Katherine wanted more details on how to poach pears, so here I am, because I love her. How-to’s are my favorite to write: a study on how to approach and succeed at something helps me as much as it helps all of you, because often I’m either learning or fine-tuning techniques right along with you. Feast has been brilliant this past year at letting me do this in a new featurette for the magazine, but that’s for another post: right now, let’s poach.
Fall pears are a beautiful thing: so colorful, from glowing read to earth-brown to green-yellow, and their graceful curves remind me of falling leaves. They ring in September just before we’re all hit with Pumptober, and sadly underused in favor of apples. I understand: apples are sturdier, easier to handle without bruising, a firm workhorse of a fruit. Pears are delicate, both in flavor and in texture, but are yes, most likely to come home from even the most careful market trip bruised and imperfect. That may make them ugly, but it doesn’t make them any less delicious, and you can work with that. Here’s how: poaching.
Poaching is a wonderful thing because it takes the guesswork out of serving them. Will your pears make it to that evening dinner party salad? Will they be ripe? Brown? Too firm or mealy? Who cares! You’re going to poach them, which softens firm pears, infuses them with an undercurrent of flavor, and disappears any unsightly bumps or bruises. Plus, no browning: you can leave a poached pear out for DAYS and they’ll stay golden, which means you can slice them up ahead of time.
I have a feature coming up in the November issue of Feast – it’s a good one, and one of the recipes involves poaching pears. You’ll for sure want to make them, so I’m going to give you a little guidance ahead of time in the name of planning ahead. Poaching sounds fancy, but it’s not – it’s dead simple, with mere minutes of actual work time.
Step 1 – Find your Pears
Go with a firm-ripe pear here: nothing too smooshy, because poaching will soften them, and you want them to hold their shape and be sliceable. Bosc, Comice, and D’Anjou are all good picks, but don’t turn your nose up at the Barletts – most recipes will tell you they aren’t good for poaching, but that’s not always true: just make sure they’re nice and firm, but just ripe enough to bite into.
Step 2 – Pick your Poach
That’s code for pick your wine, b/c that’s my favorite way to poach. You can totally go alcohol-free – lots of recipes exist for sugar-poached pears (like a simple syrup of sorts), honey-poached pears, and the like, but i enjoy a wine poach. I don’t add sugar, mostly because pears are already so softly sweet, I’d hate to ruin that balance. Wine-poaching lets you experiment with the flavors in the wine itself and add to it as needed, and the natural sugars don’t overpower, keeping things perfect for both savory and sweet applications.
Step 3 – Infuse Flavor
Whether you go with wine or not, you may want to add a little layered flavor: for fall, i like a combo of orange or lemon zest and some fall whole spices, like clove, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and so on. Vanilla bean is a solid choice for a dessert pear, or try some dried fruits like cranberry or cherry. If you’re using wine, pick one that complements the flavors you’re thinking of adding. Go with a dry red or white – white for a natural pear color and sparkly vibe (my personal favorite for thanksgiving) or red for a deep, moody maroon color and more of a mulled wine / winter feeling.
Step 4 – Do It
Enough with the chat – time for some action. There’s a billion recipes for poaching on the internets; find one you like. For 4 or 5 pears, you’ll need about 5 cups total liquid to cover the pears. You’ll need a large saucepan – my 3.5 quart one is great for this, and could manage up to 6 good-sized pears easily. If you’re zesting, go with 1 – 2 fruits’ worth, and don’t go overboard with spices – maybe 2 teaspoons max and a cinnamon stick or vanilla bean for good measure, because you don’t want to overpower the pears. Bring liquids and spices to a boil, and while that’s happening, peel your pears with a vegetable peeler: it works out perfectly, because by the time you’re done, you’ll hear things starting to bubble. Make sure your pears can sit upright, and if they can’t, then shave off a little of their bottom, then reduce heat to a bare simmer and lower those babies into the liquid, laying down if they need to. Cover and let them simmer for around 10 minutes until they’re just tender, but not at all mushy.
Step 5 – Relax! You’re done.
All you have to do now is keep those pears luxuriating in their poaching liquid on the counter until things cool down to room temp. Once that happens, move the whole pan to the fridge to let them chill out in their liquid overnight. The next day, boom: your pears are perfectly chilly, buttery soft, and ready to go. You have to do precisely nothing but plop them onto a bed of arugula, pour some creme anglaise over them, or slice them up to throw in a tossed fall or winter salad.
Bonus Points – Reduce the Liquid
Guess what: Poaching liquid makes a beautiful sauce if you reduce it. If you have a few extra minutes, remove the pears from the liquid and bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for maybe 20 or so minutes until it reduces to a syrup. Pour that magic over the pears if you’re doing a dessert, OR use it as a vinaigrette base for a savory salad. Either way, it’s delightful.
That’s all there is to it! For the exact recipe I crafted, you’ll have to wait a minute until November’s issue comes out, but a quick walkabout on the interwebs will get you on your way to poaching greatness.
Want to give it a go? Browse these solid recipe starting points: i’ll update this with my own recipe once it’s published.
Off you go! Remember, they’re your pears, so play around with flavors until you find your favorites.