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Friday, October 07, 2005

It is a fact of which I am not proud, but it is also a fact that I can't deny:  I have never been good at delayed gratification.  Anyone who has seen my book collection, the profusion of Lush products dotting the path between my bed and my desk, or heck, even my big old self, knows at first glance that I am terrible at self-denial.  I'm no fool, of course; when restraint must be exercised, I can exercise it with the best of them, but left to my own devices, I turn into Ado Annie from Oklahoma!, saying come on, let's go! when I know I should say nix.  Occasionally, I do find a gentle thrill in restraint, such as on Christmas Eve, when, as a child, I would lie in bed, listening to Johnny Mathis sing "Christmas Bells are Ringing" (and, when I got older, XTC singing "Thanks for Christmas"wink, bursting with the urge to run upstairs and see what was waiting under the tree, yet knowing that it would be more fun to see it in the morning.  There are other gentle thrills in restraint, but as those thrills are a bit more adult, and since I have compassion for my dear friends, I will not share them here.  I'll just say that they are rare, and leave it at that.

This lack of restraint becomes especially obvious when I arrive at the farmer's market.  It has been a while since I've managed to fill Lloyd's Humvee-sized camping backpack with melons and squash and corn on the cob and eggs, but it used to happen on a weekly basis.  Even as I appreciate that some things benefit from a bit of ripening, I still crave something shiny to distract me while those enzymes and bacteria do their work.  I rifle through bins of Elephant Heart plums, searching for the ripe ones, picking one or two underripe ones to reach their optimum state on the trifle bowl in the kitchen, then reaching for at least one overripe one, so soft that it might pop under the pressure of nothing more than a concentrated gaze, tucking it into the bag so that I'll have something to eat for breakfast as I continue walking around the market, or as I ride home on the N.  I can't buy a melon without buying two, one that is perfect right now, one that will be perfect by Monday.  Knowing that every fruit, like every dog, has its day, it was still the slightest bit frustrating to contemplate the bins of pears sitting alongside the bins of apples, knowing that I would not be able to tuck into a nice ripe one on the way home.  Unlike peaches and nectarines, which are best kept on the tree until they ripen fully, pears are best picked unripe and left to ripen gently off the tree, preferably in a brown paper bag.  This makes them a dream to ship, but hell for those of us who want our fruit fix right now.

Fortunately, I knew that I had grapes to keep me distracted for the weekend, and that once we were done with the grapes, the pears would be ready.  I took my grapes to the table to be weighed, grabbed a bag and headed over to the crate of new Bartletts.  There were hundreds of them in there, unripe, bright-green, rock-hard, utterly self-contained.  They were still beautiful, and I found myself holding each one for a second before dropping it into the bag, nestling their bottoms into my palm, feeling my fingers curl reflexively around the edges.  It is possible that I took too much pleasure in this.  I could have done it all day.  But I did not.  I went home, decanted the pears into a paper bag and promptly forgot about them, turning my attention to the guinea hen I bought for the next night's dinner, to the eggs that had to be put away, to the new bag of soft pillowy salad greens and the coriander with its concentrated chubby white roots still attached, to those grapes, which drove me nearly as wild as they drove the bees buzzing around them at the market.  The pears were off the hook.  I was content to let them do their work.

Dear friends, the next time I make a lot of obnoxious noise about how I don't want to wait, I want it right now, I will consider the pears.  Monday night found me in the kitchen, my mind uncoiling from a full day's slog at the box factory, the remains of the guinea hen about to be turned into Mrs. Ramachandran's Chicken, a glass of St. Emilion sitting at my right hand as I diced vegetables and rinsed rice.  I was hungry and tired, I hadn't had a proper lunch, I had tried to compensate with vending-machine food, and I was paying the price for it.  I was one step away from shutting off all the burners and crawling into the tub.  Instead I decided to check the pears.  They were still beautiful, but no longer self-contained; they were loaded with perfume, the bright green hue of the skin had lightened to an almost-iridescent green-yellow, and the flesh yielded to the gentlest pressure of my thumb near the stem.  No more waiting was necessary.

I am pleased to admit that I did not actually stand rooted to the spot, gobbling that pear down like a truffle pig.  I took reasonable bites; I chewed, I tasted, I swallowed.  On the other hand, I am a bit embarrassed to admit the pleasure I took in this pear, in its smooth suave buttery texture, in its subtle clean perfume, in the juice running to my face and hands no matter how much care I took in the biting, in the taste, the taste, oh, that taste.  I'm pretty sure I was not actually moaning oh, this is wonderful, this is the best thing I've ever eaten out loud as I ate it, but I'm also pretty sure I was screaming it on the inside.  Either way, it stripped the paint off my bad attitude, and got me back to the stove, feeling much peppier.

I have been noshing on those pears every night this week, sometimes with more wine, sometimes with dark chocolate, sometimes with the same salty sheep cheese that goes so nicely with the grapes.  With the last pound of last week's buy on hand, I cracked open one of the best essays on pears I have ever read, and possibly ever will, "In Praise of Pears," from More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.  Ms. Colwin acknowledges the beauty of a perfectly ripe, fresh pear, but she also makes an excellent case for poaching them.  She is right.  Poached pears were one of the first things we made in culinary school; I have seen professional cooks' eyes glaze over at the mention of them, a tired old standby for dieting dessert-lovers, but they are wrong.  There are two reasons that poached pears are a mainstay of dessert menus: they are easier than mud pies to make, and they taste sublime.  The basic recipe for poached pears is a mix of water and wine, sugar and flavoring, but what you use is up to you:  red wine, white wine, cider (or even perry, which is cider made from pears, although I've never tried this myself); sugar, honey, sugar and honey; vanilla, lemon peel, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise.  Once you've found the combination you like, it's just a matter of bringing the poaching liquid to a boil, turning down your heat and adding your pears, whole or halved (be sure to peel them, though), resting a piece of parchment paper on the surface of the poaching liquid to keep them submerged, and simmering gently, until the pears are soft but not mushy, imbued with the essence of the poaching liquid.  I would happily eat one of these every night; this winter, when I am enmired in cold-weather gloominess and looking for a bit of sweetness, I probably will.

Then again, if we have poached pears every night, we'll have to forgo the wondrous chocolate pear pudding, a Josceline Dimbleby recipe I found via Ms. Colwin, and which we had for dessert tonight, using the last pound of pears from last week's market haul.  We would also have to forgo the ginger-pear cake from John Thorne's Outlaw Cook, which takes a good thing -- gingerbread -- and makes it even better with pears.  Pear-vanilla conserve would be right out, too, as would pear chutney, as would ginger-pear muffins, as would Seckel pears baked with vanilla sugar, another dish brought to my attention by Ms. Colwin.  (I have mentioned elsewhere about the pear tree in our yard in my adored childhood home in Damascus, Pennsylvania, and how I never ate any of the pears because I thought they were ornamentals.  Now that I am an adult, I know that those "ornamental" pears were actually Seckels.  What a dope I was.)  No, I can't forgo all of these beauties for the sake of eating poached pears every night.  But I just might forgo them for another night to stand in the kitchen, to bite into the season's first pear, and to learn just what rich rewards follow from a bit of restraint.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:16 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (0) Comments
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