I haven’t used the oven in over three months since our kitchen-paint-job-gone-wrong resulted in polyurethane spray entering its interior via the vents in the door. Given that polyurethane produces toxic gases when heated, we have diligently left the oven well alone all this time. The good news is that the insurance claim is finally at “negotiation phase”, although what the outcome is likely to be is still a mystery. Considering the snail’s pace with which this entire process has taken to date, I’m picking it will easily be another two months before a settlement is finalised and we can think about installing a replacement oven.
Winter is usually a time of roasting and baking, but I’ve had to make do with the stove top and slow cooker. My usual winter curries, soups and stove top stews have continued unabated, but I miss roast chickens and the large trays of vegetables that I used to roast and resurrect in salads and pasta over the course of several meals. On the weekends, it’s the loss of baking that I feel most keenly. This time last year I was reveling in baked figs, apple crumble, pear cake and apple tart. This winter, by necessity, I’m all about poaching pears.
Poaching is a forgiving cooking method that is difficult to get wrong. Throw some water and fruit in a pot, add some sugar and spices, and simmer gently until the fruit is just cooked. I have made several variations of David Lebovitz’ spicy poached pears recently, playing around with different spice combinations, pear varieties, and sugar levels. I’ve discovered that slightly under-ripe pears work best. Even though they take longer to poach, very firm pears are much less likely to tilt over into mushiness or dominate the flavour profile with the over-excretion of sweet pear juice. I also prefer the poaching syrup to be quite low in sugar, and will often tart up the liquid with a spritz of lemon juice or use a half-water-half-wine combination. This flexibility is exactly the point: this post offers a suggestion for poached pears, not a recipe per se.
Last weekend at the market I spotted a bin of the most gorgeous, freshest thyme I’ve seen for a long time. I rarely buy thyme as I cook with it only occasionally, usually pairing it with roast chicken or sprinkling it over meaty mushrooms before roasting them in the oven. Although both options were unachievable in my current kitchen, I could not walk past this thyme with its dark, dense, springy leaves. When I spotted a bin of rosy pears at a different stall, I immediately knew that I wanted to try combining the two.
In order to emphasise the thyme flavour, I elected to reduce the amount of sugar I would usually use. I also added black peppercorns and some whole coriander seeds to provide depth and a background spicy warmth. The resulting dish has an interesting flavour profile that borders on savoury – the word “masculine” came to my mind as an appropriate descriptor. It works with yoghurt or crème fraiche as a simple-yet-sophisticated dessert, but will just as easily complement slices of sharp cheddar, replacing quince paste or grapes on a cheese board. Oven-deprivation isn’t always a bad thing if sexy pears like this are the result!
Poached Pears with Thyme and Coriander
5-6 firm, slightly under-ripe pears
1/3 cup brown sugar (roughly measured, i.e. not packed)
1 ¼ cups water
1 ¼ cups dry white wine
2 Tbsp coriander seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns
Fresh thyme and yoghurt or crème fraiche, to serve
Place the brown sugar, wine and water in a medium saucepan along with the peppercorns. Lightly crack the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle and add these as well. Bring the pot to a boil to dissolve the sugar.
While the liquid is heating, peel the pears, quarter and remove the cores. Add the pears to the boiling water and top up with a little extra water if needed. Add several generous sprigs of thyme to the pot. Once the water has come back to the boil, turn the heat down and gently simmer the pears until they are al dente (tender but still retaining a little bite).
Remove from the heat but leave the pears to cool in the pot. Taste the poaching liquid to check the flavours: if necessary, add more fresh thyme to infuse as the liquid cools, a spritz of lemon to adjust the acidity, or a little more sugar if you want to increase the sweetness. Serve the pears warm or chilled with a spoonful or two of the poaching liquid, topped with yoghurt or crème fraiche and sprinkled with fresh thyme.