Poached Pears à la D.
Good food is as subjective as aesthetic beauty, but in both realms I believe elegance is defined by a degree of effort and a degree of ease.
There are few things that I love more than a dinner party. If I’m hosting one—even if it takes rather a lot of prep—an imminent dinner party lends the day ahead a sense of expectation and excitement. Like Mrs. Dalloway buying the flowers for her party, mundane preparatory activities are imbued with a special significance: they will contribute to an episode of convivial conversation and the pleasures of friendship and food.
I learned long ago from my mother—who appears to easily churn out four course meals for eight or ten from her miniscule kitchen—that it’s essential to be organized in order to enjoy the fruit of your labors while the dinner is actually occurring. Hence, I’m all for making a stew the day before that can thicken and intensify in flavor overnight, so that all you need to do night of is simmer it, cook up some wild rice to sop it up and chop up some herbs to garnish it. However, if you’ve elected to make something more laborious—for which this one, two, or even three days ahead method is not viable—then for heaven’s sake have your mise en place ready before your guests arrive.
Once there, guests will be happily loitering around your workspace, peering into pots, looking for a corkscrew, leaning on your counter, gossiping in your ear, ashing in your sink, and this is not the moment to begin chopping your vegetables. This is the moment to gently (but firmly) refer them to the “bar”—or whatever beverage-focused area you have had the clever foresight to set up. Use the momentary ebb in your guests’ attention while they find themselves a drink to easily toss your pre-sliced shallots into a pan of warming olive oil, to be joined by the tomatoes that you already blanched and peeled and the chicken that’s already been trimmed and seasoned, or whatever you need for that night’s meal. Your mise en place will not fail to impress your guests, who will think you a serious chef when they see your pretty little line up of bowls containing the pretty little line up of ingredients you’ll need for the meal. This preparation is the effort that allows you to cook with ease despite the distraction of your adoring hungry cronies, and it is eighty percent of what will make your dinner party elegant.
My friend D. entertains at home with this exquisite balance of attention to detail and nonchalance. His home is chic and his art collection impressive (Helmut Newton photographs abound; a Rodin sculpture on an end table, and even a Cocteau print in the kitchen!), but the rooms are inviting and the sofas comfortable. Every space that he inhabits takes on this luxurious yet comfortable feel. D.’s deft effortlessness extends to his abilities in the kitchen, and nothing exemplifies this relaxed precision like his poached pears. D. plans ahead and poaches the pears (“always in Bordeaux”) earlier in the day—or even the day before—so that when entrée plates are being cleared from the table, D. needs only drizzle some heavy cream over each fruit or guide a few berries onto each plate. Though they are incredibly easy to prepare, the pears are alluring in their shocking fuchsia shade and an exceedingly elegant addition to any dessert or cheese course.
Here D. shares his go-to recipe for poached pears, but concedes they could just as easily be poached in Champagne with a bit of orange blossom essence, or for that matter Riesling with a hint of Earl Grey. Needless to say with their beauty and subtle flavors they beg to be enjoyed and though simple never fail to impress.
Ingredients (Serves 6)
6 ripe but firm Bosc or Anjou pears
¾ bottle of Bordeaux
2 tablespoons mulling spice mixture (or 1 cinnamon stick plus a large curl of orange peel punctured with cloves)
1 cup white granulated sugar
juice of one half lemon
2 bay leaves
With a peeler or paring knife remove the skin from the pears in long even strips. The idea is to preserve the beauty of the shape and surface of the pear. If the pears won’t stand on end, cut a flat slice from the bottom so that they easily stand upright.
If you have cheesecloth, use it to create a sachet for the spices, which will eliminate the need to strain the liquid later.
In a large heavy pot, combine Bordeaux, lemon juice, sugar and spices and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce to a simmer. Lay the pears on their sides in the liquid and turn up the heat again to a gentle boil or strong simmer. Loosely cover the pot. Let cook for about 20 minutes, turning the pears every few minutes so that they cook and color evenly.
For the last few minutes, add the bay leaves to the cooking liquid. Being careful not to mar the fruit, use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the pears from the cooking liquid and arrange them on individual plates or platter. If you haven’t used a sachet, strain the cooking liquid and discard solids. Return liquid to the pot and bring it to a boil. When the liquid is reduced to near a syrup remove it from the heat and spoon it over the pears. Refrigerate if necessary, but serve at room temperature with red berries, cream, vanilla ice cream or a chocolate truffle. Or serve them as is, but garnish with bay leaves.
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