Be sure to ask if the pears that strike your fancy should be eaten crisp or allowed to soften, as pears are picked mature, but not ripe.
EARLY PIONEERS brought the first pear trees to the Pacific Northwest, and they’ve flourished since. Both the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys are home to a multitude of pear growers, from industrial-sized orchards that export thousands of tons of fruit to small organic farms run by a family with a farm stand. Washington growers produce more pears than any other state, primarily juicy, sweet, yellow and red Bartletts, a large percentage of which get canned.
We also produce tons of buttery, aromatic green and red d’Anjou; brown-skinned, long-necked, crunchy Bosc; tiny, super-sweet Seckel; crunchy, plump Concorde; and round, sweet, silky-fleshed Comice.
A trip to the farmers market will uncover even more varieties, and many farmers will let you taste before you buy. Be sure to ask if the pears that strike your fancy should be eaten crisp or allowed to soften, as pears are picked mature, but not ripe. They ripen from the inside out, and if left on the tree they become soft and mealy in the middle while the outer flesh is still hard and tannic. You will almost always take home pears that require at least a little time on the counter. To test a pear for ripeness, use your thumb to gently apply pressure at the stem end. If the pear gives, it’s ready.
At Booth Canyon Orchard in Twisp, Stina Booth and John Richardson grow an amazing 13 varieties, including Clara Frijs, one of my favorites, which is equally delicious but completely different when eaten crisp or soft. Stina’s favorite early pear is the smooth and delicate Morettini, and late in the season (January/February) she likes the tiny, sugary Dana Hoveys. She started with three acres of d’Anjou, which she still thinks are the best all-around for eating, and she recommends them for drying and making pear jam, too.
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Serve these warm or chilled, with a drizzle of reduced cooking liquid, chocolate sauce, vanilla custard or ice cream. Trim the bottoms of the cooked pears so they stand upright, or slice them vertically, leaving the slices attached at the neck. Then gently push the stem end down while twisting the pear to fan it out.
You can poach almost any variety (avoid the super-juicy soft ones like Bartlett, which will fall apart), but I prefer Bosc because they maintain their texture, and their shape is so beautiful. Or try tiny Seckel or Angel pears because they are the perfect size to serve on top of a crème brûlée or alongside a slice of cake.
As you peel and core the pears, drop them into a bowl of cold water with a few tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to keep them from browning.
1 gallon water (or 5 cups water and 1 bottle white wine)
2¾ cups sugar
5 cinnamon sticks
3 star anise
2-inch chunk fresh ginger, sliced
1 plump vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
6 firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored from the bottom, stems left attached
1. Put the water (and wine if using), sugar, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, vanilla bean and scrapings, lemon zest and juice into a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2. Reduce the heat and simmer the poaching liquid for 10 minutes.
3. Add the pears and lay a piece of parchment paper directly on top of the pears (and the liquid) to keep them from browning. Poach gently until tender (use a thin knife or toothpick to test) and remove with a slotted spoon. Start checking the pears after 10 minutes. Cooking time will depend on the size and ripeness of the pears, and can vary greatly. Any pear should be cooked within 25 to 30 minutes. (You can use the liquid to poach a second batch.)