The late-September afternoon was abuzz with bees, and the scent of ripening hung heavy in the air. I groaned when Tony boosted me onto the four-wheeler for a ride around our two acres. My new knee was still too tender for the trip, but I was mad with cabin fever and anxious to see how my precious plants had fared in my absence.
The vegetable garden was almost a total loss, and waist-high Canadian thistle had overrun the asparagus bed and young blueberry bushes. But despite my neglect a few clusters of fat red and white grapes dangled from ropy vines and – the surprise of the season – our solitary dwarf pear tree was absolutely loaded.
Suddenly I was pear-rich. I could indulge in fantasies of pear-intensive desserts with plenty left over for snacking. I was in no condition to bake yet, but luckily that was six weeks away. Last year I finally learned that pears fresh from the tree must be kept in cold storage for several weeks before ripening at room temperature. Otherwise they remain rock-hard.
Pear time is now at my house. I pulled several from the fridge last week and dreamed up desserts in my head while they ripened on the counter. On Sunday I began with an idea – pears, walnuts and blue cheese – and ended up with a gorgeous tart that straddles the line between cheese course and dessert.
The tart shell is made with frozen puff pastry. It is filled with a beaten mixture of ground walnuts, butter, eggs and sugar that puffs up slightly in the oven. Before baking, a handful of crumbled blue cheese is scattered over the tart and cored pear halves are nestled in the walnut mixture. The blue cheese lets you know it’s there without overwhelming the pears and walnuts. When the tart comes from the oven, toasted walnut pieces are tumbled in a thick sugar syrup and arranged on top. The syrup assures they both stay in place and glisten.
This tart would taste smashing with a port or a chewy red wine such as Syrah.
PEAR, WALNUT AND BLUE CHEESE TART
1 sheet (half of a 17.3-oz. box) frozen puff pastry
1 stick (8 tbsp.) butter
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2/3 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1/2 tsp. vanilla
5 or 6 ripe but slightly firm pears
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup water
Thaw puff pastry sheet according to package directions and remove butter from refrigerator to soften at room temperature.
Spread walnut pieces in a baking pan and bake at 375 degrees until toasted but not burnt, about 5 minutes. Remove from oven when edges begin to darken. Immediately transfer to a clean dish towel, gather towel around the nuts and rub pieces together to remove most of the skins, which can be bitter.
Discard skins and set nut pieces aside.
Roll puff pastry on a floured work surface until large enough to fit in bottom and up sides of a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with removable sides. Fit pastry into pan, floured side down. Trim edges with a knife, allowing one-half inch to extend above tart rim. Use trimmed pieces to patch areas that are too short.
Fold the excess pastry even with the rim, tucking between the dough and the side of the pan to make a crust of double thickness. Prick all over with a fork. Refrigerate.
Beat softened butter and one-third cup sugar with a mixer until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in ground walnuts and vanilla, scraping bowl once or twice.
Peel pears with a vegetable peeler. Cut vertically in halves. Remove stems and carefully remove seeds and core with a melon baller or the tip of a paring knife. Place pear halves cut sides down on a cutting board and cut across the pears at quarter-inch intervals, almost but not quite all the way through.
Spread ground walnut mixture in the chilled tart shell. Sprinkle blue cheese evenly over the mixture. Nestle pear halves in the tart shell in a decorative pattern. Combine water and remaining one-third cup sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil one minute, until syrup slightly thickens. Remove from heat and brush some of the syrup over the pears.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, until walnut mixture is puffed and set. Remove from oven. Return remaining syrup to a boil and toss toasted walnut pieces in the syrup. Transfer with a fork from the syrup to the warm tart, scattering randomly over the top. Cool to room temperature before removing the sides of the tart pan and cutting tart into 8 wedges. Serves 8.
I have become a tea fiend, and not because I have a Japanese husband. In fact, I don’t like matcha (Japanese powdered green tea) and I loathe the barley tea Tony craves. My tea of choice was Ceylon until a few years ago, when I switched to Assam after asking the proprietor of a Lebanese grocery store if it was any good.
“It’s the best tea in the world,” he said slowly, as if instructing an idiot. Many pots later, I’ve decided he was right.
Assam is a black tea named for the region of India where it grows. The native tea plants are a different variety than those that grow naturally in China (the only two regions to which tea is native). The deep-amber tea has a bright, frisky flavor. The best place to buy it is in a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern grocery store. You can find it in upscale stores, but it will cost much more.
My other tea find, of much more recent origin, is the house-blended mix of Earl Gray and regular black tea at Istanbul Grill in Avon Lake. Earl Gray is black tea flavored with bergamot. Cutting the intensity with plain black tea produces a hauntingly, almost floral-flavored cup.
The Istanbul is worth a drive for both the tea and the food. The latter is about as authentic Turkish food as you’ll find locally, seasoned with extraordinary finesse. The restaurant’s website is http://www.istanbulgrillavon.com.
If you want to try the splashy new seafood restaurant in Montrose without investing a fortune (entrees are $23 to $58), go during happy hour. The Kingfish, in the space on “restaurant hill” where various Italian restaurants have tried and failed, offers big-portion appetizers for just $5 from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays in the bar.
Tony and I were impressed with the quality and quantity of our appetizers one evening last week, including a mini platter of house-cured salmon, four substantial kabobs of chicken with a soy-Bourbon glaze, a big bowl of perfectly cooked mussels in a wine-tomato broth, and a plate of meltingly tender cornmeal-fried shrimp with dill pickle remoulade. The happy hour starters are a steal compared to the apps on the dinner menu, which range from $9.50 to $13.50 ($85 if you count the chilled shellfish tower).
The Kingfish has polish right out of the gate thanks to chefs and servers who migrated from Hospitality Restaurants’ other Cleveland-area properties — Rosewood Grill, Delmonico’s, Cabin Club, Blue Point Grille, Salmon Dave’s and Thirsty Parrot. Wade through the company’s website (www.hrcleveland.com) for the Kingfish’s menu and directions.
No fodder for this feature landed in my inbox last week, probably because all of you were stunned senseless by the election. Regardless of party, we all went through the psychic equivalent of a meat grinder.
This is the perfect time to be lulled to sleep by the gazillion watts of tryptophan in a Thanksgiving dinner. Tony and I will spend the day in Columbus with my niece, Heidi, who takes after me in the kitchen. I’m sure she won’t steam her turkey in a roaster or simmer it in a slow cooker. The next day I’ll grill-smoke my backup turkey for my favorite food of the season, Thanksgiving leftovers. Oh, boy.
This year, instead of reprinting instructions for roasting, high-heat roasting and grill-smoking a turkey, I will answer your Thanksgiving cooking questions and provide requested recipes individually via email. Send your questions to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll check my inbox daily through 5 p.m. Nov. 23.