Friday, November 12, 2010

Caramelized Pear, Pecan and Parmesan Salad

I've been so busy enjoying all the other fruits of fall, I'd almost forgotten about the pears. I have two big paper sacks of pears from my backyard tree sitting in the bottom of my refrigerator, ready to be taken out and ripened a few at a time. Unlike most fruits, they are best picked when green and ripened off the tree, because they ripen from the inside out, and the centers can rot before the outside is ripe. So now is the perfect time to make a succulent fall salad with pears. 

I know I've published a pear salad before, but just I have to share this fantastic technique from Cooks' Illustrated for caramelizing the pears - it makes less-than-stellar pears taste magnificent. The simple combination of sugar, salt and pepper is surprisingly magical. I have a White Doyenne pear tree in my backyard, and I haven't quite gotten the hang of when to harvest the pears so that they ripen up nice and juicy... the fruit starts to get a blush and break off easily around mid-August, so this year I thought OK, now must be the time. So I picked maybe half of them, then I started thinking, maybe these are a bit too green. So I waited a couple more weeks, and picked the rest. Now I think they still might have benefited from another week or two, because they are pretty dry even when I let them ripen in a paper bag on the counter for several days. If anyone has advice on this topic, I'd love to hear it!

It's almost pecan season, and in case you didn't know, Dona Ana county is one of the top pecan-producing counties in the nation. The NM Pecan Festival was just a couple of weeks ago in Las Cruces, and they're expecting an especially large crop this year. This year's harvest won't actually start until after the first frost in the southern part of the state, which happens to be forecast for next week. The sweetness of pecans and pears with the buttery parmesan complement the slight bitterness of any salad greens, but especially sharp-flavored ones such as arugula or cress.

Pears:
One large pear (or a few tiny ones like I have), quartered
1 t. olive oil
½ t. sugar
Pinch of salt
A few grinds of pepper
2 t. balsamic vinegar

Dressing:
3 T. balsamic vinegar
1 T. minced chives
1 T. olive or grapeseed oil
Pinch of salt

Salad:
Two large handfuls of arugula leaves
Two handfuls of pecans, chopped
Several thin slices of parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler

Heat the oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. If your pears are juicy, you'll probably need to turn up the heat and don't cook them too long. Toss the pear quarters with sugar, salt and pepper. Lay each quarter on one cut side in the skillet. Cook until lightly browned, about 2-4 minutes, then tip each piece onto its other cut side to brown. Turn off the heat and drizzle balsamic vinegar over the pears, stirring gently until it forms a syrupy coating on the pears. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool. Whisk balsamic vinegar with chives, oil and salt to make the dressing. Slice the pear quarters crosswise, if they are large, or just leave them whole if they are tiny. Arrange the pears, pecans and parmesan on a bed of arugula, and drizzle with dressing. Serves two.
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