Next time you find yourself in the kitchen with a baguette, a little duck fat or hazelnut oil and some lettuce, reach for an apple or a pear. Toast and oil the bread, grate the fruit, salt them and combine with the flash of green. Take a bite and you will almost think what you’re eating is a BLT in fall clothing.
And that’s just the most basic example of how apples and pears are ripe for transformation into savory sensations. The two quintessential fruits of autumn are all too easily mixed with sugar and sweet spices, but you can do much better by them with salt and pepper. Not to mention onions and herbs. Or cheese.
Cooking apples and pears as if they were potatoes or mushrooms also takes them to a whole other level while opening new avenues to irresistible side dishes for meat or fish.
Sauteing, braising, baking and stewing will all bring out intense flavor while retaining every sweet virtue of these familiar fruits.
Chefs toss out the rules
Both have a long tradition of working all sides of a menu, in soups, salads and entrees as well as desserts, particularly in French cooking and especially in the kitchens of Normandy.
More recently, back at the height of the first wave of new American cooking in the 1980s, chefs went wild converting the emblematic fruits into elements of every course of any meal.
Never mind that both fruits are transplants from overseas (only cranberries, blueberries and Concord grapes are native to North America). Nothing said new American like apple in a salad with Wisconsin cheddar.
The French and the new American ways with apples and pears are worth a fresh look, as that easy sandwich proves. Jacques Maximim, the renowned Provencal chef, provided the recipe in his “The Cuisine of Jacques Maximim” (a 1986 cookbook) for what he called apple pan bagnat, a nicoise assemblage more typically made with tuna and a raft of other ingredients needing slicing and dicing. Using fruit makes it simpler, surprising and somehow more satisfying.
If you still have doubts, borrow a page out of Madeleine Kamman’s “In Madeleine’s Kitchen.” Peel, core and slice either apples or pears and saute them in butter with a little salt, just long enough to soften the crisp edges.
The famed French cooking teacher calls that butter frying, which somehow adds to its allure, and it takes you very quickly to a superb partner for roast chicken or grilled salmon or especially pork chops.
Maximim goes a little further with that technique in that same cookbook of his (picked up in a second-hand store a decade ago). He combines the sauteed fruit with eggs and a bit of cream to make a savory clafouti that is extraordinary.
Pears in particular keep just enough of their inherent sweetness against the savory custard; it’s almost like Yorkshire pudding squared, and it goes with any roast (and most other main courses).
Braising is the most classic technique for transforming apples and pears. You can do just that -- starting with a little butter and finishing with a little Calvados or Poire William -- or you can add the fruit to the sauce for chicken braised in cider with shallots and thyme. The same idea works as a sauce for veal chops with apples or pears.
Turning apples and pears into savory jams is a more familiar idea but not to be overlooked, particularly if you add onion and vinegar. The sweet-tart tanginess is exceptional as a garnish for pork or meats or even fish but an outright wonder topping potato pancakes with horseradish creme fraiche.
Applesauce is a more predictable partner, but onions and jalapeno in the jam ramp up the flavor far more than sugar ever could.
Both fruits, simply peeled and sliced, also pair wondrously with the saltiest of cheeses, particularly Roquefort and other blues, sharp cheddars and nutty Gruyere. Those combinations in almost equal proportions to greens make a superb salad, with or without toasted pecans, walnuts or pistachios.
Then again, a classic Norman salad mixes watercress and pears with just croutons, a great contrast in textures and sweet-salty flavors. (Saute cubes of good bread in walnut oil or butter, with or without a little garlic, until the croutons are crunchy, then salt and pepper them.)
Twenty years or so ago, American chefs’ cookbooks were crammed with other ideas. Marcel Desaulniers of the Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., was a master at moving the orchard beyond dessert.
He would use pears with sauteed liver and Surrey sausage or with Stilton in a chilled soup; apples in curried onion soup or with sauteed rabbit with cabbage and pearl onions; and of course apples in butternut squash soup.
Apples and more
“Cooking With the New American Chefs” by Ellen Brown, from 1985, is a mother lode of similar recipes, at least with the symbolic fruit: apple-basil sorbet, apple-ham pate, sauteed apples with potato pancakes and goat cheese, even grilled apples.
And none of those sound at all dated 20 years later.
On the technical side, the best apples for cooking are those with assertive flavor, more tart or tangy than sugary-sweet, and those that hold their shape when cooked, particularly Granny Smith, Fujis and Baldwin. McIntosh fall apart too easily.
For pears, Comice and Anjou are my choices, but Bosc will work; Bartlett have the McIntosh problem.
And Seckels, which can be so easily pickled with hot peppers in vinegar, are a pear apart. They’re tiny but suited to salt. The good thing is that the pears do not have to be dead ripe as they should be when you are looking primarily for sweetness; a little on the firm side is actually better.
No matter the variety, all those fruits are well worth keeping in the vegetable bin even in peak sugar season, when apple pies and pear tarts are on so many minds.
After all, for the last few months of tomato mania, every cook in America has been treating a fruit as a vegetable with spectacular results. Why stop now?