Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pears in Pomegranate Juice

I could easily live with just two kinds of desserts: chocolate-based and fruit-based. In fact, come to think of it, if you take dairy products out of the equation, there aren't really many other options. Nuts would be one, but without chocolate or fruit of some kind, nuts are more of a snack than a sweet--not to mention a bit heavy for a meal's end. I've never had a fondness for heavy desserts (like pies, even though I've heard people speak of them as a "healthy" option), especially after a heavy meal (like Thanksgiving dinner, to name a preeminent example).

Over the last 30 years or so, I've come to understand that with food, most often the best thing you can do is as little as possible. Not only does minimal treatment help preserve the health benefits of foods, but it also tends to help bring out and showcase the intrinsic specialness of the ingredients themselves (if you get it right). A stellar example of this would be a favorite of mine, pears poached in pomegranate juice.

When I first began making this dessert, pomegranate juice was not a common grocery store item, so I had to first squeeze the juice from at least a dozen fresh pomegranates. This is no small task, but it adds to that intangible "labor of love" factor that somehow imbues food with a unique additional pleasure. The first thing you have to do is press down with the palm of your hand, rolling the fruit around on a hard surface to break up the arils (the soft squishy part of the seeds). You may have done this with citrus fruits, in effect pre-juicing them. Then you have to cut them in half (or quarters, if they're very large) and squeeze the juice through a fine sieve. These days, you can just buy a little jug of pomegranate juice to save a lot of time and trouble, but I have to mention that the result will lack a certain something--the irreplaceable energy of a dedicated person's hand-working (this isn't woo-woo metaphysics, it's a real factor in food preparation). That, and also the fresh-juiced astringent quality of pomegranates that commercial processing tends to mute.

The rest is quite easy: peel the pears and pare out the cores, place them in a saucepan, pour in the juice and simmer them until tender. I also add a bay leaf or two and some freshly crushed cardamom seeds, but you can get brilliant results with just the first two ingredients, believe me. I choose bosc pears for this because they hold their shape well even when thoroughly cooked, and they have a wonderful tender-gritty texture that reminds the palate which fruit we're eating while it also savors the rich flood of pomegranate (and spice) messages. After lifting out the pears (by the stem, to avoid gashing them with a spoon or spatula), the remaining pomegranate juice can be reduced to a syrup and poured over the fruit just prior to serving.

One holiday, my mother-in-law brought a couple of pies, and after the feeding frenzy that ensued, there were several pears left uneaten. No problem; I blasted them in the food processor and made sorbet.

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