Cranberry-poached pears with orange and black pepper
I have driven up Sandridge Road on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula for many years. We take the road to Oysterville, on the northern peninsula, where my family was among the founding settlers in the 1850’s, with their emerging oyster business. Sandridge Road crosses Cranberry Road on the way to Oysterville. During the Great Depression, Cranberry Road was referred to as Starvation Alley. The residents, who were oyster farmers, like my family, and cranberry farmers, were living off their land with a "tides out, tables set" mentality during this time period. Financial means were little and and so the road was named to describe their particular plight.
The sea-level location of the peninsula, and the fact that the soil is sandy, means there's no diversified agriculture, creating ideal conditions for pastured and wild foods, including an abundance of chanterelle and porcini mushrooms in the fall. The wetland conditions are also excellent for cranberry production. Acidic fresh water, sand and peat are the holy trinity for growing cranberries, which thrive in what are commonly referred to as bogs. And so historic Starvation Alley has re-emerged as an eponymous organic cranberry farm with ten bogs. Starvation Alley Farm 's cranberry crop finds its way into fresh and frozen berries, cranberry juice, and the family recipe for cranberry sauce.
I tested this recipe with Seckel pears, which peak in late fall. Because Seckels aren't storage pears (and don't keep well), try Anjou and Bosc varieties in the winter months, both of which are good for poaching. Don't worry if they seem hard; even very firm pears will soften as they poach in this lovely rose-hued cranberry nectar sweetened with brown sugar. Serve these poached pears for dessert, with vanilla bean ice cream and plain butter or shortbread cookies, or try them as an accompaniment to a savory entree like roasted turkey or pork.
makes 6 to 8 servings
2 cups cranberry concentrate or pure, unsweetened cranberry juice
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 Seckel pears, or 4 larger firm pears such as Anjou or Bosc
2 cups cranberries, fresh or previously frozen
Place the cranberry concentrate, brown sugar, orange juice and zest, vanilla bean and seeds, black pepper and salt in a large non-reactive pan. Add 3 cups of water and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium high heat. Taste the liquid when it comes to a simmer, to check the balance between sweet and floral. The cranberries will be quite tart, so you might want to add more sugar at this point if your preference is for something slightly less acidic. Reduce the heat so that the liquid is simmering gently.
As the liquid simmers, peel the pears. For Seckel pears, leave them whole with the stem attached, for a pretty presentation (see photo). For Anjou or Bosc varieties, cut the pears in half, remove the core using a melon baller, and then cut the halves in half for a total of 16 quarter pears. Place the prepared pears in the poaching liquid with the cranberries and simmer gently for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a small sharp knife inserted in the widest part of the pear slides out easily.
Remove the pan from the heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the pears to a bowl to cool to room temperature. Strain the poaching liquid into a separate bowl, reserving the cranberries and adding them to the bowl with the pears.
Return half of the poaching liquid to the pan and reduce it over medium low heat until one cup of liquid remains. (Cranberries contain a high volume of pectin, with they will release during the poaching process and which will then cause the reduction to take on a thick and syrupy quality.) Save the remainder of the poaching liquid for another use, or reduce the entire amount and set the extra syrup aside for making cocktails, or the base for cranberry sauce.
Pour the reduced poaching liquid over the pears and cranberries, gently tossing them to coat well. Serve immediately, or refrigerate the fruit for up to 3 days.