Members of the rose family and kin to apples, pears are European and Asian natives that have been cultivated for thousands of years. European types, varieties of Pyrus communis, are soft-fleshed and have the classic pear form. Asian pears (P. pyrifolia) are crisp and tend to be round-more like apples in texture and shape, but milder in flavor than either apples or European pears. European pears arrived in the United States with the colonists and later rolled west in gold-rush-era covered wagons. They found an ideal growing climate in California, Oregon, and Washington, the states that now produce 98 percent of the domestic pear crop. These harvests include the popular 'Bartlett,' developed in England; 'Bosc,' from Belgium; and 'Comice,' from France. Pear varieties are distinctive, so their culinary uses vary, too. With its lavish, sweet taste, the green, slightly lumpy 'Comice' is the prime pear for eating fresh. Copper-brown 'Bosc' holds up best for baking and roasting, its thickish skin sealing in the pear's juices. Yellow, creamy 'Bartlett' blends beautifully into silky soup purees but falls apart with lengthy cooking.
Most United States-grown pears hit stores in July, with the season lasting through January, but Australian growers and other far-off, temperate-climate farmers ensure a year-round supply. When pears are at their domestic peak, however, you'll want to browse farmers' markets, where you can pick up local specimens or even heirloom varieties. Instead of being bred for supermarket sturdiness and longevity, these cultivars are often grown for their sublime flavor.
Wherever you buy, select firm fruit with intact stems and no large, dark blemishes (speckles are natural to some pears and are fine). Unless you opt for Asian pears, which are harvested fully ripe, the fruits won't be quite ready. European pears become mealy if left to ripen on the tree, so they are picked when mature but still hard. Give them three to five days on a kitchen counter and they'll mellow to perfection. To speed the process, put the pears into a paper bag, and check them daily until the flesh around each stem yields to gentle pressure.
If you don't devour the ripe results whole, in dripping chunks, the cooking and pairings can begin. One classic pear partner is pork; the fruit's gentle acidity is a bright match for the meat's pleasing richness. Similarly, pears do well next to walnuts and almonds. Ginger and cinnamon are natural choices, too, making hot, spiced adjuncts to pears' delicate muskiness. And along with Gorgonzola and other blues, aged, hard cheeses such as Parmesan are fine plate mates. You can also swap pears into most recipes that call for apples, adjusting for the pear's softer texture and taste. Or simply breathe in the fruit's fragrance -- and let it suggest one of the many possibilities.
Glossary of Pears
Pear and Autumn-Vegetable Soup
Braised Pork Loin with Pears
Beef Carpaccio with Pears and Arugula
Saffron-Scented Pear Upside-Down Cake
Salt-Roasted Pears with Caramel Sauce