Winter Fruits

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Pears

Good pears are in danger of disappearing. The best-tasting varieties (Comice, Bartlett, and French Butter) become easily bruised as they ripen, so large stores are reluctant to carry them. So what can you do? Buy them when you see them. Don’t be afraid to purchase rock-hard pears of these varieties: unlike most other fruits, pears don’t ripen well on the tree and should be ripened at home for the most succulent, juicy flavor. I carefully cradle my pears when I carry them home, then let them rest on the countertop, standing upright on a kitchen towel, until slightly soft to the touch.

Bartlett pears are amazingly aromatic, and in Normandy, folks who distill Calvados add a few along with the apples (about 10%) to heighten the aroma. Pear eau-de-vie, or Pear William (sometimes recognized as the clear liquor with the whole pear in the bottle) is a distillation of Bartlett pears. It takes about 60 pounds of pears to make a small, precious bottle of Pear William. The steam of the cooking pears is captured and that little trickle of liquid is bottled as eau-de-vie.
So stop complaining about the price.

Most pears can also be checked for ripeness by sniffing the stem end. I bought some perfectly-ripe Comice pears last week that were as perfumed as the most divine roses (which are relatives of apples and pears.) Each time I passed them on my countertop, I couldn’t resist picking one up for a sniff.

For cooking and poaching, Bosc and Winter Nellis pears are the best choice as they hold their shape once cooked. These varieties have little fragrance. Although other cooks use them, I’ve never tasted an Anjou pear that was any good.

(And don’t curse those little plastic labels that are stuck on pears. Without those, many of the supermarkets wouldn’t sell the lesser-known varieties of pears, since it’s difficult for the cashiers to know which are which. )

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Dried Apricots

When I visit the United States, I always return loaded down with at least three or four pounds of California dried apricots (right). I’m not xenophobic, but the Turkish apricots (left) are tasteless, bland, and sugary-sweet. If you come visit me, that’s what I ask my friends to pack for me.

I grew up snacking on California dried apricots and I used to call them ‘dried monkey ears’. Their puckery tang makes them ideal when simmered in a light sugar syrup until soft (1 part sugar or honey to 4 parts water, perhaps with a stick of cinnamon or vanilla bean) and served alongside a savory meat or chicken stew. I love them in desserts and I’ll often make a simple (and healthy) soufflé of dried apricots plumped in white wine. Once cooked, I puree them, fold in some whipped egg whites and sugar, and minutes later I pull from the oven a tray of apricot soufflés.

Although the Turkish (and Chinese) varieties are less than half the price, they’re no bargain. If you substitute them in a recipe that calls for dried apricots, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The California growers are having a hard time competing, since so many people seem to shop solely on price, not quality.
So have one less Vente Mocchachino a year and splurge on good-tasting dried fruit. Please.

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Limes

The most widely available lime in the US is the Persian lime. Since it’s seedless, it’s the one most commercial growers cultivate. Often found solidly green and bullet-hard (they’re picked underripe and gassed to preserve their unripe green color), they yield little juice.

As with all citrus, select limes that feel heavy for their size. If you live in France, where they vendors don’t like it when you handle the produce, you risk getting scolded with, “Monseur! Ne touchez pas!” (and in the old days, they would add a petit slap if you were in striking distance). So to avoid the humiliation, I scout around ethnic markets and root around the citrus bins, elbowing aside the Arabic and Chinese women, touching every fruit, and tossing back those that don’t feel hefty and full of juice.

If you pick one up and it feels light, that’s an indication there’s little juice inside. Look for limes that are yellow-golden with a greenish hue. As mentioned, ethnic markets seem to offer golden limes that are valued for their taste, not their looks. And don’t be put of by appearances: older, punky-looking citrus often tastes best since it’s spent the maximum time ripening on the tree rather than sitting in cold storage.

To get the most juice from limes, make sure your limes are at room temperature. Roll them firmly on the countertop with your hand to rupture the juice sacs, then squeeze. While some cookbook authors advise popping them in the microwave for a few seconds, I’d feel funny about heating fresh limes. It jus doesn’t seem right.

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Pineapples

While everyone loves pineapple, no one seems to remember the last time they actually bought one. They seem to make an appearance only for special occasions. So next time you’re at the market, why not pick one up? Personally, it makes me feel better to have something around the house that’s a reminder of the tropics during the long, grey days of winter. (Especially if I pick up a bottle of dark rum at the same time!)

I buy pineapples often during the winter. I like to cut them up and keep pieces in the refrigerator for snacking or to add to a fruit salad with grapes and tangerines. And blended with some dark rum and lime juice, served in a nice glass with some chips and guacamole, I don’t know of a better way to beat the winter blahs. (Luckily, for some reason, they have the best tortilla chips in France. Avocados are plentiful as well.)

The most common varieties of pineapple are the Cayenne and Esmerelda, although you’ll rarely find pineapples listed by variety. Harold McGee suggests buying pineapples grown as close to the equator as possible, although I’ve had exceptional pineapples from Hawaii, the Ivory Coast of Africa, and Costa Rica.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing that plucking out the center leaf of a pineapple will tell you about ripeness. Pineapples don’t ripen after picking so buy one labeled Jet-Fresh, or with a ticket stating that it’s been picked ripe, if possible. Take a sniff: a good pineapple will reveal if it’s ripe by a tropical aroma at the stem end. Lots of yellow on the skin is another indication of ripeness. Avoid fruits with soft spots and mold.

16 comments

  • Hmmmm…how is it that French Apricot confiture is the best & there are all those delicious apricot glazes on the pastry, David? Are those native born babies in too short supply for drying? Thanks for the reminder about eating Pears.Barbara Kafka has a neat, easy poaching recipe in her Microwave cookbook- Basically you just dig a hole in the bottom of the pear- fill it with cinnamon/cloves/orange & lemon zest etc.Then peel the pear & stick a few more cloves & zest on it. Place it in a glass-covered dish & nuke for like 3-4 minutes & voila!The natural sugars in the pear will make it deliciously sweet + ice cream = YUM

  • Take a sniff!
    A piece of advise that helps me every time I want to choose the best fruits.
    And those divine pineapples “grown as close to the equator as possible”!
    I spent my childhood in Uganda. Thus no matter how hard I may try to find a pineapple to remind me about the tropics I`ll fail.
    Take a sniff! Your nose will never fail you!

  • David,

    Great piece! I would add one comment to the section on pears, if I may. Pears do ripen further after being picked, but only if they’re allowed mature on the tree. In the US, supermarkets often sell pears that won’t ripen further because they were picked before maturing. (Drives me bats!) Your trick of sniffing the stem end is the best way to tell if the fruit’s mature and will continue to ripen.

  • Hey Mr. City Guy, congratulations on your FB Awards win today!! I think a tropical cocktail or two is in order!

  • Carol: The French confiture is likely made from fresh Royal apricots, or another good variety. But not imported dried ones.

    Tanya: Yes, there’s nothing like that sweet aroma of a juicy, ripe pineapple. Luckily I have two on my kitchen counter right now!

    Kevin: Thanks chef! You can probably get those lovely French Butter Pears from Pettigrew Farms where you are. I am jealous!

    Melissa: Thanks…You’ll have to come and celebrate with me…and next time, come when I’m gonna be here.

  • congrats on the win!!! you are my city boy!
    We are both into pears today..
    we also have a lovely fat pear that the seal the stem ends with wax when they sell it, so it won’t over ripen!!!

    I will try and find a foto for you!

  • Thanks for the info about pears. But I must say that I have never seen pears here in Toronto that even approach the quality of any pears we have bought in France when we have been there on holidays in early autumns.

    But I’ll smell and try the rockhard green pears available to us again – that is if there is any hint at all of pear aroma.

    And also fascinating about the apricots. I know from looking at your picture that we have Turkish apricots on hand. I’ll look around at the market to see if we can get California ones….

    -Elizabeth

  • Great post about winter fruits, although we are enjoying all sorts of berries, stone fruits & watermelon at the moment in Melbourne! I’ve been dressing my blueberries with lime juice, but would love to try pineappes with dark rum & lime juice.
    Btw, after all the talk of prunes in your blog, I tracked down some Pruneax d’Agen while in Paris a few weeks back – YUM! so juicy and…oh, just YUM, the best I’ve tasted. I managed to bring a pack back but don’t know how I’m going to cope with going back to the normal prunes after tasting these! I’m sure that we can’t get them in Australia :-(

  • Yay for David! He has won! We all love him! Yes, a ton!

    (Okay, I’ve clearly been spending too much time with inarticulate teenagers.)

    In slightly more adult language, warmest congratulations on your well-deserved win.

  • David,

    Thanks for the tip about the pineapples. I’m guilty as charged. No more plucking (of pineapples) for me!

  • I just wanted to comment on the apricot section: I am mostly suprised by your comparison on the Californian and Turkish apricots. As a Turk living in California, I must say that I do carry back dried apricots every time I come back from home. One main difference I am seeking for is how nice and sweet (real sweet) they are — instead of how you described as tasteless. Now I am wondering if France is getting the worst ones grown in TR?

    Also, from the pic you presented it looks like you have never tried the ones dried without any chemicals (they’d turn dark orange color.) They are the most delicious ones and they are more expensive in US, but I still go for the Turkish ones — the quality! :)

  • Congratulations to the best city blogger!!!
    I love dried apricots, but I wonder about the sulfur dioxide that helps them keep their pretty color and the naturally dried ones are brown, not exactly my favorite color in fruits…
    Hope you’ll celebrate with a tasty grape product today :)

  • Fethiya: I’ve purchased Turkish and Chinese apricots in California and found them quite sweet. One cooked, the California ones have a bolder flavor, which I appreciate.
    I do like the Turkish apricots that aren’t treated, the dark ones. Once I go through my stash of ‘California’ apricots, I’ll seach them out. Thanks..

  • Ah, pineapples.
    Now, the best pineapple by far that I’ve ever had, I had in the middle of the Daintree rainforest in Northwestern Australia. A guy there grows about twenty different exotic fruits, from sapotes to jackfruits.
    His pineapples have deep orange flesh and a caramel note so strong, that they remind me, in aroma and flavor, of a freshly made donut. Haven’t had anything like that before or since.

  • Congratulations on your win. There is a wonderful passage about pears in Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”

  • you made me laugh with the “Monsieur. Ne touchez pas!” quote. Many years ago I was at a lovely outdoor market in Trouville, gathering picnic fare. I picked up a strawberry and the farmer yelled: “MADAME! NE TOUCHEZ PAS LES FRAISES!!!”
    Who knew?