During my last trip to the Twin Cities, I had the opportunity to visit one of the new specialty stores that sells olive oils and balsamic vinegars.
Vinaigrette, near 50th and Xerxes in south Minneapolis, has been open for business since last September. I'd never been in a store like this. And I'd never sipped balsamic vinegars or olive oil straight up.
I slowly moved from one stainless steel airtight container to the next, tasting sweet balsamic vinegars and robust olive oils. I chose a few to take home. Owners Sarah and Richard Piepenburg bottled them for me as I watched. I walked out of the store with my treasures in hand, inspired to go home and start cooking.
Typically, we think of mixing balsamic vinegar with olive oil to drizzle over a salad of fresh greens. Maybe you've dipped thick chunks of chewy, crusty bread into olive oil presented with a ribbon of balsamic vinegar, the bread acting as a sponge to soak up all the flavor.
Balsamic vinegar is sweet, dark vinegar made from trebbiano grape juice that has been boiled down and then fermented through an aging process in wood barrels. Some commercial balsamic vinegars are made in the traditional way. Other balsamic vinegars on the supermarket shelves are made from red wine vinegar and a splash of traditional balsamic. All are good. The trick is to learn the flavors of several brands or varieties so that you know exactly which one you want to use, depending on what you are preparing.
Pears in the stores where I shop look beautiful right now. With visions of honey-roasted pears running through my head, I chose some Bosc pears that were fragrant and firm, with just a little give when I pressed on them. Underripe pears take a very long time to cook, and the final product is often mealy. Overripe pears will disintegrate during the cooking process.
I like to cut the pears in half and roast them with their skins intact. The pears roast to tenderness in the oven, nestled into a bath of honey and pear juice with a strip of lemon zest. A few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar brighten the flavor of the fruit and add rich color and sweetness to the sauce.
When the pears are served, they look beautiful, glazed with the dark orange-amber colored honey sauce. Rounds of fresh mild goat cheese and crunchy walnuts turn honey-roasted pears into an impressive first course of a dinner party. It can also be served as an elegant dessert with a bit of sweet wine or port.
I recommend roasting extra pears. They can be stored in the refrigerator. The sweet, tender pears can easily be warmed and served with pancakes or waffles. With yogurt and granola, the honey-roasted pears become a build-your-own breakfast that your overnight guests will always remember. Add them to a salad of fresh greens with dried cranberries and walnuts. And don't forget ice cream and warm honey-roasted pears with a generous amount of the sweet sauce spooned over the top.
Food trends expert Dana McCauley told me she has seen specialty shops similar to Vinaigrette popping up in many major cities such as Toronto and Chicago.
I'm feeling so trendy. You can, too. Find a balsamic vinegar you enjoy and make Honey-Roasted Pears with Balsamic Vinegar.
Honey-Roasted Pears with Balsamic Vinegar
4 tablespoons butter
2 firm-ripe pears, such as Bosc or Anjou
1 cup pear nectar or unsweetened pear juice
1/4 cup honey
1 strip lemon zest, about 1 inch wide and 3 to 4 inches long
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 ounces mild fresh goat cheese, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
4 walnut halves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a square glass baking dish placed on a rack in the middle of the oven. When the butter is melted, remove dish from oven.
Cut each pear in half. Use a small melon baller, a round metal measuring spoon or a grapefruit spoon to remove the core from the pear. Lay pear halves, skin side up, in the melted butter.
Mix juice, honey and lemon zest. Pour over pear halves in dish. Cover the dish with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil. Spoon balsamic vinegar over pears. Return pears to oven and bake, uncovered, 5 to 10 minutes, until pears are tender.
Transfer pears to platter. Remove strip of lemon zest from sauce. Pour honey sauce from the baking dish into a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for about 10 minutes, until sauce is reduced by half.
Place each pear on a dessert plate. Drizzle with warm sauce. Serve with a slice of goat cheese and a walnut half. Makes 4 servings.
Tips from the cook
--1 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar can be used as a replacement for the pear nectar. Add honey and lemon zest as recipe directs.
--Lemon zest is the yellow part of the skin. Use a vegetable peeler to remove a strip, leaving the bitter white pith behind.
--Roast more pears than you plan to serve. Extras can be stored on a plate in the refrigerator, sealed tightly with plastic wrap. Extra sauce can be stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator. Pears and sauce heat up nicely on a low power (60 percent) in a microwave oven.