Sunday, February 11, 2007

Poached Pears

A description of pear shaped tends to be derogatory and yet, unlike their cousin the apple, pears are delicate things, sweet and juicy when ripe, firm without being crisp and quite lovely in your mouth. Not at all deserving of such snobbish dismissal. They have a short window of ripeness - only a few days. You can tell they are perfect when they have a gentle whiff of perfume and give slightly to pressure around the stem. They ripen from the core outwards so if you wait till they soften around the middle you will have waited too long and they will be on the way to fermentation and the making of perry.

Available most of the year they are good to eat fresh, alone or with cheeses, particularly blue cheeses I find. Some varieties, like the Comice and the Anjou lend themselves very well to cooking - they poach beautifully to make great desserts or thinly sliced atop buttery pastry for a different take on tarte tatin. This time of year they are great poached with spices to bring a little exotic warmth to the end of a wet winter day.

This recipe is from the utterly brilliant Heston Blumenthal - an englishman striving to have the world eat well.

1 bottle good-quality red wine
200ml crème de cassis or blackcurrant syrup
200g sugar (or 300g if not using crème de cassis)
1 cinnamon stick
6 cloves1 star anise
20g ginger root, peeled
25g liquorice root
Zest of 1 orange, peeled in one piece (using a sharp peeler)
Zest of 1 lemon, peeled in one piece
8-10 ripe, unblemished pears

Bring the wine to the boil in a casserole big enough to hold the pears and boil for 10 minutes to drive off the acidity. Remove from the heat, then add all the other ingredients, except the pears.

Prepare the pears. Peel them, leaving the stem intact. If you are keeping them whole, remove the core so that they cook evenly all the way through. To core them, insert the tip of a peeler into the base of the pear just on the edge of the core, push into the fruit and turn the peeler around the core, cutting it out. If halving the pears, do so lengthways. Neatly cut out the root and core.

The liquid will have cooled down a little by now. Place the prepared pears side by side in the pan and top with a disc of greaseproof paper cut to the same size as the pan. Pierce a few holes in the paper and press it down slightly so that some of the poaching liquid comes through the holes: this will keep the pears submerged during cooking. If the liquid does not cover the pears, add a little water until it does.

Place the casserole back on the heat and bring to a simmer. As soon as this happens, turn down the heat and cook at a gentle simmer — just enough to form the odd bubble on the surface of the water — for 30 minutes, or until the pears are done. Test by inserting a small pointed knife into the flesh. If it goes in with little resistance, they are ready.

Remove from the heat and leave to cool. When cold, carefully transfer the fruit to a sealable container. If you have added extra water, reduce the liquid to the required consistency and taste. If it is still too thin, thicken with a little cornflour. Reserve the zest and spices for decoration, if required. Pour the liquid over the pears in their container and store in the fridge for at least a day. The pears will keep for a week in the poaching liquid.

Serve hot or cold with a big dollop of thick cream.

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