Pickled pears are an old-fashioned specialty that I barely tolerated on first exposure, nearly 25 years ago, and gradually grew to adore. Now, these piquant fruits are an integral part of fall and winter entertaining at my house.
When I was introduced to pickled pears as a teen, I hardly knew what to make of them. This was a stage when my friends and I were usually either crash-dieting or wondering where our next snack was coming from. During long afternoon gossip sessions in the boarding school dorm room of my good friend, Karan, the inevitable question would arise: "Do you have anything to eat?"
Occasionally there would be something good--a chocolate bar or cookies, for instance. More often, the pickings would be slim. But Karan always had a last resort: a seemingly limitless supply of home-canned pickled pears. When there was nothing else to eat, we'd pry open one of the Mason jars and nibble on the sweet, vinegary miniature pears that she'd work out of the jars using whatever implement happened to be handy: a pencil, a Swiss Army knife, or even her fingers.
At the time, home canning seemed to me to be an antiquated, lost art akin to milling one's own flour or spinning wool. A child of the '60s, I was raised in a household that had embraced modern, time-saving convenience foods with ardor. We grew no produce and neither of my parents did any recreational cooking. My parents both remember their mothers putting up preserves and canning vegetables, but I had no exposure to the practice until these pickled pears became a staple of my high school diet. I remember thinking they made a strange snack, but I ate them anyway, out of sheer desperation.
The pickled pears, I soon learned, were put up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Morgan, at Karan's grandmother's house in Amagansett, Long Island. (This was around 1970, when Amagansett was a secluded seaside community, well outside the social whirl of neighboring East Hampton.) The miniature pears, which presumably were Seckels or a close relative, grew on a tree near the entrance to the main house.
During my teen years, I had the good fortune to visit the Amagansett place often and consumed the pickled pears at the source. I came to appreciate their sweet-sour, cinnamon-spiced flavor and the way they complemented meats, chicken, cheeses and other dishes. And I loved the way the pears looked in the jars: dainty, miniature replicas of the more familiar Bartletts, complete with tiny stems and a few seeds, which could be eaten or not, as you wished.
A few years ago, I revisited Karan's family home in Amagansett and we reminisced about the dishes served to us there as kids. After searching through a handwritten book of recipes kept in the kitchen, we finally found a very cursory version of the pickled pear recipe; it omitted any mention of pears, presumably on the assumption that if you intended to prepare the recipe, you were faced with a whole heap of them. I tried the recipe at home, tasted the results and was immediately transported back to when I was a boy-crazed, perpetually hungry teen-ager.
Fortunately, a pear tree is not necessary in order to prepare this recipe. Seckel pears from the Pacific Northwest, sold in two-pound bags at many supermarkets, pickle beautifully. The pears are generally sold a bit unripe; you'll get the best results from this recipe if you use Seckels that are nearly ripe, but not overripe. (You can't judge by the color; Seckels don't turn yellow but instead keep their greenish color even when fully ripe. Taste one to determine ripeness.) If Seckels are not available, any small, firm-fleshed pear will work, although you may have to adjust the length of cooking.
Allow plenty of time for the laborious peeling of the pears; the remainder of the recipe takes almost no time at all.
AMAGANSETT PICKLED PEARS
6 pounds Seckel or other small pears or more; recipe yields enough liquid to pickle up to 10 pounds of pears
6 cups white vinegar
8 cups dark brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon
Peel pears and cut out blossom ends, leaving stems intact. Mix vinegar, sugar, cloves and cinnamon in large, non-reactive pan. Bring to boil. Add pears. Reduce heat and simmer until tender but still firm, about 10 minutes. Pack pears snugly into hot, clean pint jars. Pour boiling pickling liquid over pears, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Make sure each jar contains 2 whole cloves.
Wipe jar rims. Seal with new 2-piece vacuum lids and rings, following manufacturer's directions. Transfer jars to boiling water bath canner. Process 10 minutes. Remove. Let cool 24 hours. Makes about 6 pints, or about 48 pears (in 6-pound batch).
Each pear contains about:
165 calories; 11 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.59 gram fiber.
Note : Pickled pears are best if left to stand 1 month before serving. Can be kept 1 year.
Some people think commercially canned cranberry sauce can't be improved upon; the following recipe is not for them. Here is a different way to enjoy the tart flavor of cranberries with roasted fowl, pork or sausages. From "Fancy Pantry" by Helen Witty (Workman Publishing: New York; 1986).
SWEET AND TART PICKLED CRANBERRIES
2 (12-ounce) packages fresh cranberries
3 cups red wine vinegar
3 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups water
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon coarsely broken cinnamon sticks
Pick over and rinse cranberries. Let drain in colander. Combine vinegar, sugar and water in large, non-reactive pan. Tie coriander, cloves and cinnamon loosely in square of cheesecloth. Pound bundle lightly to bruise spices. Add spice bag to vinegar mixture. Bring mixture to boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved.
Simmer syrup 5 minutes. Add cranberries to syrup and cook over low heat, uncovered, shaking pan often, until thoroughly heated and skins have cracked, about 7 minutes. Pour cranberries, spice bag and syrup into bowl. Cool mixture, then cover bowl and leave at room temperature several hours or overnight.
Spoon cranberries from syrup into 3 hot, clean pint jars, dividing equally. Reheat syrup to boiling, discard spice bag and fill jars with syrup, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Remove any bubbles and add more syrup if necessary. Wipe jar rims.
Seal with new 2-piece vacuum lids and rings, following manufacturer's directions. Transfer jars to boiling water bath canner and process 15 minutes. Remove. Let cool 24 hours. Makes about 3 pints.
Each 1/2-cup serving contains about:
263 calories; 2 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 69 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.82 gram fiber.
Note : Pickled cranberries are best if left to stand couple of weeks before serving.
China in Amagansett pickled pear photo from the Kasl Company at the L.A. Mart.