Did you know December is National Pear Month? December is the best time to eat them, so it’s a great time to talk about this juicy and nutritious fruit, which is high in vitamin C, antioxidants, copper (which boosts immunity) and fiber (which promotes digestive health).
Commercially, the United States harvests 10 types of pears, including Comice, Bartlett, Bosc and D’Anjou, each with its own nuances. Some are great to munch on plain, while others are better when paired with soft, ripe cheese or sliced thin and put between slices of bread with cheddar for a delicious grilled sandwich. You can bake pears with warming spices for a festive dessert or toss some chopped pears into a salad with pecans to give winter greens a nice, crisp sweetness.
Money was tight in our family when I was growing up, but my mother always made the best of everything, especially around Christmas. During the holidays, she’d line a colorful basket with napkins, pile up Comice pears, Red Bartlett pears or a mix of both, tuck in sprigs of holly and maybe a few ornaments, and have a pretty centerpiece for our table. It was also a good way to ripen the fruit.
MORE FUN FACTS ABOUT PEARS
Cultivated for nearly 4,000 years, pears originated in Asia and spread throughout Europe during the Roman Empire. Until the 16th century, pears were tough and always eaten cooked. In the 17th and 18th centuries, gardeners for European noblemen began to crossbreed varieties, competing with each other to create a fruit with soft, buttery flesh. Most of the pears we know are derived from those cultivars.
Today, pears are grown throughout the U.S. and Europe. They are being introduced as commercial crops in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Chile. In America, Oregon, Washington and California produce particularly excellent pears.
Pears are one fruit you do not want tree-ripened. They have a characteristically gritty texture caused by cells in their flesh called stone cells. Although more and more of these cells have been bred out, all varieties still contain them. To prevent or reduce the formation of stone cells, pears are picked before the fruit has matured, and then they are held under controlled conditions. Pears are delicate even when they’re hard and green, so they’re always picked by hand. Most markets don’t sell really ripe pears because they bruise so easily, but it’s very easy to ripen them at home.
The two most readily available to consumers are Comice and Bartlett.
Comice pears are very large, round and short-necked. They’re my personal favorite because I think they’re the sweetest and most fragrant of all varieties. The Comice has greenish-yellow skin, sometimes with a red blush. Originally a French variety, it’s been grown in North America for over 100 years. Because they scar very easily, they’re sometimes hard to sell here, but with a peak season in November and December, they’re one of the best things going during the holiday season. Because of Comices’ distinctive red and green hues, they’re also known as Christmas Pears. While they’re popular during the holidays, they’re available from August to March.
Bartletts, before fully ripened, are crunchy and tart, later developing a juicier and sweeter flavor and maturing from green to golden yellow. Red Bartletts are similar to green except for their predominant color. Red Bartletts were originally discovered in 1938 on a standard Bartlett tree in Washington state—just a little bud that naturally sprouted and was dubbed “Max Red.”
SELECTION & STORAGE
Green pears should be free of blemishes. Ripe pears, especially more tender varieties like Comice, are going to have a few scars. Avoid bruised or overly soft fruit, but don’t be afraid to bring home pears that are still green, because that’s mostly the way you’ll find them in stores.
At home, place unripe pears in a bowl or paper bag and leave them at room temperature. They’ll ripen in a few days to a week, depending on how green they are when you buy them. Most pears show a subtle change in color as they ripen, and some develop a sweet fragrance.
You can test a pear for ripeness by applying gentle pressure to the stem end; it should yield a bit when you press it with your thumb.
You can hold off ripening by refrigerating pears; they’ll hold for as long as 3-4 weeks. Bring them out to ripen a few days before you want to eat them. You can refrigerate a ripe pear, but at that point it’s only going to last a couple of days.
In addition to eating them out of hand or tossing them into fruit or green salads, pears are delicious with cheeses and/or salty meats such as prosciutto. They can be used in any recipe that calls for apples. For instance, you can use several varieties, all on the green side, to make a terrific pie. (My aunt used to make pear pies just like apple pies, adding in one or two quinces). Finally, you can poach pears and serve them with strawberry sauce for a simple, pretty and delicious dessert.
My wife Bette’s “Christmas Pears with Strawberry Sauce” recipe is a festive one that’s become a favorite on our holiday table each year. Enjoy this tasty treat and, from the Napolitano family to yours, we wish you and your family a happy and healthy holiday season and a wonderful new year!
Bette’s Poached Christmas Pears with Strawberry Sauce
(Makes 6 servings)
- 6 Red Bartlett or Comice pears, peeled but with their stem and base left intact
- ¾ cup water
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- ½ cup sugar
- Strawberry Sauce (see recipe and instructions below)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stand the pears in a large casserole, add water, lemon juice and sugar, then cover and bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. When ready to serve, place the pears on a platter, pour the cooking liquid over them and top with strawberry sauce.
- 2 cups fresh (or frozen, thawed) strawberries, washed and hulled
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons corn starch
- 1/3 cup brandy (optional)
- Red food coloring (optional)
Place the strawberries in a medium-size saucepan, add water, sugar and lemon juice, and bring to a boil over medium heat. When the strawberries are soft, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor and purée until smooth. Strain through a sieve, then return the mixture to the saucepan. Gradually stir in the corn starch, brandy and food coloring (optional). Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thickened, and pour over pears.
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author and television personality who’s appeared on a highly popular segment on NBC 4 New York’s Weekend Today in New York, broadcast every Saturday morning for over 27 years. For more information, visit Pete’s website.
About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning, New Jersey–based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with “Produce Pete” on a broad range of articles for more than a decade.