Oh, the humble pear … not flashy like a pineapple or exotic like a pomegranate … not quite a staple like the apple either. Their flavor is mild and unassuming, asking us to pair them with something strong and bold. Perhaps because of their position in the background, pears shine ever so brightly, when given a chance at center stage. I remember being truly amazed the first time I was served a poached pear. At first I was suspicious … Is this really dessert? It turned out to be one of the most divine things I had ever tasted, and I went right home and made poached pears continually for about a month.
Even better, pears are good for you! From a Chinese medicine perspective, pears strengthen and lubricate the lungs, which makes them especially good to be eating in the late fall and winter, when the respiratory system can get raspy and congested with those lingering coughs that can seem to go on and on. I’ve combined them here with warming spices, also good for cold weather, and honey, which again, according to traditional Chinese dietetics is a strengthening sweetener. (People with diabetes, take note, however — honey is still sugar. Best to just leave it out.) Pears also contain good amounts of potassium and fiber. They are among the very best fruits for keeping bowels regular. If you have a child or elder (or anyone!) in your family, who struggles with constipation, pears in any form are wonderful to incorporate into the diet on a regular basis.
The following recipe for poached pears is a winner — everyone will love its sweet taste, and the pears are easy to chew and digest for people of all ages. If you make this in warmer months, you could switch out the red wine for white, and use fresh mint or lemon balm instead of the warming spices. If you don’t have the whole spices, don’t fret! Just throw in pinches of ground spices. Or — to make things really easy, just toss in one or two of your favorite herbal tea bags, and let those simmer along with the pears.
- 4 pears (just barely ripe, not soft or they won’t hold up when cooked)
- 2 star anise
- 1-2 inch chunk fresh ginger, roughly chopped
- 4-6 cardamom pods, slightly crushed
- 10 cloves
- 1-2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or 1 split vanilla bean
- red wine or unsweetened cranberry juice
- 1 lemon or orange, sliced
- Raw honey to taste
First, wash and peel the pears. If your pears are organic, save the peels and add to the cooking liquid. Chinese recipes for medicinal pear infusions include the peel, and you will be saving the liquid for later use as I’ll discuss below.
Stand the pears up in a small pot just big enough to hold them. Now put in the peels with the spices and sliced lemon or orange. Fill the pot about two thirds juice or wine and one third water until the pears are just covered. (I like to use red wine if I’m making these for a fancy dessert, juice if I’m saving the liquid to turn into cough syrup for kiddos — although the alcohol cooks off by the time it’s all done.) Pure cranberry juice is much more sour than wine. If you’re choosing this option, omit the lemon, and you may want to add some apple juice so you are not spooning in your entire jar of honey! Add honey to taste, and bring the liquid just to a boil with pot uncovered. Then turn down and simmer on low heat until a fork slides easily into the pears. (Roughly 15-20 min.) Test after 10 minutes; some pears cook faster than others. Try not to overcook or they will turn into mush. Remove from the liquid with a slotted spoon. At this point you can serve immediately or let the pears cool, and store in the fridge.
These are simple (and healthy) enough for every day but can be elegant enough for a dinner party. They are really pretty served whole as a dessert. For a fancy dinner, I like to serve them with a touch of fresh grated nutmeg and a dollop of something white and creamy … or even drizzled with a homemade dark chocolate sauce (recipe to come) — take your pick!
The leftover poaching liquid is infused with all those fabulous spices and the pear essence. You can save in the fridge for poaching more fruit or just reduce it as below, strain and pour some over the pears — or sip it warm as I usually end up doing. For children with nighttime coughs, you can make your own cough remedy that’s better than anything you can buy at the store. Simmer the liquid until it’s reduced by half. I like to add even more fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks. (Your house will smell amazing while this is going on!) Store the liquid in a jar in the fridge, and when you need it, just warm up a little bit — a quarter of a cup is fine. Stir a kitchen teaspoonful of honey into the warm liquid — the darkest colored honey you can find is the best for this purpose. It works wonders for adults too. But do remember that babies under one year old should never be given honey because of the risk of infant botulism.