After a cool wet summer followed by a far too early cold and snowy fall, we should be completely inured to the reality of an Alberta winter. Put the reverie of perpetual summer aside (at least until January!), and find solace in the best place possible, your kitchen. It’s time for festive gatherings with family and friends, cozy fireside snacking and everything in between. Embrace winter!
Despite seeing pears since late summer, I consider them a winter staple. Unlike most other fruits, pears must be harvested under ripe and kept in cold storage before ripening slowly at room temperature. This goes a long way toward protecting this otherwise easily damaged ripe fruit from the perils of travel and handling. This is good news for the consumer, but does require some determination to arrive at pear nirvana. Pears can be refrigerated for a few days, but beware, this will all too quickly diminish both texture and taste. Ideally, keep them in sight and check daily, applying gentle pressure to the stem end for that slight give indicating ripeness.
There are thousands of varieties, but much like apples, we see too few. Bartlett pears are early and don’t keep especially well, but are a good choice for both cooking and eating out of hand. The much sturdier D’Anjou is easy to cook with, but lacks that quintessential pear aroma and flavour; Bosc, firm-fleshed and golden, long-necked and slightly russeted is a better choice, in my opinion, for poaching and just cooking in general. The pretty, rosy-cheeked Seckel pear, small and spicy, is perfect for poaching and pickling whole. Sadly, not easily found, the Doyenne d Comice (meaning best of show, essentially) is true pear heaven. The Comice has silky, luscious flesh with a heady fragrance… absolutely wonderful with cheese. Unfortunately, this pear prima donna does not travel well and only a few stalwart grocers will risk bringing it in.
Just because parsnips are related to carrots doesn’t mean they can go in the kids’ lunches or on a crudité platter. It’s only after they have been thoroughly cooked that the parsnip’s true character comes to the fore. Winter is their peak time. Parsnips have a very long growing season (3-4 months) and will really only develop their sweet, rich, nutty flavour after a frost or a long period in cold storage. Look for smooth unblemished skin and choose medium sized parsnips. If too big, you run the risk of hard woody cores with spongy outer flesh and if too small, you won’t be left with much after peeling.
The inimitable Jane Grigson advises not peeling them at all, but unless you are lucky enough to find dry, pristine parsnips not already packaged in plastic, the terrible habit many supermarkets have of spraying everything indiscriminately makes peeling necessary. I have long made a lovely pureed soup with carrots, parsnips and white wine, but I’ve recently switched the carrots out for sautéed pears and the result is lovely. If you’re concerned about the alcohol (almost all of it cooks off), don’t use it at all and increase the stock to suit.
Ellen shares two recipes in this series, Poached Pears and Parsnip and Pear Soup.