Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

From east to west with Asian pears

Diana Boesch of Frenchtown, a secretary at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County in Flemington who never tasted an Asian pear until she was in her ’30, likes to serve the fruit, cooked with honey, raisins and cinnamon, atop sliced pork.

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo of Montclair, who grew up eating Asian pears in Canton, China, and is putting the finishing touches on her latest cookbook, “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking,” doesn’t like cooking with them at all.

Still, those with roots in the Far East are the most avid consumers of the crisp and aromatic fruit. “It’s wonderful for dessert,” said Yin-Fei Lo, particularly paired with lychee nuts and tropical fruits like mango, papaya and pineapple. “You peel it and slice it and put it on ice to make it nice and cool.” Though Asian pears have been grown in New Jersey for two decades, “to many, it’s a new fruit,” said Win Cowgill, a fruit specialist with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Hunterdon County.

Bred at least as far back as the 12th century B.C., Asian pears can be divided into two main groups: Japanese or Korean pears, whose shape resembles that of an apple; and Chinese, or Yali, pears, which have more of what Westerners consider a traditional pear shape.

Sometimes called apple pears, Asian pears are not a cross between the two fruits, but a dense, succulent pear with a firm bite as opposed to the melting flesh of a European pear such as the Bartlett. Because of their numerous grit cells, which are made of granular silica, the coarse-textured fruits also are known as sand pears.

Unlike European pears, which ripen after harvest, Asian pears mature while still on the tree and can hang onto their branches even when overripe. “If you let them stay on the tree too long, they get too soft,” said Gary Mount of Terhune Orchards in Princeton, where about 150 Asian pears trees grow on half an acre.

“Growing them is a significant challenge. But we’re stubborn, and a challenge is what we’re all about,” said his wife, Pam. The trees were put in about five years ago, in response to customer demand. “When somebody says, ‘Why don’t you grow Asian pears? I’d buy them,’ we try them,” she said. “I can’t say we’re expert at it yet. They haven’t been exactly flying out of here. I wouldn’t say they’re as popular as an apple or regular pear.”

“They’re very fine-textured; crunchy, but not hard crunchy, sort of a delicate crispness. The flavors of some of them can be quite good and quite sweet,” said Gary Mount.

Of the six cultivars he grows — Hosui, Olympic, Shinko, Shinseiki, 20th Century and Yoinashi — Olympic and 20th Century produce the biggest and best-tasting fruit, he added.

Precisely because Asian pears tend to be so sweet, they can be a tough to sell to Americans, who generally prefer their fruit to have a sugar-acid balance, said Cowgill. “I don’t think the flavor’s caught on, except for the Oriental market,” said Jerry Frecon, a fruit specialist with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cumberland County.

At Peaceful Valley Orchards in Pittstown, which grows about half an acre of Hosui and 20th Century Asian pears, most of the repeat customers for the fruit are, indeed, of Asian origin, said Meredith Compton. “Their favorite thing is eating them out of hand. Restaurants really have not discovered them, not around here anyway,” she said. Though Asian pears are commonly sold for two to three dollars apiece at supermarkets, at Peaceful Valley they cost $1.69 per pound, and the pick-your-own price is $1.09 per pound.

Despite their heft, Asian pears “are more fragile than almost any of the other fruits,” said Gary Mount. “You have to be gentle. Don’t drop them into the box. Don’t grab them with your fingertips; that will make pressure points.” But he and other area growers are hoping more consumers do reach for them this season. “They’re a very nice tasting fruit,” promises Boesch.

Nutrition Notes: Asian pears are a good source of vitamin C and fiber.

Shopping Tips: Select pears that are fragrant and feel firm and moist, but note that chilled pears will not be as aromatic as those at room temperature. Avoid soft, wrinkled, or bruised fruit.

Serving Suggestions: Pair Asian pear slices with mild cheeses. Add peeled and diced Asian pears to poultry stuffing. For dessert, saute chunks of peeled Asian pears in butter, and then sprinkle with sugar and a favorite liqueur.