Beauty in a Jar
The other week I struck gold at the Headhouse Farmers Market! To be exact, delicious sweet little gold nuggets in the form of Seckel pears. These itty bitty pears were just what I’d been desperate to find. But let’s go back to the beginning first so I can explain the intensity of my delight at finding these rather old-fashioned variety of pears.
At the same time that I learned about drying corn from my grandmother earlier this summer, she also mentioned pickling pears when she was a girl, using the tiny Seckel pears that fell from the tree beside our dairy barn. As with the dried corn and quince jam, she nearly giggled with glee at the memory of these fruity pickles. As for me, pears – good and juicy ones – are in my top three fruits (in line with watermelon and kiwi) so I was quite intrigued by the notion of pickling them, if only to know if they still taste like pears or if they become fat squatty pickles. My grandmother wasn’t quite able to articulate her taste memory of them. In fact, she couldn’t even remember for sure the method by which to pickle them. The only thing she was certain of was that they were something she definitely liked – a lot. I always love a good research project!
With my sack of Seckel pears from Headhouse in hand, I decided to rope my mom into the project while I was visiting again with her last week. She is indeed the queen of canning and has made more than her mess of pickles over the years. She also happens to have an impressive collection of old “ladies club” cookbooks from things like church pollyanna groups, 4-H clubs, town bicentennials, and…The Pennsylvania State Grange. If ever you wanted to take a trip back in time, pick up a tattered copy of a modestly bound, yet substaintially weighted, Grange cookbook. Among several recipes for corn pone (an old-fashioned bread) and for various parts of the pig that you’d probably rather not know about, there was the coveted recipe for spiced (pickled) pears for which I had been searching high and low.
Turns out that making pickled pears is pretty darn easy. Stuff a jar with pears and spices, make a simple syrup with the addition of vinegar, pour it over the pears and seal them. I have to say that the best part about this little pickling adventure was making it with my mom. She swears that when I was younger and still living at home, I shrugged her off when she tried to teach me more about kitchen creations, saying something to the effect that someday when I lived in the city, I’d make enough money to pay people to do this for me. I don’t remember saying that, but I was awfully keen on getting away from my family farm back in those days and thought my mom’s kitchen work rather dull. Now I’m glad she’s still such a willing teacher and that I’m finally wise enough to soak it all up.
Ironically, I still don’t know if pickled pears taste like pickles or like pears…Why haven’t I satisfied my swelling curiosity yet? I only had enough Seckel pears to make two pints this time around, and I want to save them until the holidays. They’re really rather festive and lovely in their antique blue Ball jars that my mom – upon swearing the blood of my firstborn – graciously allowed me to borrow. I can’t bring myself to eat them just yet. I need to stare at them for a few months and contemplate how that one stick of cinnamon tucked snuggly between the pears is just about the most aesthetically pleasing thing I’ve seen in a long time. Do you I think I’m way too involved with my food sometimes?
So, once I’ve savored the beauty of these jars of spiced pickled pears to my heart’s content, I’ll let you know how they taste. My culinary gut says they’ll be good. Feel free to make your own, taste them right away and report back to us all. I don’t mind being “scooped.”
SPICED PICKLED PEARS
Adapted from a Pennsylvania State Grange Cookbook (edition unknown)
2 c. sugar
2 1/2 c. water
1 1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
1 T. cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 t. freshly ground nutmeg
10 or 12 whole allspice berries
10 or 12 small Seckel pears (should be very ripe)
2 canning pint jars, lids and rings
Wash and dry the pears (do not peel them). If there are any bad spots in the pears, carefully cut out just the bad part and leave the pears whole otherwise. Sterilize jars by filling 3/4 full with water and placing in microwave to boil on high for 5 minutes. Carefully pour out the hot water and let jars dry/cool for a minute while you make the pears.
Poke 3 or 4 cloves into each pear before carefully stuffing each jar with as many pears as possible – mine held 5 or 6. Place a stick of cinnamon in each jar, along with 5 or 6 allspice berries.
Combine the sugar, water, vinegar and nutmeg in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. While that’s coming to a boil, place flat canning lids in a shallow pan and boil until the syrup is also ready.
Place a jar of pears into a bowl (this is to safeguard against getting burned should the jar crack when the hot liquid is poured into it) and use a measuring cup to fill the jar with hot syrup, leaving about 1/8 inch headspace. Wipe the jar rims clean with a towel. Using tongs, remove boiling lids from shallow pan and place on top of jars. Using a kitchen towel to handle the hot jar, screw on a ring as tightly as possible. Turn jars upside down to seal and cool. Do not move until cool. Test the lids to see if they’ve seal – lids should not flex at all when you press on them. If they “pop” when you press on them, they did not seal and you’ll need to store the jar in the fridge instead of in your cupboards. Here’s a good guide to canning if you’re not sure about something.
(makes 2 pints)