Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Surfeit of Pears

One of the lovlier aspects of my old, cranky house, is that its big property is home to a number of fruits and nuts--and that doesn't include the owners. Ahem.

This year there have been tons of pears, probably because of the relatively abundant rain. I just leave them be, so I didn't prune them or pinch buds, or perform any of the steps required for large, well-groomed fruit. As a result, the branches drape down to the grown, overburdened with their bumper crop. And now I've got to figure out what to do with them, because they're not the most photogenic of varieties, and are rock-hard, but quite good even when not quite ripe. If you'd like to plant pears hardy to North Texas, Willis Orchard Company seems to be a good source.

My two trees don't seem to be quite the same, but are probably Kieffer/Orient varieties, both pioneer favorites in Texas. They're highly resistant to fire blight (the Plague of Pears), and store well. The nifty thing about pears is that they ripen best off the tree. I've had a couple recently, still hard as granite, sliced and eaten with good cheese--crisp, like apples. Ugly as sin, though.

I had to harvest the lot last weekend, because the neighborhood urchins swarmed across the front lawn with glee when one of them noticed my over-laden trees placed invitingly next to an alley. After scolding them gruffly ("It would be decent of you to at least ask," I lectured. "Take some, but do leave some for me; it's my yard, after all!"). And then they all but cleaned me out.

The basket I filled with what remained was given me by one of my former mothers-in-law. Mind you, I've had five, thanks to the vagaries of modern marital patterns, but one of them was really good at finding unusual gifts. Since I had the reputation of being the family "earth mother," I got the reproduction Appalachian apple picking basket from the fancy mail-order catalogue one year. This is the first time I've used it for anything resembling its original purpose, and it does hold a good number of pears.

At any rate, now I've got to do something with them, since the weather's cooling off (thanks in part to the hurricanes now ravaging the Caribbean), and it's not too hot to work in the kitchen. I want to be able to give preserves or confits for Yule gifts, and to have something nice to marry with cashew or almond butter in sandwiches. Actually, the idea of sliced hard pear and cashew butter sounds great for a good midday nosh.

The first place I looked for a recipe was Mrs. Rudkin's cookbook about which I waxed enthusiastically a while ago. Once again, her antique recipes section had the answer, from 1658, and she modified it enticingly for the modern kitchen:

Weigh as many pears as you want to preserve and then weigh out half their weight in sugar. Core and stem but do not peel the pears. Put alternate layers of pears and sugar in an earthenware jar or crock. Add brandy to cover the fruit. Cover the jar closely and keep in the refrigerator or in a cool place for at least 2 weeks. For 8 quarts pears, 1 quart brandy will suffice.

I can see us all now come December, sitting around the fireplace getting tipsy on brandied pears. I'll still look for jam and conserve ideas, but this is my kind of recipe. For others, I recommend the page full of ideas from Alcestis (Cooky) Oberg, Galveston County Master Gardner--especially the one for "exotic pear pickles." I never thought of gulf-coast Texas as pear-growing country, but she's had success with varieties like mine. I just hope that the wave of hurricanes doesn't damage her crop.

Photos: Pears on one of the trees, ugly pears on a tablecloth, pears in an apple-picking basket with my neighbor's much-lovelier-than-mine yard in the background.