Cook it! 2012: September Resolution

I adore September.

Sometimes, as a farmer, summer can feel intimidating.  The good weather is wonderful, but those days right around the solstice are just such long marathons of work.  By September, the days have shortened to something a little bit more reasonable, the temperatures have lost some of their scalding hot edge, and, most importantly, we’re absolutely surrounded by the fruits of our labor.  In our own garden and at the farmers markets, the abundance is everywhere.  I put up food all year round, but the bulk of it is really in September, the time in my kitchen where the canner stays out 24/7.  There’s been a pot of something cooking down on the stove almost every day this week: heirloom tomato ketchup, a super sweet batch of cherry tomato-basil sauce, a batch of straight up, no-sugar added pear butter (my favorite choice for my fall pb&js).

For the September Cook it! 2012 Resolution, I wanted to pick something that would really celebrate the bounty of the harvest, emphasizing the pure, bright flavors of local fruit at its best. After much hemming and hawing, I finally settled on this project: DRY FRUIT. 

That seems anticlimactic, right?

How hard can it be to dry fruit? Does this even warrant my focus for this month?

The answer: Not hard at all, and yes, it does.

I came upon a huge amount of wonderfully sweet, juicy bartlett pears grown by one of my farmers market customers.  The pears here in Redwood Valley are truly delicious – something about them, I’m not quite sure – I think they might have slightly more acid than other pears I’ve tried, so they’re sweet, but not one-dimensional, with a little tang to them that many pears are lacking.  I really love working with them though, whether it’s canned in syrup, in jam, in a pie, in a tart, in savory fall salads, or, my latest discovery, dehydrated in the oven.

I don’t have a dehydrator because we’re off the grid and don’t have constant power, but I’ve experimented with oven-drying tomatoes in the past and loved the results.  I’m not sure why I never bothered trying it with fruit until now, but now that I’ve started doing it, it will certainly become a preserving tool that I use more often.

The exciting thing about this project is that if you’re lucky enough to run into some really great fruit, it concentrates and elevates the flavor into this perfect bite of chewy-sweet-gently-caramelized-goodness.  As wonderful as jam is, and as pretty as a jar of peaches looks on the shelf….. I really appreciate the fact that these dried pears have no added sugar.  Yes, I know you can preserve fruit in jars without any added sugar.  I would argue that dried fruit tastes much better, truer to the original fresh flavor. 

I was really excited about my oven-dried heirloom tomatoes because their flavor is so much better than any dried-tomato I’ve ever purchased at the store, and the same goes for this project.  These are the best dried pears I’ve ever had. I can’t stop eating them.  It makes sense; I’m sure the companies selling dried fruit aren’t picking out fruit that’s really this good.  Plus they treat it with weird stuff that I don’t feel like eating.

My favorite way to eat these is for breakfast, in homemade muesli.  I mix the chopped dried pears with rolled oats, toasted pecans and wheat bran, and then top with milk. It’s delicious and makes me feel like a rockstar.

Oven-Dried Pears

Cook Time: 20 minutes active, and then a super long time to wait for them to dehydrate, like 2 days long.

Makes: about 2 quarts of pears

Ingredients:

  • 20 lbs. pears
  • 16 ounces lemon juice (I use Santa Cruz Organics bottled lemon juice this time of year).

Wash the pears.  Fill a nonreactive pot with some water (about… 8 cups? I didn’t measure) and add the lemon juice.  Slice them in half and scoop out the cores with a spoon.  As you core each pear, put it into the pot with the lemon juice.  Once the pears are all prepped and treated in the lemon juice bath, lay them in rows on casserole dishes or cookie sheets, skin side down.  Put the pears in the oven on the lowest setting available (it varies from oven to oven).  Now wait.  It took almost 48 hours for mine to start looking like dried pears I’ve gotten at the store.   When the pears have first started in the oven, you can kind of put them in there and then just forget about them.  When they start getting drier, you’ll want to peek in the oven more often.  They may not all dry at once – I’ll start picking them off one by one if I see that a couple are getting dry before the rest.

I left a fair amount of moisture in my pears (you know how different brands of dried fruit will have different amounts of moisture? some brands seem a little bit juicier? I like the juicy ones.  I’m not sure how shelf-stable they are in the pantry, but I prefer the flavor).  So basically, dry them until you’re happy with the texture.  If they’re super dry, I’m certain you can just stick them in a jar in the pantry, unrefrigerated.  If you leave a little bit of moisture in them,  you may want to put the jar in the fridge to make sure it doesn’t eventually mold (or store them in the freezer and pull them out in small amounts).

I’m storing my pears at room temperature now, in glass mason jars in the pantry. I have no idea if they’re shelf-stable for the long term or not, but I’ll come back and update here.  So far I’ve been eating them every day and they’re fine (and it’s been about a week).

P.S.: Don’t be put off by the brownish color.  They taste amazing.

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To be included in the dried fruit round-up, send me an e-mail with the link to your post by October 15, 2012.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.  I’d love to hear how you use up your dried fruit, but also where the produce came from, since it’s such a big part of doing this project successfully.  Your local farmers market? The own tree? I wanna know.
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5 thoughts on “Cook it! 2012: September Resolution

  1. I bet those pears are fantastic, makes me hungry just following along with your post. I am going to try to dry Santa Rosa plums later this week. I have had some fun drying my heirloom tomatoes, I could eat them like candy. :Please keep us posted on your delicious fun projects, Thanks, Shari

  2. Have you heard of solar food dehydrators? They are pretty simple, don’t require any great skill to build, and the materials are easily scrounged or repurposed.

  3. Oooh, looking forward to this month’s challenge — I love drying fruit. I use a dehydrator because our electricity costs (it uses very little) are way, way cheaper than running my LP-powered gas oven all day — cha-ching! But definitely look into M. Stilwell’s suggestion of the solar dehydrator — right up your alley, I think.

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