Produce Superstars: Don’t Be Afraid of the Asian Pears

Shinko Asian pears, Ferry Building Farmer's Market, San Francisco. These crisp pears are firm when ripe and colors range from pale yellow, to gold, to dark golden brown.

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If you’re wondering what to do with the wonderful Asian pears which are turning up more and more in farm markets and supermarkets, I’ve got some useful ideas for you. And if you are wondering why they seem so much more abundant recently, here’s why:  back in the 1980’s, Asian pears were being planted at the rate of 100,000 trees a year in California, mostly in Fresno, Tulare and Kern Counties. Those trees are now mature and producing well.  While all pears are thought to have originated in western China, the pears which migrated to Europe are now quite different from the varieties which ended up in eastern China, Korea and Japan and which were brought to California by Chinese gold field workers some 150 years ago. Also known as Chinese Pears, apple pears, and nashi (the Japanese word for Asian pear), these varieties are generally rounder, firmer, crunchier, juicier and better keeping than European pears such as bosc and comice (picked ripe, they will keep in cold storage for two to three months).

Most typically, I use Asian pears raw, tossed with salad greens such as endive, frisée or radicchio–the Asian pear’s tart sweetness contrasts beautifully with the slightly bitter edge of the greens.  Try them in fruit salad, where their firm crunchiness stands up well to being tossed with other fruit and adds a pleasing texture. Or try them in recipes where you might typically use apples, such as in cole slaw and in Waldorf  salad, or use them as you would jicama–with a rich, creamy dip. Or dice them and simmer in apple juice with orange zest, cinnamon sticks and a variety of dried fruit for a warming winter fruit soup. In most cases, I wouldn’t bother to peel them, just core and slice or chop. Squeeze a little lemon juice over them to prevent discoloration, if you’ll be keeping the cut pears very long before serving. If substituting Asian pears for European types in cooked recipes, I’d increase the cooking time a bit, but in the end, I think they really do shine best when eaten raw. So, don’t be afraid of Asian pears: experiment and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Shin Li Asian pears for sale at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market, San Francisco.

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