Apples to pears

I recently realized that I’ve been living in Washington, a state which produces more than half of the apples grown in the U.S., for more than a year without ever visiting a local orchard. So when I found myself driving through the Cascade mountains this past weekend, I jumped at the chance to go apple picking at a farm in Skagit Valley. Though Skagit Valley lies to the West of the Cascades together with Seattle, the majority of Washington’s fruit production is actually centered on the eastern side of the mountains. Even to the West at Jones Creek Farm, I was impressed by the wide variety of apples – more than 10 – available in a relatively small orchard:




I was also happy to discover that the farm also has a crop of Asian pears available for “u-pick,” with three varieties to choose from. My favorite ended up being the Mishirasu, which has the slightly rough, spotted skin of common Asian pears, as well as the signature shape of its European counterparts, like Bartlett and Bosc:


Asian pears are native to China and Japan, where they grew a few thousand years before being brought over to North America in the 1800s, most likely by Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. Because of their crisp texture and most often round shape, the fruit is sometimes misconstrued as a cross between an apple and pear – its nickname is indeed “apple pear.” In actuality, though, it’s part of the Pyrus genus, the set of plant species which encompass edible and decorative pears.


Back in Seattle, with a fruit bowl brimming with pears, I’ve had to get creative with my harvest. Because they’re very crunchy and watery at the same time, Asian pears are notoriously hard to break down in cooking, so making use of them raw is more manageable. (I also recently learned that they’re a common ingredient in Korean barbecue marinades because they contain enzymes which help tenderize meat.) Here I thought I’d share two different ideas for using Asian pears in salads. The first is based on the holy salad trinity of crisp fruit + sharp cheese + toasted nuts, while the second is a bit of a riff on the classic Waldorf salad.


Mixed Greens with Asian Pears, Gorgonzola,
Toasted Pecans, and Maple-Balsamic Dressing

Here the name says it all: toss thinly sliced Asian pears with mixed greens, crumbled Gorgonzola, and toasted pecans. To make the dressing, whisk balsamic vinegar and maple syrup together with a tiny dollop of Dijon mustard, adding salt and pepper to taste, and then gradually whisk in some olive oil. Simple and elegant!


Asian Pear Aioli Salad

This second salad is based on a recipe of a good friend of my mom’s, a woman who is famous for hosting big parties with tables overflowing with food. She adds celery root, cut in matchstick pieces, but here I substituted plain old celery, thinly sliced. I chose to leave the skins on the pears to add more color and texture to the salad, though you can also peel them for a more elegant effect.

Start by making a quick aioli sauce: to make about a half a cup’s worth, whisk together an egg yolk, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a chopped garlic clove, a generous pinch of salt, and a couple teaspoons of water. Then gradually whisk in 1/4 cup of olive oil, as well as another 1/4 cup of an alternative oil with a less powerful flavor, like grapeseed. Add fresh lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Depending on how large a salad you want to make and how much dressing you like, multiply the quantities as you see fit. Then combine thinly sliced Asian pears and celery in a bowl with the sauce, and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.



The fungus among us

It’s Fall here in the Pacific Northwest, which means we’re in the heart of mushroom season. From about September to November,  damp days promise an abundance of funghi – one of the many similarities between this region of the U.S. and Piedmont, the province in Northern Italy where my family is from. Even on a short hike near Hood River, Oregon this past weekend, I was able to find a bunch of different mushrooms along the edge of the path:


I’ve combed through some mycology books in an attempt to decipher the spoils of my amateur “mushroaming,” and am pretty sure the big one to the top right is a short-stemmed russola, and the red one a lobster mushroom. For each of the rest, I’ve come up with a handful of possibilities which seem to be either “edible but not recommended” or “deadly poisonous.” Hmmm…

Not feeling quite up to hallucinating this weekend, I foraged my neighborhood grocery store for a local mushroom alternative, and came out with some beautiful golden chanterelles.


One of my favorite ways to cook mushrooms is in risotto, the ultimate comfort food for chilly nights. It’s a logical choice for using fresh mushrooms in Northern Italy, because the Po Valley, stretching from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is filled with rice fields. Since the delicate creaminess of the rice contrasts so nicely with earthy flavors, risotto is a great way to showcase woodsy ingredients like mushrooms and walnuts in colder months, or nettles and asparagus in the spring.

When buying rice for risotto, try to track down the carnaroli variety. Because these kernels are a bit shorter, they tend not to overcook as much as other alternatives, such as arborio. That being said, it’s perfectly fine to use arborio; you just need to be more attentive to ensure your rice does not cook beyond al dente.


This recipe serves around 8, with ample leftovers, and takes about 30 minutes to make.

About 6 cups carnaroli or arborio rice – The general rule in Italian cooking is “un pugno per persona” (one fistful per person), but that’s in the context of a larger meal where rice would be only the first of several courses. I usually serve risotto as a main dish together with a salad/side, so I estimate about 2 to 3 fistfuls per person.
About 3.5 quarts (14 cups) chicken stock – The calculation here is about 2 times as much broth as rice. I like to overestimate the amount just in case – you can use any extra broth when reheating leftovers the next day.
About 5 cups cleaned mushrooms – Here I’ve used chanterelles, but other types, especially porcini (even reconstituted dry ones), would also work very well.
1 large yellow onion (about 1 cup diced)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1/2 cup dry white wine
Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped
3-4 tablespoons butter
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

The first step is to clean your mushrooms, something done best with a glass of wine, sitting among good company. Here is my mom preparing chanterelles for cooking – wiping them clean with a damp paper towel, trimming the bottom of the stems, and cutting them in half (large pieces are fine, since they’ll shrink as you cook):


Next, bring the stock to a boil in a large pot on a back burner of your stove. Season your broth with salt – that way the rice will absorb the salt together with the liquid. Once hot, continue to simmer over low heat to keep the broth warm as you make the risotto.

In another pan, sauté half of the onion in olive oil, adding the mushrooms a few minutes later. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to brown; season with salt & pepper, then set aside.

In either the same pan as you cooked the mushrooms in, or in a new one (so long as it’s big enough to hold all of the risotto- the rice will expand!), sauté the rest of the onion over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once the onion begins to turn translucent, add the rice, stirring continuously and keeping a close eye on it to prevent it from burning. Toasting the rice without liquid at this stage allows it to develop a slight crust so that it absorbs the broth gradually during the rest of the cooking process, rather than all at once. It’s a bit like searing meat before roasting.

After the rice toasts for roughly two minutes, add the white wine and stir gently, keeping the heat at medium high. Once the liquid is just about fully absorbed by the rice, add one ladle of broth, always stirring often. Continue to add a ladle of broth at a time, stirring and waiting for the liquid to absorb before the next addition, until the rice is just shy of al dente – this shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes.

About 5 minutes before you think the rice will be ready, stir in the mushrooms and check your seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Then add your final ladle of broth (stir just to incorporate) and take the pan off the heat. This is the all-important stage called mantecatura, when cheese and butter are added to create the dish’s signature creaminess: add the parsley, 3/4 cup of Parmigiano, and 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter, then cover the pan and let sit for a minute.


Stir everything together, and serve with extra Parmigiano on the side.