I love Kieffer pears.
I love them raw - crunchy and dripping with their own sweet juice. I love them sliced and laid out on a cold plate beside a good stinky cheese - a perfect pairing of crispy sweet and savory smooth flavors. And I love them cooked into a sweet and spicy compote and spooned over grilled pork.
So why am I telling you this? Because Kieffers, the pears most likely to be found growing in backyards and on small family farms all over Central Texas (and most of the South), have a reputation for being not very good - OK for canning, but not much else. In other words, if you really need a pear, and a Kieffer is the only one available, don't expect to be impressed. Well, I must disagree. I would never think of it as the pear of last resort.
I do wonder about the taste buds of some of the food and agriculture writers who have described the Kieffer as "barely edible," or "more like medicine than food." Perhaps the fruits they sampled were not harvested and ripened properly. (Kieffers need to be picked when mature, but still hard; then they should be ripened in a cool space for two or three weeks until their sugary juices develop and their skins turn slightly yellow.)
It's also possible that the Kieffer has been stuck in the same "Southern food that's not fit to eat" category as another Southern heritage favorite of mine, the purple hull pea. (By the way, the purple hull pea, once dismissed as food fit only for cattle, is now enjoying a new popularity among young locavores who are tasting them for the first time at fine-dining restaurants such as Wink and Jeffrey's. Maybe Kieffers are next. Check out chef Matthew Buchanan's Kieffer pear dishes on the fall menu at Leaning Pear Café & Eatery in Wimberley.)
When I was a kid, I had no idea that some folks didn't like my favorite pears. At the start of each fall, my sister and I would start wondering about "the pears." "Isn't it about time for 'the pears'?"
"The pears" in question were the big lumpy speckled fruits growing in Great Aunt Iola's backyard in Arkansas. Iola (now there's a name you don't hear much anymore) always had more pears than she and her family could eat, so relatives and friends would visit in the fall, armed with paper sacks and cardboard boxes, to load up on the fruits that we thought were the sweetest and juiciest pears around.
At that time, no one in my family cared much for the commercially grown pears in the supermarket that ripened into elegant but squishy orbs of sweet flesh. We much preferred the firm but juicy crunch of Iola's lumpy pears.
It wasn't until years later that I figured out that Iola's pears were Kieffers - and that I didn't have to travel all the way to her backyard in Arkansas to eat one. I could grow my own or buy them at a local farmers' market.
If you aren't growing Kieffers, farmers' markets are your best bet for finding them. I've also spotted them in the produce section at Central Market, and some of the best Kieffers I've ever tasted came from a garage sale near the corner of Speedway and 32nd Street a few years back.
The Kieffer is a cross between a Japanese pear (or Nashi) and a European pear (probably a Bartlett) that was developed by Peter Kieffer in 1863. In the old South, Kieffer trees were prized for many reasons: They were heavy producers; the pears stored well if picked when mature (but still green) and kept in a cool place; and the pears' crisp texture made them perfect for making preserves and pies.
But then (and now), perhaps the most important reason to love your Kieffer pear tree was for its ability to survive, and even thrive, in less-than-ideal growing conditions. Kieffers are resistant to fire blight, a disease that wipes out most pear trees grown in areas with hot, humid summers. Blight is the reason that European varieties like Bartlett, Bosc, Anjou and Comice have not been successfully grown in Texas.
So, being that I live and garden in Central Texas, it's a good thing that if forced to choose between a sweet, crunchy Kieffer and a soft, creamy Bartlett, I'd just as soon have a crispy Kieffer. But that's not to say that I don't also enjoy a good buttery pear. When a Bartlett is perfectly ripe but not too ripe and at its sweet and creamy best, it's hard to beat. But a Bartlett won't grow in my backyard. And unless I move to Oregon or California, I won't find one at the local farmers' market.
And speaking of farmers, I've been purchasing Kieffers from Lightsey Farms (a regular vendor at the downtown market at Fourth and Guadalupe Streets) for the past month. (I didn't get any pears from my backyard tree this season, but more on that later.)
Kieffer pear season is drawing to a close, but Lightsey Farms expects to have Kieffers for sale until mid-November ($5 for a basket that contains 4 to 6 large pears).
If you'd like to try growing your own, now is an excellent time to plant fruit trees. One thing to keep in mind, though: Raccoons love Kieffer pears, too.
My backyard Kieffer tree was covered in baby pears in June. I was thrilled. It was going to be my best crop ever. But then one night the raccoons came and ate them all - except for one sad little misshapen pear. (Grrrr.)
Since then, I've planted two more trees and purchased a secret weapon - a motion-activated (and really scary-looking) talking tree creature. When barely bumped, the battery-operated Talking Haunted Tree Face mask ($34.99 at the Spirit Halloween Superstore) comes to life with eyes that light up and lips that move while he says stuff like: "Hey, you. Yeah, you. Come over here." And: "Now make like a tree and leave!"
I'm thinking I'll try it out Halloween night. If it scares trick-or-treaters, maybe it will do the same to the raccoons next spring.
If nothing else, maybe it will give everyone (including the raccoons) a good laugh.
email@example.com; 445-3946Texas chef's delight for fall
Native Texan Matthew Buchanan, chef/owner of Leaning Pear Café & Eatery, likes Kieffer pears enough to work them into his fall menu. "I honestly can't say that if I had to only eat one pear the rest of my life that Kieffers would be the one, but I do like them for their crisp texture and citruslike flavor.''
Buchanan and his wife have several old Kieffer trees on their Wimberley ranch. "We opened the Pear in 2007 and that fall there was a bumper crop, so we integrated them into the seasonal offerings because we had so many to use. There is definitely something special about knowing where they come from, in this case family land, and that no matter how brutal the summer might be those pears still come through, a reminder of how rugged the Kieffer has to be to survive the Hill Country summers - just like the rest of us," Buchanan says.
"The most prolific of the trees out at the ranch sits in the middle of a rocky, parched pasture where it seems even the cedars can't make it. My wife Rachel and I sat many an evening out on the back porch at the ranch, in the same rocking chairs her grandparents sat in years before, staring out at that tree thinking up ideas for what is now the Leaning Pear. It had a lot to do with our decision to name the restaurant what we did.
"So I guess I do have a soft spot in my heart for Kieffers that goes beyond a love for their flavor, but the fact that they grow locally in such large quantities is certainly a benefit. Plus, I always enjoy using an ingredient that may not have the best reputation to create something delicious and change a person's preconceived notion; it's fun for me and a pleasant surprise for guests."
- Renee Studebaker
Here are two Kieffer pear recipes on the fall menu at the Leaning Pear (111 River Road, Wimberley):
Kieffer Pear and Gorgonzola Soup
2 Tbsp. butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1 garlic clove, minced
6 cups Kieffer pears, peeled, cored and chopped, plus extra for garnish
7 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 Tbsp. honey
1/2 lemon juice
4 Tbsp. Gorgonzola dolce,* crumbled, plus additional for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
Walnuts, toasted for garnish
In a large saucepot melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent but not browned, then add the celery, parsnip and garlic and cook another 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir the pears into the pot and then add the stock. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes or until the parsnips and pears are soft.
Purée soup using an immersion or traditional style blender until very smooth. Stir in the honey, lemon juice, salt, pepper and Gorgonzola. Check seasoning and serve warm garnished with toasted walnuts, Gorgonzola and julienned pears.
*I also love using Pure Luck Dairy's Hopelessly Blue to keep it local.
Pear and Apple Crisp with Granola Topping
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg, freshly grated
1/4 tsp. allspice
3 pears, peeled, cored, sliced
3 apples (Macintosh, Fuji, Granny Smith or combination), peeled, cored, sliced
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. Poire William or other pear brandy
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
Granola Topping (recipe below)
Pecan Ice Cream (recipe below)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Add the pears and apples; stir a couple of times. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the fruit and stir until no lumps remain. Add the salt, vanilla and Poire William and stir to combine. Spoon the mixture into individual ramekins or one large baking dish, top with the granola crust and bake until brown on top, 25 to 40 minutes.
1/2 stick butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup rolled oats
2 Tbsp. flour
1/4 cup pecan pieces
1/2 tsp. salt
In a mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter and brown sugar, then add the remaining ingredients and mix to combine.
Pecan Ice Cream
11/2 cup pecan pieces
8 egg yolks
2 cups milk
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
In a blender, combine 1 cup of the pecans, egg yolks and milk. Purée until very smooth and strain into a large bowl; set aside. In a large saucepot, combine the brown sugar, sugar, heavy cream and vanilla. Bring to a bare simmer. In a slow steady stream, add the hot mixture into the cold mixture while whisking constantly. Be careful not to cook the egg yolks. Return the entire mixture back to the saucepot and gently heat to 170 degrees. Remove from heat, strain and fold in the remaining pecans and chill. Freeze in an ice cream machine.
- Matthew Buchanan, Leaning Pear Café & Eatery, Wimberley
Fall Garden Salad with Kieffer Pears and Lemon/Pear Vinaigrette
For the salad:
A couple of handfuls of baby mixed lettuces and greens, washed and dried
1 sweet red pepper, julienned
1/4 cup thinly sliced sweet onion (or 2 scallions, chopped)
Several salad tomatoes, sliced
1 or 2 fuyu persimmons, peeled and julienned
1/2 cup Kieffer pear, peeled and julienned
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/4 cup pecans, lightly roasted in a dry skillet
Pear quarters and sprigs of lemon verbena and thyme for garnish
For the dressing:
1/4 cup pears, peeled, cored, cubed
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped
1 tsp. dijon mustard
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 Tbsp. agave nectar (or honey, or maple syrup)
1/2 tsp. sea salt (more or less to taste)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. fresh lemon verbena leaves
For salad: Arrange salad greens, vegetables and fruits on plates, top with cheese and nuts, garnish with pear quarters and herb sprigs and drizzle lightly with dressing.
For dressing: Combine all ingredients except oil and herbs. Purée using immersion blender (or food processor or standard blender). Add oil slowly and continue to purée until smooth and creamy. Add fresh herbs and pulse briefly. Using a wooden spoon, gently press the mixture through a strainer. Cover and refrigerate.
- Renee StudebakerFor the love of Kieffers
Horticulturist and Kieffer pear fan Thomas Meehan writing in 1882 on the quality of Kieffer pears:
'A correspondent writes that he bought one of the Kieffer pears offered (for sale at a) Philadelphia market, paying him twenty-five cents for the specimen. That it had a remarkably taking appearance; but that when he took it home he found to his sorrow that it was not worth taking, except as medicine. This is quite likely, and yet does not prove that the fruit is not of superior quality when properly grown.'
Southern cookbook writer, fresh food advocate and Kieffer pear fan Edna Lewis writing in 1988 on backyard fruit trees:
'When I was a child, nearly everyone had at least a few fruit trees, all bearing different fruit ? Small orchards are disappearing. They were planted by another generation for us to enjoy, and if you have the space, think about planting some fruit trees for the next generation.'
A commenter writing about Kieffers in July on Cooks Illustrated bulletin board (americastestkitchen.com): 'My dad made wine from the peels and cores. My mother canned the pear halves with red or green food coloring for Christmas meals, red also goes for Valentine's Day. My husband and I like them raw.'
October in an Austin garden is a magical time when warm and cool weather vegetables thrive alongside each other. Fall tomatoes and peppers are ripening on the vine while baby lettuce greens are shooting up to join them. Add to that a bounty of autumn fruits and nuts (including, of course, Kieffer pears), and you've got the makings for a perfect garden salad.