My friend Dean brought me this pile of pears from a roadside stand in Ashe County, North Carolina. Ashe County is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the NC-Virginia border northwest of Winston-Salem, NC. They were hard and sturdy, not the best for eating out of hand, but full of flavor, which I took in two directions: one sweet and one savory.
First move was to put a pear pie in the oven. Peeled, cored and chopped in large chunks, these pears baked up beautifully, filling the kitchen with a spice-kissed perfume and giving juice aplenty. I added chopped pecans and currants since those were on hand. Next pear pie I will give raisins and walnuts a whirl. My sister Linda reminded me that we had a gigantic pear tree growing on the vacant lot next to our home in Burlington NC when we were little, and that our mother made pear pies each autumn.
In researching my cookbook, Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan, I came across many recipes for pear pie in which the pears are cooked first on top of the stove to make a chunky preserves. This pear preserves (and potential pie filling, and dessert on its own, in small bowls, with cream or not) kept well through the winter and served as a dessert on its own, as well as providing a ready-to-bake pie filling for cooks when the fresh fruit was long gone. Pear preserves on the pantry shelf: That would be a feeling of contentment and pride.
For this simple pie, I didn’t really pay too much mind to amounts. Fruit pies need just a big pile of fruit, peeled and chopped in nice chunks, big bite-sized is my favorite. About 3/4 cup sugar + 2 tablespoons of flour or cornstarch + a pinch of salt + spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger — about 2 teaspoons total, any combination, or none; not everybody likes spices and some people think it covers up the pear’s own flavor, but I like them myself), and generous pinch or 2 of salt. Stir those together, toss with the fruit, tumble into a pie crust unbaked. Dot with butter: i love that phrase from my early baking days in cookbooks. 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into nice bits, and scattered and placed all over the fruit. Pile it up in the center as it sinks down. Cover, pinch, press, cut slits or holes for steam and juice, and bake at 400 degrees for 10 – 12 minutes; then at 350 degrees until the crust is golden brown, the pie is bubbling and juicy, and the pears are tender, 40 to 55 minutes. Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or cream on the side is a lovely addition, but not a necessity, not at all.
My friend Elizabeth Young suggested pear chutney, which she makes using pears in an apple chutney recipe from The Original Moosewood Cookbook. I found a version of it and followed it using what I had in the house, which to my surprise did not include fresh ginger. This extraordinary ingredient is one I mean to keep on hand in the basket above the sink, where a permanent supply of onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lemons, and limes keep company with occasional avocados, plum tomatoes, and butternut squash. I had all the spices, which give this relish a substantial fragrance and pleasing kick, and I added currants because I love them in fall dishes in general and savory ones in particular. The pears stayed firm and the garlic took the lead. My expectation when seeing ‘chutney’ is of a softer, smoother, sweeter dish, so I would describe this as a relish, and I will make it again to keep company with pork chops, roast chicken, or rice and curry. Click here for the recipe I used for this Pear Chutney, substituting pears for the apples.