'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Poached pears with honey 蜂蜜燉梨

The weather here in Cincinnati got really cold all of a sudden a while ago, so I thought this year we basically skipped autumn and plunged right into winter instead. Thankfully, this week has been warmer again, and as I saw cascades of golden trees on the road, I was reminded that fall is with us.

Incidentally, I'm much more used to saying 'autumn' than 'fall', but I do like the poetic imagery of the word 'fall' since it really encapsulates what's so special about this season. In fact, like 'spring', 'summer' and 'winter', 'fall' is of true Anglo-Saxon origin. It originated in English as early as the 16th century - that was before America was born, and it is in America that this old Anglo-Saxon term lingered on. In England, the word 'autumn' (from the French word automne) gained prominence from the 18th century onwards and the word 'fall' eventually became archaic and was no longer in common use. I heard that in some villages in Dorset or Somerset the word 'fall' is still used to denote autumn, but I never heard it first-hand during my two years in Somerset.

I digress. Whether you say autumn or fall, it is probably most people's favourite season of the year. The weather is as ideal as it can get; trees put on an amazing glow; and it's harvest season. In Chinese thinking, the dryness that makes autumn such a pleasant season also means that our bodies have a tendency to dry out. Not just dehydration as such, but dryness in our skin, lips, our nostrils, throat and eyes. It is the season when Chinese medicine recommends food that 'clears the heart and nourishes the lungs' (清心潤肺): bird's nests, aloe vera, almonds, lilly bulbs (百合), dried figs, gingko (銀杏), snow ear (雪耳), goji berries (枸杞), etc. Many of these would sound exotic to non-Chinese people, but pears and honey are two ingredients that I find incredibly 'autumnal' and they don't raise eyebrows among Westerners.

Would you have thought that these are pears? They look incredibly like strawberries do they not?

Pears are notoriously finicky to buy. As the great British chef Simon Hopkinson puts it:
'You buy a couple of pounds of slightly under-ripe, clean and unblemished pears, with the innocent intention of allowing them to ripen up over a few days at home. "Hmmm, yes, I will arrange them in that bowl I think, put them on the sideboard and enjoy them with some Roquefort on Friday when Michael and Gloria are coming for supper." Then, as if by magic, that very afternoon they will suddenly decide to blotch and bloat, their insides turning to a fluffy mass of woolly flesh, bereft of both taste and texture.'
This sad disappointment befalls on us pear-buyers all too often. Much better, therefore, to buy them rather under-ripe and poach them. Poached pears are one of the most elegant yet simple desserts to prepare among Western desserts. This particular rendition is a Chinese one. It's more like a minimally sweetened soup of pear, and you consume both the liquid and the pears. (In fact, I'm much more interested in drinking the soup and I've the unfortunate tendency to discard the pears...) A Western poached pear would be much sweeter, and you basically eat only the pear with some of the poached liquid reduced and spooned on top as a syrupy-sauce. With this honey-poached pear that I made a while ago, I paired it with an almond blancmange and biscuit.

This time I'm using the peel of the pear in addition to the flesh. According to Chinese medicine, the medicinal properties of pears lie mainly in the peels, not the flesh. They're especially effective for soothing a cough (止咳化痰). With the red Anjou pears that I bought, adding the peels also lends a lovely orangey hue to the poaching liquid. The colour isn't so conspicuous this time because the liquid is quite thin, but it looked quite spectacular when I added the peel to the Western-style poached pears that I prepared for a pear charlotte:

Above all, the peel imparts a great deal of flavour to the soup, just like potato peel improves the flavour of potatoes.

Poached pears with honey 蜂蜜燉梨

Traditionally this dish would have been double-boiled (燉) rather than cooked on the stove top, but it doesn't really make any difference. 川貝冰糖燉梨 is also more common than 蜂蜜燉梨, but there you go!

1. Start by peeling the under-ripe pears. Half and core them, and then cut them into quarters. Put the peels in a muslin bag and add them to a large pan along with the pear quarters.

2. Add water to cover. Adjust how soupy you want your poached pears by all means.

I threw in some bitter almonds too

3. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, covered, for 25-30 minutes until the pears are softened. Don't overcook - the residual heat will continue to soften the pears.

4. When it is lukewarm, remove the muslin bag and squeeze out the juices. Add honey to taste. If you add honey when it's still hot, you risk destroying most of its nutritional goodness. It's best to wait till the temperature is below 60℃.

5. Serve warm or chilled. The flavours mingle after a night in the fridge. They are fabulously light and soothing, especially after having some very spicy chicken for dinner.

Next time I would add some dried chrysanthemum flowers (菊花) to the poaching liquid - the flavour was a little flat without them. If you want to go Western style, lemon peel and vanilla are great in poached pears too.

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