Oh mid-December with your mercurial weather–I cannot figure you out! Are you freezing cold with temperatures nearing zero or are you the kind of December that lingers in the forties, rainy and damp, like this morning? Do I warm up some soup and curl up with a book dressed head to toe in fleece, or do I just go into deep nesting mode and emerge outside when asparagus arrives to the greenmarket? Either way, I want to stay indoors and make lovely things in the kitchen and then eat them. Not terribly ambitious, am I? You see, inside my head, I am cooking all kinds of things for the holidays: cookies, and cupcakes, and brittles, and toffees. But in actuality, I can’t even bring myself to put the book down and wash my dirty pot from last night. I promise, I’ll do it as soon as I post this. Or after I eat some pear compote I just made.
Ideally, I’d just invite you over, dirty pot and all, and share these poached pears, still warm, with you. I could tell you for paragraphs how amazing the house smells when you poach these pears in vanilla bean and star anise. But I could also hand you a spoon and let you help yourself, and in one spoonful, you will know so much more than I could put into words. These pears, fragrant, soft, sweet, are the perfect antidote to gray days and snow banks.
What else can I tell you about these pears? Well, for one, pears are one of the few fruits that truly look alluring at the market this time of year so you should, as they say, make hay while the sun shines. Perhaps because so much of the other fruit is so forgettable right now, I am finding pears impossible to resist. I like to think of them as a true winter fruit, that lends itself well to standing on its own as a snack, hiding in a cake, or brightening a salad. Or they are just as amazing when gently poached and served as they are, or as an accompaniment to a very wintry cake.
You might even forget what season it is; it’s that good, that comforting and so easy to make that you might just find yourself returning to this recipe over and over again. I know I certainly will be. And while we can’t all sit at my dining room table eating these out of deep bowls with soup spoons, we can at least pretend to, pretending to eat these pears across stateliness, country borders, and oceans. It’s the next best thing.
Vanilla & Star Anise Poached Pear Compote
Inspired by “From Simple to Spectacular” by Jean George Vongerichten and Mark Bittman
4 pears, preferably Anjou
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 vanilla beans
1 star anise seeds
1. Peel and core the pears. Combine the sugar and 5 cups of water in a saucepan large enough to hold the pears. Split the vanilla beans the long way and scrape out the seeds; add both seeds and pods along with star anise to the water. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.
2. Add the pears and adjust the heat so that the mixture bubbles, but n ot too vigorously. Cook for 8 minutes, or until a thin-blade knife inserted into the pears meets with little resistance.
3. Let the pears cool in the liquid for 30 to 60 minutes (an hour longer is okay too; do not refrigerate).
4. When cooled, finely dice the pears.
5. Reserve and strain the cooking liquid. Boil until reduced to a thickish syrup – about 20 minutes and let come to room temperature. Serve with the pears as a side to the cake.
Note: the leftover syrup is PERFECT for an infusion for a Christmasy cocktail with vodka and seltzer and a tiny slice of pear.