Fall in love with Asian pears

Asian pears are distinctly delicious. With the first bite your mouth is filled with thirst-quenching juice and amazing flavors. Their crunchy texture is suggestive of an apple and its sweetness of a European pear, yet this transplant from the Far East is the best of both fruits.

Asian pearThe Asian pear has been grown in its native countries of China and Japan for at least 3,000 years, making it the oldest cultivated pear known. But it is a relative newcomer in American gardens and kitchens, appearing in stores only a few decades ago.

More than a thousand different varieties are grown in China, Japan, and Korea, yet only a few dozen varieties are cultivated in the United States, with barely a handful grown commercially. Asian pear fruit trees thrive in our maritime Northwest climate, with some cultivars able to withstand temperatures down to minus 25º F.

Depending on the variety, flavor nuances can range from butterscotch and brandy, to apricot and cinnamon. Fruits can be round, slightly flattened, or pear-shaped, with textures and appearances varying from smooth and thin-skinned to russetted and coarse.

Skin color often reveals a clue as to the composition of flavor. Pale yellow-skinned varieties such as Shinseiki, Kikusui, and Nijisseiki (also known as 20th Century) hint at mildly aromatic and delicate flavors. Orange, copper and bronze-toned varieties like Shin Li, Shinko, Large Korean, and Chojuro are richer and deeper in flavor.

Fruits are available from late summer through fall, with peak buying season running from October through December. Many varieties retain their quality for several months after harvest if held in cold storage. The perfectly flavored Asian pear may remain elusive, however, unless you know where to shop and what to look for.

Unlike European pears, Asian pears must be tree-ripened in order to develop their full sweetness and peak flavor—the fruit will not ripen further once they have been picked. Since commercially sold fruits are often picked before they are ripe, your best sources for ripe fruit are farmers markets, roadside stands, and specialty stores offering locally-grown Asian pears. Look for fruits that are firm, fully colored without green undertones, and have a fragrant aroma. Avoid soft fruits, a sure indicator of fruit that is overripe and spongy.

Asian pears are culinarily versatile. They can stand alone in salsas and combine well with figs or grapes. A dip made of ricotta cheese, almond paste, and freshly grated ginger complements Asian pear wedges, as does a drizzle of caramel-hazelnut sauce. Asian pear salads are sensational. Toss diced Asian pears in a curried chicken salad, or mix with a tropical fruit and coconut-yogurt dressing.

Asian pears are outstanding in muffins, breads, and other baked goods such as pies and desserts. The fruit freezes well and is tasty when dried for wintertime treats.

Perhaps most enticing of all, the juicy, sweet mouthfeel, crisp texture, and remarkably complex flavors are best enjoyed when eaten fresh–especially picked right from the tree in the cool of the morning.

CREAM OF THE CROP

When shopping for Asian pears, look for these five exceptional varieties.

Large Korean: Also sold as Korean Giant, the fruits are esteemed for their extremely large size (up to a pound each), juiciness, and earthy flavor. Under the golden-bronze russetted skin is intensely sweet white flesh. Available mid-October.

Seuri: A Chinese variety with orange skin and crisp, white flesh, the round fruit is aromatic and sweet, with hints of apricot. Available late September to early October.

Shin Li: Prized for its rich and sweet flavor with undertones of cinnamon, the yellow russetted, slightly flattened, spherical fruit is firm with juicy, bright white flesh. Available early September to mid-October.

Shinko: These large round fruits with bronze to dark golden skin are favored for their yellow-white flesh and subtle tones of butterscotch. Available mid-September to early October.

Shinseiki (also known as New Century): One of the first varieties to ripen, the faintly aromatic fruits are round and smooth with a moonlight yellow skin and delicately sweet, firm-textured juicy white flesh. Available mid- to late-August.

FROM FRUIT TO FINE WINE

Asian pear wine pairs wonderfully with a wide range of foods, from poultry and fish, to veggie stir-fries, pasta salads, and desserts. Asian pear wine is available from the following sources.

Icicle Ridge Winery, Leavenworth, WA, icicleridgewinery.com. Their Asian pear wine is luxuriously sweet, pairing well with desserts and spicy cuisine.

Windfall Winery, Friday Harbor, WA. Made exclusively from fruit grown in Washington and Oregon, their Asian pear wine retains the crisp, subtle flavors of the fruit with hints of citrus and oak.

SakéOne, Forest Grove, OR, sakeone.com. One of four fruit-flavored sakes, Moonstone Asian Pear has a delicate aroma and flavor with a creamy body and hint of sweetness.

By Kris Wetherbee

Slide photo: Rick Wetherbee

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