I was given two Christmas presents from my late British mother-in-law. The first was a basic wooden kitchen spoon that I used for many years until it finally burned to a crisp one night due to the cook's carelessness. The second was a fabulous little book called "Seven Hundred Years of English Cooking," by Maxime McKendry, edited by Arabella Boxer (1983). I kidded her that it took barely 200 pages to cover a whopping 700 years of cooking. Was she amused? Not likely.
I love perusing this book during the holidays for inspiration and recently came across a 15th-century recipe for poached pears that actually seemed pretty contemporary. The medieval approach was to flavor them with sweet white wine, cinnamon, saffron, mace, allspice, cloves, and breadcrumbs. I puzzled over the breadcrumbs. A thickener perhaps?
But poaching pears has never gone out of style and everyone from Escoffier to Julia Child liked to make them. They are perfect this time of year because you can cook them up to three days ahead and warm them in just a few minutes when you're ready to serve them. And for dramatic effect, nothing quite beats the sight of big, deep purple-red pears bathed in spicy, wine syrup. Add a spoon of stark white creme fraiche and the dish is complete.
Pears may be poached in anything really, depending on what flavors you want to infuse the fruit with, and recipes vary, but I like the French approach, which is poaching them in red wine, spices, and orange. Pear varieties are important here; either Bosc or Bartlett are best for their firmness and flavor. Choose a lighter red wine like a Rhone or Beaujolais of good quality. (Bigger reds seem to get a bit bitter when reduced to the degree necessary for this recipe.) Add a touch of sugar, cinnamon sticks, star anise, and orange peel. The aroma of the spices combined with the citrus, wine, and pears will fill your kitchen with heady piquancy.
As the fruit simmers, turn the pears so that they cook and color evenly. Then simply lift them out, and reduce the cooking liquor until the flavors intensify, thicken, and become syrupy. Remove the star anise, cinnamon, and orange peel to use as plate decoration. Each of these is very beautiful after simmering in a wine bath. Spoon the purple syrup over the pears and let it run down the sides.
Holiday cooking is a time for both tradition and experimentation, whether you like 15th-century methods or a more modern approach.