Another in a series in which I comment on M.F.K. Fisher’s 1986 annotations of Catherine Plagemann’s 1967 Fine Preserving, layering past and present, research, experimentation and outright opinion. This project is a blast.
Slightly tipsy table talk over the holidays made a few tongue twisters of our pickled Seckels. You can just imagine. I put these up in mid-fall when local Seckel pears were still available and served them in sweet and savory combinations. Plagemann describes the results as “rich, spicy and good, and an attractive brown color.” Contrarian Fisher says “they are little dry warped things …(with) strong hard little bits in them like grains of sand.” But she is forgiving since her mother “loved them, so all was well.”
I agree with the mixed results, but I think they were my doing, not a flaw in the idea or the process. Plagemann peeled her pears and I didn’t, resulting in a shriveled appearance and a slightly dense coating. This was actually more of a cosmetic problem than a flavor problem but it did affect the texture. The pears are poached in a combination of white wine vinegar and brown sugar with cloves and cinnamon sticks. The poached pears are ladled into hot jars and the hot pickling liquid is reduced and poured on top. I let them sit for a couple of months, with the result that the liquid permeated the fruit and all of the graininess that Fisher feared was gone. Plagemann was right about that.
I will make these again, but need to work on the type and amount of vinegar and sugar, the preparation of the pears and maybe some alternative spices. I served them semi-successfully with ice cream and cookies (too vinegary) and very successfully in a salad of winter-friendly bitter greens topped with the pears, toasted walnuts and blue cheese. Plagemann says to save the liquid for a basting sauce. She suggests ham. Hmmm. Not this generation.
Spiced Seckel Pears from Catherine Plagemann
12 Seckel pears
1½ c white wine vinegar
2 c dark brown sugar
1 tsp whole cloves from which the heads are removed (so as not to cloud the syrup)
1 two-inch stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
Peel enough pears to pack a quart jar. Bring the vinegar, sugar and spices to a boil and add the pears. Lower the heat and poach the pears gently until easily pierced by a cake tester. Do not overcook.
Meanwhile, prepare the jar by washing it, filling it with boiling water and draining it.
Place the pears in the prepared jar. Bring the pickling syrup to a boil and pour over the pears , shaking the jar gently to remove air pockets. Seal the jar and set aside for about a month before using.