 500 more pears, counting as I pulled them, still beautiful, off the ground under the tree. They are waiting on the back porch. I probably at least that many waiting to be gleaned from under the tree, brought in before the snow starts flying this week.

It feels like it’s me versus the pears, and the pears are winning.

But I’ve put up a decent fight. Here’s what I did, what I made, and how I made it.

* * *

With that first big plastic tub of fruit looming in the kitchen, I figured that my first order of business would be to plan an efficient way to get through it and do something with them.

Through some trial and error, I found the best approach for peeling. I’d hold the pears by their stubby little top and peel around the circumference of the fruit. Then I’d invert the pear and do the same for the top. I found that if I worked with precision, it takes 10 peels around each hemisphere. (Interestingly, that number stays the same no matter the size of the pear, bringing back fragmentary memories of calculus, slopes, limits, and integrals.)

I then found the quickest way to get the most fruit: four quick chops around the core with the big kitchen knife that I’ve taken to calling my “pearing knife.” And then, from the block remaining, I cut away a square of fruit from what used to be the narrow stem. A small slice below the core also left nothing wasted.

I found it preferable to keep a bunch of bowls in front of me for the operation: a bowl to catch the peels, a temporary bowl to throw the big chunks of fruit, a bowl to accumulate the final chopped pears, and a bowl to store the cores. It’s quicker to chop the little remnants from around the core right away. Once I got through the peeling operation, I went back and further sliced the big chunks, about four at a time.

Before I knew it, I had a heaping stainless-steel bowl full of thinly sliced pears ready to be put into service.

Pear tart/pie

I taught myself how to make pie within a few weeks of moving into my first apartment after college. (After all, I’d tell family and friends, if you know how to cook only three things, one of them might as well be pie.)

My basic recipe came from my paperback copy of the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, purchased in 1990 and now falling apart and missing the pages with the actual pie recipes. But I know the basics by heart, and within the past few years, I’ve adapted the crust recipe, substituting butter for vegetable shortening. I did so despite Crisco’s desperate-and-not-at-all-defensive-sounding packaging copy, which swears that it is no longer deadly — honest!

For these pies, I experimented with spices as though I were making an apple pie — cinnamon and nutmeg go well with pears, right? As an afterthought, I poured a splash of orange liqueur into the pie filling, which added a little tang and richness to the mix without overpowering the essential peariness. (That was inspired by our food columnist Dot Grover-Read’s recipe for an apple tart a few weeks back, which used apple brandy.)

My first effort went into a glass tart pan with a single pie crust. Double the crust recipe for a more pielike pie with a top crust.

Make the crust:

Put in the freezer:

¶1 stick of butter, unsalted

In a big bowl, mix:

¶1 cup flour

¶dash salt

With a box grater, grate ⅓ cup (5⅓ Tbsp.) of the cold butter into the bowl. Mix thoroughly.

Get a supply of:

¶cold water

Add a splash at a time, mixing thoroughly but keeping the dough as dry as possible. You want the dough to be sticking but not sticky. Roll it out.

With the remaining hunk of butter, grease your pie plate or tart pan and assemble the crust.

Make the filling:

Mix:

¶4 cups finely chopped pears

¶{1/8} cup orange liqueur, if so desired

¶1 cup sugar

¶dusting of flour (to absorb pear juice and thicken filling)

¶1–2 Tbsp. cinnamon

¶1–2 tsp. nutmeg

Add the filling to pie shell. I sprinkled a fine coat of cinnamon on top of the fruit for color, if you call brown a color. If you’re making a tart, you can impress people by rolling out a scrap of dough and making little leaves. It is insane how much better the pies look with little dough leaves.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake pie for 45 minutes.

My anjou pears kept firm, even when cooked. Susi was wary at first, thinking they were underdone and represented a failed experiment — and I am happy to say that she changed her mind. We both ate way too much of that tart.

Pear chutney

This simple and delicious recipe has a Vermont provenance, coming from The Eating Well Cookbook, published in Charlotte in 1991. I later worked with the folks who edited and published this book and the magazine of the same name when they left and formed a publishing company outside of Burlington.

You can use this chutney pretty much anywhere. I’ve been putting it on sandwiches. I’ve eaten spoonfuls of it out of the refrigerator after a long day of newspapering.

The other day I discovered that it’s delicious in, of all things, scrambled eggs with some cheddar, brown rice, and black beans. (The latter is what Susi describes as “boy chow,” but I steadfastly insist it’s worth trying, whatever your gender identity.)

In a 3-quart saucepan, bring to a boil:

¶¾ cup sugar

¶¾ cup apple cider vinegar

Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add:

¶3 firm pears, peeled, cored, and diced (about 1¼ pounds total)

¶2 tsp. minced garlic.

¶1 tsp. peeled, minced ginger root

¶¼ tsp. red pepper flakes, or less, if desired

¶½ tsp. mustard seed

Again, bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat, simmering briskly uncovered, for about 45 minutes, or until the chutney thickens.

A word of caution: We made and loved this chutney the first year we got the pears from our backyard. A year later, we tried quadrupling the recipe — or maybe we quintuped it? — with disappointing, watery results, despite simmering it for hours more than the recipe called for. As Susi put it, the chutney “didn’t chut.” So be careful about food science and making huge batches at a time. You want your chutney to chut.

Fresh pear bread

Fast-forward about five days. I had a heaping steel bowl filled to overflowing with approximately 300 more pears that needed to be used — and fast. I had no room in the refrigerator or the freezer to store them in their natural state.

I cooked them down with a little sugar as I wondered about new ways to use them.

The internet to the rescue! A simple search for “pear recipes” got me a recipe for fresh pear bread, courtesy of a reader submission to tasteofhome.com, the website of a food magazine of the same name. The recipe earned almost a solid five stars, so I had to try it because, you know, of the stars.

I tinkered with the recipe a little bit to make it a taste of my home. (Ugh. That last phrase brought up images of me licking my windows.)

But back to the pears. The original recipe called for uncooked pears, but one of the comments suggested cooking them first. (These comments were unusually and notably civilized, but I guess when you are focused on cooking pear bread, calling someone a Nazi doesn’t roll off the tongue as quickly.) The original calls for walnuts, but I’m not a big nut fan. My home, my pears, my rules!

The recipe yielded a nice, sweet quick bread, full of pears, with a crunchy but tender crust. I would describe it is insanely easy to prepare, the onslaught of pears notwithstanding.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or otherwise prepare two 5 in. x 9 in. loaf pans.

Cook until tender:

¶4 cups finely chopped, peeled, ripe pears

¶ ¾ cup white sugar

Mix in one bowl:

¶3 large eggs, room temperature

¶1½ cups sugar

¶ ¾ cup vegetable oil

¶ 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Mix in another bowl:

¶3 cups all-purpose flour

¶2 tsp. baking powder

¶2 tsp. ground cinnamon

¶1 tsp. baking soda

¶1 tsp. salt

Add dry ingredients and the cooked pears to the wet ingredients. Divide dough into the two loaf pans and put into the oven. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #535 (Wednesday, November 6, 2019). This story appeared on page C1.

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