Thursday, March 28, 2013

Velvety Roasted Pears

I could have just as easily called this entry "Ridiculously Simple Roasted Pears" or "When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Pears." All titles would be fair and accurate. The pears are velvety; the method of preparation is time consuming, but is embarrassingly simple; and roasting is a great answer for the problem of under-ripe, mealy and withered pears - the kind of pears you might already possess.

For eating out of hand, my favorite varieties of pear are  seckel and comice, though I find forellle the most beautiful. Over the years I've tried almost every kind of pear I could find, including yellow and red bartletts (by far the most popular varieties in the US), bosc, and others. For roasting, however, my favorite pear variety is the anjou (or d'Anjou). 

I seldom buy anjou for any purpose other than roasting because typically anjou pears are simply not as juicy and tasty and comices, seckels and (next tier in my personal pear Olympics), boscs. 

Often the anjous - and other pears - are sold rock hard. Unlike other fruit, pears ripen after being picked from the tree. You can hasten ripening by putting them in a bag with a ripe banana or apple, which will give off ethylene gas and promote the pears' own ripening process.

Sometimes, of course, pears pass from rock hard/under-ripe to withered/mealy without passing through the Zone of Lusciousness. Have no fear! Roasting will make pears at either end of the ripeness spectrum as lush and sweet as you might hope. Perfect for the pears that feel like baseballs and for the bag you forgot in the back of the fridge.

Here's what you'll need for the Ridiculously Simple ingredient list: Pears, raisins, cinnamon and water.

Even more Ridiculously Simple is what you won't need: butter, sugar, wine or a peeler.

You will, however, need lots of this: baking time.


1) Preheat your oven to 400 degrees

2) Select a baking dish. I like to use glass baking dishes, but you could also use rimmed metal baking trays. The pears will give off syrup, so think in advance of clean-up and scrubbing. You could line the trays with aluminum foil, but I caution you that things could get a bit sticky. Choose a dish large enough to fit the pears you intend to use, or use the number of pears for which you have a dish. For example, I fit 8 pear halves (4 pears, I hope I don't need to say) on the oblong 4 qt. baking dish in the photo below. Any shape of dish - square, rectangular, oval, etc. - is potentially fine to use. You could also use a combination of dishes as I typically do.

3) Sprinkle your baking dish with ground cinnamon. I loooooove cinnamon (to quote a friend from Yorkshire), so I use a heavy hand - maybe "shovel" would be a better word choice than "sprinkle."

Enough cinnamon?

4) Slice the pears in half. Using a small spoon - a demitasse spoon is good if you hail from a more genteel era and have one - dig out the pear's seed pod.

5) Stuff the cavity with 4-5 raisins, or as many fit comfortably.

What manner of jewel have I in my navel?

6) Place the pears raisin-side down on the cinnamony dish. Pour about a half inch of water on the whole shebang. 

A relaxing cinnamon bath

7) Here's the hard part: believing how long you need to keep the pears in the oven. The baking time is well over an hour, closer to 2 hours. Every 20 minutes or so you'll need to add some water to the roasting pan. Your goal is to keep the pears from scorching. You do, however, want to get them good and roasted! This is the key to the velvety texture mentioned in the title. I've mentioned elsewhere about the unreliability of my oven temperature. Perhaps my 400 is really 375. No matter. Keep an eye on both the clock and the water level.

8) You think they're done now? Go back and give them another 20 minutes.

Here's what you're looking for. Burnt? Overdone? No way. Think deep, caramelized flavors.

What you're looking for - even if you don't know it

9) Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool a bit. Carefully remove the pears using a spatula. Add a small amount of water to loosen the pears if necessary. After cooling, pears can be frozen if you're not going to use them right away.

Just chillin'

Wasn’t that Ridiculously Simple? No hassle of peeling the pairs. No need for sugar, wine, butter, etc. to replace the flavor that you never took away. On the contrary, you intensified and enriched the flavor! No worries that your peeled pears look a little lopsided or some of the pears got more of a flavor injection (from the wine-sugar) than did the other side, and now you have to come up with a way to balance the flavors.

Here they are in all their velvety glory. 

I like them just as is, but feel free to add ice cream, crème fraiche or Greek yogurt or use the pears as a topping for pound cake or sliced over pancakes or French toast. As one friend’s child marveled, “This really counts as a fruit, and not as a yummy dessert? Really?”

Really. And only you need to know how Ridiculously Simple these velvety roasted pears were to make.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What the heck is that? Durian fruit

You can't say it doesn't warn you.

First, there's its appearance. Heavy, armored and spiky.

I dare you

I double dare you

We've seen some armored fruit before - guanabana and jackfruit  (aka in Brazil as graviola and jaca, respectively), for example. But those fruit are not as, well, mean-looking.This fruit looks positively belligerent in comparison.

And then there's the smell. Oh Lord, the smell.

Looking weird but deceptively cute here

I first heard about durian fruit when I went to Asia over a decade ago. I ended up flying with Cathay Pacific, which uses Hong Kong as its hub, but nearly took Sinapore Airlines. As an inveterate gum chewer, I was somewhat alarmed to learn that gum chewing was prohibited in Singapore and figured it would behoove me to learn what else was on the no-no list. Some sources said that a large and distinctive fruit called durian was banned in Singapore because of what Wikipedia called "its stomach churning odor...described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine, raw sewage and gym socks."

I was, of course, intrigued.

When I arrived in Asia, I made sure to seek out the durian fruit. They're not hard to find: durians are very popular, and their scent announces their presence. Even in their mighty shells, durians manage to convey their scent.  I've only smelled durian outdoors and in someone's very well ventilated home (every window and the front door opened for the occasion) and my knees still nearly buckled. I could only imagine how overpowering the smell could be in tight quarters.

If you are expecting An Experience, durian fruit do not disappoint. Many vendors will sell you a chunk of the fruit if you'd like. 

A scary gill slit?

Or two.

The removed flesh looks a bit like a lobe of an internal organ. An organ you might need.

The durian's texture is firm-creamy, kind of like avocado - not surprising given the fruit's high-for-produce fat content. Nevertheless the overall impression is eerie.

Back to the smell. One of the wildest aspects of the durian's scent is its overpowering nature. It's as if someone came in and coated the inside of your nostrils with Essence of Durian. You simply can't shake the scent.

The durian's taste is like that too. It is an astounding mixture of sweet custard and fetid onions, and it will positively coat your tongue - and linger. Here's a description from Cami Oger of Le Manger 

Once you have clearly identified this smell, after a few encounters with the durian, you cannot go wrong. You know exactly what is it is. Then, when you have a taste of it for the first time, you’re not surprised. Its taste is the solid expression of this stink...The powerful taste is followed by an even more powerful after-taste. Don’t even think about getting rid of it. Oh yeah, you can eat all you want to cover it. But you will only get a weird mix of the taste of what you’re eating and the after-taste of the fruit that won’t let go. Even worse : when you think you have finally beaten the taste, after brushing your teeth 4 times, 2 hours later, you will have a strong tendency to burp. Yes, durian is sneaky. It is not easy to digest. And with the burping, hop, you get the taste all over again.

Simply reading this description is almost enough to evoke the smell and taste for me -- and to give me my fill. But some people can't get enough! Most Southeast Asian countries have deep appreciation for durian fruit and a great number of recipes - durian cheesecakes and durian pastries, ice creams and custards, rice dishes, curries - that feature it. Care for a chocolate with a durian center? I've enjoyed the expressions on the faces of people who bit into bread topped by vegemite thinking it was chocolate. The unsuspecting eater of a durian-centered chocolate (presumably attributing That Smell to something else) is bound to top that one.

Go ahead, add chowing down some of the "king of fruits" to your bucket list. You might love it! You might be inspired to host Durian Fest (and conclude that the Fest merely whets your appetite for more durian.) You might even use it as a means of exploring Southeast Asia, as the bloggers behind Year of the Durian do. Or one taste might be enough. After all, that taste might hang around for a while.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Signs from the Union Square Green Market

Some dismal weather last week had me yearning for the Union Square Farmers Market in its Spring and Summer glory.

The market is typically full of shoppers of all kinds, including chefs and buyers for restaurants, who sometimes lug enormous wagons to cart off inspirations for their menus.

I'm not the only one who finds the Market intriguing - here is it as a backdrop to a movie.

Elsewhere I've showcased some of the great produce of the Union Square Market. I also love its signs: encouraging, whimsical, informative, hectoring, boastful and sometimes just plain weird.

Maybe the most important sign of all

Sunday, March 3, 2013

DIY Raisins

Over the years I've been exhorted to make my own hot sauce, vinegarketchupmustard, etc. (Yeah, mayonnaise too, but since mayonnaise repulses everyone in my family, we tune out any mention of this dreaded substance.) So far, I've avoided all those DIY (do-it-yourself) ideas.

Two recent images, however, suggested a different kind of DIY project:

Here's the first image - not-so-fresh grapes:

We all wither at times

And here's the second - the "exotic fruit" section of a gourmet store:

Lookin' tasty! But wait - I really need to show the full image.

Hanging out with our buddies rambutan and star fruit

Yes, $15/lb. Hmmm, I thought, I had some grapes that were already en route to raisindom. Perhaps I could help them along? 

My first thought for past-their-prime grapes is roasting. Nevertheless I was interested in exploring this other option.

I washed and shook the water off the grapes and put them on a foil-lined baking sheet. I set the oven at around 100 - 150 degrees (in the mystery unmarked zone on my oven knob).

I had never baked anything at such a low temperature, and I wasn't sure how long the cooking time would last. After two hours the grapes looked both withered and rounder. The kitchen smelled faintly of roasted grapes.

I checked in on the grapes every half hour or so. I finally called it quits at about the 4 hour mark, when the grapes looked like this.

It was late by then, so I put the grape-raisins in a bag for examination the next day. I wasn't sure if they had fully attained dried fruit status, so I decided to refrigerate them to prevent rot.

The verdict the next morning: they were probably the best raisins I've ever had in my life. They were plump. They were succulent. Their flavor was superb. That having been said, I would still opt for roasting my tired and poor grapes. But I understand not everyone is as much of roasting fanatic as I am.

I made enough DIY raisins to share with my friend Rose, so I can say truthfully that they make a lovely gift.  

They were also a popular snack paired with almonds, and an attractive addition to a cheese board.

As I've mentioned previously, red grapes have a host of health benefits. Here's a great way to add them to your diet -- and get some DIY street cred at the same time.