As I get older, I find I’m trading the bold for the subtle, in terms of taste. When I first realized this, I felt boring. I picked up a patterned skirt in a store the other day, admired it; loved it, even; and considered buying it. In the end, it was a little sad, but I put that splashy skirt back on the rack, knowing I’d get more mileage out of something solid-black. This shift translates into food and drink, too. Where I used to love hop-bomb beers, I now seek out well-balanced, layered brews. In food, it’s no longer enough for a dessert to be sweet—I want it to be a sweet that’s worth my time. Something to think on.I’m starting to learn, though, that my growing emphasis on subtlety can be an asset. Everyone notices those sunrises where the sky is awash with fuschia or electric orange, but when I head out the door in the morning, I find myself meditating on the rich, individual colors that, a few years ago, just seemed like everyday, muted morning hues: dove grey, cashmere pink, and pale, Wedgwood blue. Aesthetically, I seek beauty that causes pause. In the kitchen, I crave food that engages the senses. In conversation, I want slow, spreading smiles. It’s the opposite of boring: it’s trading in the immediately stimulating for the steady burn.My mama, in part, inspired my love of this kind of experience. From her comes my obsession with patina, with the old, the rough-edged, the hand-hewn. She taught me to love crumbling houses where others would see an eyesore. She almost exclusively drove the back roads, insisting that no one is ever lost, but instead just taking the long way. History wasn’t the past for her; instead, every battlefield held stories in the dirt. Seaweed plucked from the water became bangles and necklaces in her hands. She would spend entire days with a big mallet, splitting open creekbed rocks, just to see if there were quartz or amethyst crystals inside. Mama loved the kind of beauty that needs dusting off, shaken out, held up to the light, and seen for what it really is. One year ago, she passed away. I don’t think I ever would have attributed all these things to her if she were still here—-that’s just how it goes. I realize now that my appreciation of multilayered beauty, of small details, of stories you have to dig up and dig into: this is what my mom taught me about taste. These poires au poivre (poached, peppered pears) are a nice reflection of a taste that strays from cloying-sweet to “something to think on.” They combine two recent obsessions: peppering fruit (I did this with figs far too often last month) and Asian pears. Don’t knock it til you try it. Just like cinnamon, cloves, or other pungent spices can bring depth to apples and pears, so can freshly ground black pepper. It’s an elegant dessert that leaves a little white wine and spice in your mouth; I imagine this going amazingly with a cheese plate.
Serve it with family and friends around, use the good china, and linger at the table. Notice all those bits and pieces that make up the beautiful whole. It’s something to think on.
Poires au poivre (Peppered pears)
Inspired by my love of black pepper + fruit and this wonderful ’80s-era Telegraph article
You will need
- 4 pears (you don’t have to use Asian pears, but I think their firmer texture holds up better to the poaching), skins removed but stems left intact
3 cups fruity, dry or semi-dry white wine (In DC, look for a Virginia Viognier or Petit Manseng)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean (split)
- Heat wine, water, sugar, and vanilla bean in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove vanilla bean with a slotted spoon. Reduce mixture to a simmer, and add two pears. Poach the pears in the wine-sugar mixture for 5-10 minutes, until pears are tender and their color changes subtly. Place on a plate and in the refrigerator. Repeat the poaching process with the other two pears.
When all pears have been poached, turn heat to high. Boil the wine-sugar mixture for 15-30 minutes, until the syrup is reduced by half or more. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
Place each pear on a plate. Pour a few tablespoons of the reduced poaching liquid over the top. Grind black pepper over the top, and serve.