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Three ways to make the most of Asian pears

Whenever I see a pear, I immediately think of a beloved scene in a favorite film, “Godfather Part II,” and the pop song it inspired. A young Vito Corleone, played by Robert DeNiro, has just lost his job. As he walks home, he takes a pear from a fruit stand and, once inside, sets it on the dining room table, next to his wife’s place setting. They are speaking Italian.

About a decade after the film’s release in 1974, the British girl group Bananarama released “Robert DeNiro’s Waiting …” clearly inspired by the scene.

This connection, and similar ones, deepen my appreciation of the seasons and of the foods the seasons bring us. Pears sweeten summer’s slide into fall, and the mythology of pomegranates reveal how our ancestors mourned the coming months of scarcity.

We don’t experience the change of seasons as sharply as we once did, as almost everything is now available year-round. But foods harvested to travel long distances lack the joyous flavors of fruits and vegetables harvested at their peak and savored in their true season.

Local pears and pomegranates are just now beginning to drop from our trees and appear in our markets. If you pay attention, you will be richly rewarded.

The year’s first pomegranates signal a shift from summer to fall. In this dish, which can be a first or last course, they add a tangy sweetness that plays off the salty cheese and the luscious sweetness of the pears.

Roasted Pears with Blue Cheese, Black Pepper and Pomegranates

Makes 4 servings

2 ripe pears of choice

½ lemon

2 to 3 cups very coarse salt

Black pepper in a mill

2 ounces blue cheese of choice

Small head of butter lettuce, large outer leaves removed

2 teaspoons walnut oil or hazelnut oil

¼ cup pomegranate arils

Cut the pears in half lengthwise and use a melon baller or a small, sharp knife to remove the seed core. Squeeze lemon juice over the cut surfaces and set aside briefly.

Tip the salt into an ovenproof container just big enough to hold the pears in a single layer. You want the salt layer to be between ½ and ¾ inch thick. Set on the middle rack of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.

While the oven heats, grind black pepper over the cut surfaces of the pear and fill the center of each one with blue cheese. When the oven is heated, carefully set the filled pears, cut sides up, on the salt. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the pears are tender and fragrant. Transfer the container with the pears to a sturdy work surface.

Separate the leaves of the butter lettuce, discard the core and put the leaves into a medium bowl. Sprinkle with a little salt, toss, drizzle with the oil, toss again and divide among individual plates. Top with one of the pear halves.

Scatter pomegranate arils over each serving and enjoy right away.

This is one of my favorite chutneys to make at home. With this summer’s crazy weather, there are plenty of tomatoes on our vines that may never ripen, so use them in this luscious condiment, ideal with Indian curries and dals and a welcome addition to a ploughman’s lunch, cheese plates and cheese boards and alongside grilled poultry or roasted pork.

Green Tomato-Pear Chutney

Makes 10 to 12 pints

8 pounds green (unripe) tomatoes, washed, dried and cored

1 tablespoon kosher salt

4 pounds firm-ripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch slices

6 to 8 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

3 to 4 serranos or other small hot chile of choice, stemmed and minced

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ cup freshly grated ginger

3 pounds brown sugar

4 cups apple cider vinegar

1 ½ cups golden raisins

Cut the green tomatoes into thin (about ⅛-inch) rounds, cut the rounds in half and pile them into a large colander. Sprinkle with the salt, toss gently and set in a clean sink. Let drain, turning them occasionally, for at least an hour and as long as overnight.

To finish the chutney, use your hands to turn the tomatoes a few times to shake loose the liquid and gel that clings to them and tip them into a large soup or stock pot. Add the pears, garlic, chiles, red pepper flakes, ginger, sugar, vinegar and raisins.

Set the pot over medium-high heat and, when the liquid begins to boil, reduce the heat to very low. Use a large, shallow spoon to skim off any foam that rises to the surface.

Simmer gently, stirring now and then, until the mixture is quite thick and the liquid clear, about three hours.

When the chutney is almost ready, sterilize pint glass jars according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Ladle the hot chutney into the hot jars, leaving about ½ inch head room at the top. Add the lids and rings and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.

Set the jars on several layers of tea towels to cool and check that each jar is sealed properly. If any jars are not sealed, store them in the refrigerator.

When stored in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry, the chutney will keep for up to a year. Once opened, keep it in the refrigerator, where it will last for several weeks.

It is easy to find Asian pears in late summer and early fall. The fruits, which are large, round and resemble a lightly speckled apple, can be found at farmers markets, farm stands, a few grocery stores and on trees here and there, many of which go unharvested. Facebook groups offer them free and for trade. One of the best ways to preserve them and enjoy them year-round is by making pear butter, which is a lovely holiday gift. Enjoy it on toast, on sandwiches and as a condiment with grilled poultry and meats.

Asian Pear Butter

Makes about 7 to 8 pints

1 ½ quarts pear or apple cider

1 tablespoon whole white peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

½ vanilla bean, optional

3 cardamom pods, cracked open

15 pounds Asian pears

Juice of 2 lemons

Grated zest of 2 lemons

1 to 2 cups light brown sugar, packed

Pour the pear cider into a large soup or stock pot set over medium heat. Put the peppercorns, vanilla bean (if using) and cardamom pods into a spice bag or square of cheesecloth and add the cider. When the cider is hot, cover the pot, remove from the heat and let steep.

While the spices steep, prepare the pears. First, fill a large bowl half full with water, add the lemon juice and set aside. Peel, core and quarter the pears, dropping each piece into the lemon water to keep it from turning brown.

When all the pears have been prepared, drain them, add to the pot with the cider, return the pot to medium heat and bring the cider to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially covered, until the pears are tender, about 25 minutes. Stir the pears now and then as they cook.

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pears to a large bowl. Use tongs to remove and discard the spice bag. Return the pot to high heat and boil the liquid until it is reduced to about 1 ½ to 2 cups and has thickened.

While the liquid reduces, pass the pears through a food mill or potato ricer or crush them with a potato masher. Stir the pears into the fully reduced liquid, taste and add as much of the sugar as necessary to reach the desired sweetness. Stir over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved, then transfer the puree to an ovenproof pan (a roasting pan works well). Set the pan in the oven and cook, stirring now and then, until the puree is quite thick.

Spoon the pear butter into sterilized half-pint or pint jars, seal with rings and lids, process as directed by manufacturer’s instructions and store in a cool, dark pantry until ready to use. The pear butter will keep, stored properly, for several months.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook’s Tour of Sonoma.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com

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