- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I always feel a little sorry for pears. Apples, their close cousins, seem to get all the attention during the chilly months, starring in pies and tarts of all kinds; in juice drinks and ciders; in savory dishes alongside chicken, pork and veal; and of course in the ubiquitous applesauce.

Pears, however, seem to get treated as an afterthought. Which is a shame, because pears strike me as an even more interesting fruit. I find their taste even more complex and spicier than apples. And I love the way a good pear almost literally melts in your mouth, having a juiciness almost comparable to summer fruits like peaches and nectarines - which is saying a lot for a winter fruit.

You’ll find a good range of pear choices in supermarkets and farmers’ markets right now. Select plump, rounded, green-skinned Anjou pears, which are juicy yet firm enough to hold shape when cut or cooked. Or go for the Bosc variety, with its signature long neck and brown-mottled green skin; its cream-colored, sweet flesh also holds up well to cooking. Comice pears, with their yellow-green skins that sometimes blush red, are almost as round as apples; they have juicy, sweet, slightly spicy flesh that is best enjoyed raw, though they can also be baked. The Winter Nellis variety tapers only slightly at its stem end and has a brownish-green peel and delightfully spicy, firm flesh that is delicious either raw or cooked.

Whatever pears you buy, bear in mind that they are usually picked while still somewhat hard, since they continue to ripen and soften off the tree. Choose firm, unblemished fruit with no more than a little softness near the stem end, and leave them to ripen at room temperature for a few days just until their blossom ends give slightly to fingertip pressure. To keep them any longer before eating or cooking them, refrigerate them in a plastic bag for no more than five days.

Enjoy raw pears whole or sliced; if you cut them, sprinkle with lemon juice to prevent oxidization. Peel and core before cooking: first, pare the skin with a small, sharp knife; then, cut in half through the stem and blossom ends, and use a melon baller or small spoon to scoop out the central seed core and the fibers that run from the core to the stem.

Try substituting pears for apples in any of your favorite recipes. Or use them to add wonderful flavor to savory dishes such as my recipe here, in which the pears are poached with red wine, sugar and black pepper to make a sweet-and-spicy accompaniment to sauteed chicken breasts.

Take one taste, and you won’t be likely ever again to neglect pears.

CHICKEN BREASTS WITH PEARS AND ZINFANDEL

Serves 6

1 bottle Zinfandel

1/2-cup sugar

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

6 Bosc pears, peeled, halved, and cored

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 bone-in skin-on chicken breast halves

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 shallots, minced

1 cup homemade or good quality canned chicken broth

4 ounces unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a saucepan, stir together the wine, sugar, and whole peppercorns. Add the pear halves. Bring to a simmer over medium heat; then, reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer and poach the pears until tender but still firm, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, heat an ovenproof skillet large enough to hold all the chicken breasts in a single layer. Season the chicken breast halves all over with salt and pepper. Carefully place the chicken breasts skin side down in the hot oil and saute, undisturbed, until their skin is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes.

With a long-handled fork, carefully turn the chicken breasts over, skin side up. Transfer the skillet to the preheated oven and roast until the chicken is cooked through, its juices running clear when the meat is pierced with a fork or a skewer at its thickest part, about 15 minutes.

When the pears are done, set them aside, carefully removing and reserving 1/2 of the wine in which they cooked.

Transfer the chicken breasts from the skillet to a heatproof dish and cover them with heavy-duty aluminum foil to keep them warm. Place the skillet over moderate heat, add the shallots to the skillet, and saute until the shallots are lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add to the skillet the 1/2 cup of wine you reserved and stir and scrape to deglaze the pan deposits. Add the stock or broth, raise the heat, and boil, stirring occasionally, until 1/2 cup of liquid remains, 5 to 7 minutes.

Place a fine-meshed strainer over a small saucepan. Pour the sauce from the skillet through the strainer into the pan. Over medium-low heat, whisk in the butter 1 piece at a time. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the pear halves to a cutting board. With a small, sharp knife, cut each pear half lengthwise into 3 equal wedges.

To serve, spoon a thin bed of sauce on each serving plate. Place a chicken breast in the center of each plate and arrange three slices of pear on each side. Pass any remaining sauce in a sauceboat.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores.)

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