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Pears perfect in variety of pairings

Pears are best when harvested before they ripen. They achieve best flavor if you let them ripen at room temperature. (Illustration by Jan Roberts-Dominguez)

Eating a pear that has been properly grown, ripened, and stored can be one of life’s most fabulous culinary experiences. And except for the apple, I can’t think of a single other fruit that is so complementary to both sweet and savory side kicks. Be it cheese, pork, chocolate or creme Anglaise, the humble pear plays its role to perfection. And with a late-harvest Gewurztraminer or fine sweet Sauternes, well, the experience is truly grand.

But to achieve such culinary drama, you have to take some care at the front end. Unlike other “tree fruit,” pears achieve their best flavor and smoothest texture when ripened off the tree. Tree-ripened specimens tend to develop an unpleasant sort of graininess and mediocre taste.

This off-tree ripening process requires patience, and proceeds best at room temperature. Because they ripen from the inside outward, if you’re not vigilant it’s easy to miss a pear’s peak performance. Most varieties have very little color change as they ripen, so the best test is to cradle the fruit gently and test it for firmness — or the lack thereof. When the stem end yields to gentle pressure from your thumb, the pear is ripe. At this stage, it will also give off a heavenly aroma.

If you feel compelled to hasten the ripening process, you can place the fruit in a paper bag to trap the pears natural ripening agent, ethylene gas, as it’s emitted from the fruit. To slow down the process — at least for a couple of days — or to maintain it once it’s ripened to the desired state, place it in the refrigerator.

Certainly, local pears can be found in just about every state. But as you probably know Oregon and Washington provide 84 percent of the nation’s fresh crop. For lots of ideas and recipes, go to www.usapears.org.

Meanwhile, in order to have a plentiful supply through the holidays, pick up a bag full very soon and start the ripening process in your own kitchen.

Quick Pear Desserts

• The top of my list because the flavor combo is truly fabulous: A late harvest Gewurztraminer or Harris Bridge’s 2012 Pinot Gris dessert wine, a wedge of Roquefort (or Huntsman cheese), and juicy wedges of a perfect pear.

• Halve, core, and peel some pears and place them on dessert plates.

Drizzle on a bit of Grand Marnier, then add scoops of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of your favorite chocolate sauce.

• Core and peel whole Comice pears, then cut off the bottoms so they’ll sit up straight. Drizzle them with eau-de-vie (pear brandy), top with vanilla ice cream, and drizzle hot fudge sauce over it.

• Peel, core, and section 2 ripe Comice pears, then dip them in chocolate sauce and serve. Or, dip them in Cognac. Add a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

• Core, peel, and cut up 1 Bartlett pear, 1 banana, 1 apple, and 1 orange, then toss them with toasted coconut and fresh orange juice.

• Toss 2 cored and peeled ripe Bartlett or Comice pears in balsamic vinegar and pepper lightly.

• Cut wedges of soft havarti cheese, place on a bed of raspberries, and add slices of ripe pear. Slices of either French bread or pound cake complete the experience.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Pears, Wild Rice, and Toasted Hazelnuts

3 acorn or dumpling squash

• Freshly ground pepper

• Freshly ground nutmeg

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup wild rice

11/2 cups chicken broth (canned is OK)

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 large rib celery, finely chopped

2 firm pears (preferably, Bosc or Anjou), peeled, halved lengthwise, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 teaspoons minced fresh sage

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves

1/3 cup minced fresh parsley

1/3 cup raw hazelnut kernels, toasted and chopped hazelnuts (see note)

1/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut each squash in half crosswise.

Scoop out the seeds and strings. If necessary, trim the top and bottom so that the squash sit firmly and place them on a rimmed baking sheet, flesh side up. Sprinkle each half with a little pepper and nutmeg to taste. Using 3 tablespoons of the butter, dot each half with some. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake the squash just until moist and tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the rice, chicken broth, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender, about 40 minutes. When the rice is done most of the water should be evaporated.

Meanwhile, in a 10-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

Swirl to coat the pan, then saute the onion, garlic, celery and carrot until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the pears and saute 2 minutes longer. Cover the pan, adjust the heat to medium-low and cook the mixture until the vegetables are just crisp-tender, about 3 minutes longer. Add the sage, thyme and parsley and cook 1 more minute. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice, sauteed vegetables and pears, hazelnuts and cranberries. Adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste, if desired. Mound the rice mixture into the squash halves, dividing it evenly. Cut the remaining tablespoon of butter into six chunks. Dot each stuffed squash with the butter. Cover with foil and bake in a 350 degree oven until heated through, about 20 minutes.

Toasting hazelnuts: Place the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Watch carefully that they don’t burn. Remove from the oven and tumble out onto a clean dish towel. Rub the nuts to remove the brittle outer skin.

Source: Recipe adapted from Pear Bureau Northwest.

Spinach and Pears with Candied Hazelnuts and Raspberry-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

Makes 6 to 8 servings

This salad was inspired by a Spinach and Candied Pecan creation by fellow Oregon food writer, Maryana Vollstedt and in that capacity, appears in one of her cookbooks, “The Big Book of Potluck.”

8 to 10 cups of mixed baby spinach, baby arugula, and other salad greens, tough stems removed

1 sweet onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced Raspberry-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

2 ripe pears (preferably comice), peeled, cored, and thinly sliced

• About 1/2 cup of crumbled blue cheese (or feta)

• Candied Hazelnut Garnish (recipe follows)

1/2 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries

To assemble the salad, place the spinach and other salad greens in a large bowl, along with the sweet onion slices. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to evenly coat the leaves.

To serve, place a serving of the tossed greens on each salad plate.

Divide the sliced pears among the plates, arranging them attractively on one edge of the greens. Sprinkle each serving with a portion of the blue cheese, then the Candied Hazelnuts and dried cherries or cranberries.

Drizzle an extra bit of the vinaigrette over everyone’s serving of pears.

CANDIED HAZELNUT GARNISH (makes about 3/4 cup): In a medium to small-sized skillet (non-stick coated is OK), melt 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar together over medium heat. Add 3/4 cup chopped roasted and skinned hazelnuts and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring fairly constantly, until the sugar caramelizes around the nuts and they are a rich golden-brown. Remove to a nonstick surface (such as parchment paper or a silicon pad) and separate the nuts so they won’t stick together when they are cooled. Can be prepared several days ahead and stored in a covered container.

Raspberry-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup

This vinaigrette was designed to go with the Spinach and Pears with Candied Hazelnuts Salad. Beyond that, consider other spinach salad or baby green salads incorporating many other fruits, including (when in season) strawberries, apples, orange segments, avocados and Asian pears.

1/4 cup raspberry vinegar

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons poppy seeds

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 finely minced clove of garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a bowl or pint-sized jar with lid, whisk together the vinegar, poppy seeds, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil.

Whisk thoroughly again just before using. Can be prepared ahead and refrigerated until needed (the olive oil will thicken when cool, so remove from refrigerator ahead of serving time to allow it to become liquid again).

Pear-Cranberry Crumble

This is a great holiday dessert. You could also make the crumble in individual ramekins; just check on it sooner, as it will likely cook more quickly this way.

Crumble topping

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup old-fashioned (not quick cooking) oats

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar Pinch of salt

13 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and well chilled

Filling

5 cups peeled, cored and sliced pears

3/4 cup dried cranberries, plumped in hot water (or rum)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

1/2 cup sugar

• Pinch of kosher salt

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

• Vanilla ice cream (optional, but delicious)

To prepare the topping, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar and salt.

Using a mixer, beat in the cold butter and mix on low speed until the topping just begins to come together and resembles large bits of chunky dough. Transfer the topping to a shallow container, breaking it up a bit. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To prepare the filling, heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the pears, cranberries, lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, salt and flour. Toss the ingredients lightly to coat evenly and pour into a 11/2 quart shallow baking dish. Top with the crumble topping, breaking up any large clumps with your fingers and spreading it evenly. At this point, there might be areas that aren’t completely covered with topping, but don’t worry because it will spread a bit as it bakes. Bake until the topping begins to brown and the filling is bubbling, about 40 minutes.

Remove the crumble from the oven and let it cool somewhat before serving. Delicious with vanilla ice cream! Makes about 8 servings.

Source: Adapted from “Bistro Cooking At Home,” by Gordon Hamersley.

Upside-Down Pear Ginger Cake

Fruit layer

3 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 ripe pears

Cake

6 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 cup water

2/3 cup unsulphured molasses

1 tablespoon grated orange zest, optional

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

11/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

• Big pinch of ground cloves

2 large eggs, beaten lightly whipped cream, sweetened to taste

To prepare the fruit layer, melt the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup over very low heat in a flame-proof 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan (the pan should be 2 inches deep), stirring until the butter has melted and blended smoothly with the sugar and syrup. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside while preparing the fruit.

To prepare the pears, peel and core. Cut the fruit into 1/4-inch wedges; overlap the wedges closely in the pan over the butter mixture; set aside.

To prepare the cake, measure the butter and water into a saucepan; heat, stirring, just until the butter melts. Add the molasses and orange zest (if using); cool to lukewarm.

Meanwhile, sift together into a mixing bowl the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves. Add the water/butter mixture and stir just until moistened. Whisk in the eggs. Pour the batter over the fruit. Lift the pan a few inches above the counter and drop it onto the counter a time or two to settle everything snugly.

Bake the cake in a 350-degree oven 45 to 50 minutes, or until it has shrunken slightly from the sides of the pan and a cake tester emerges dry after probing the center.

Cool 5 minutes in the pan, then turn the cake out onto a serving plate.

If bits of fruit stay behind in the pan, lift them with a thin spatula and fit them into place.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature, accompanied by the whipped cream.

Source: Recipe adapted from “Mrs. Witty’s Home-Style Menu Cookbook,” by Helen Witty.

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Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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