I’ve just discovered something to like about the Southwest in winter, and of course it has to do with food. But before I disclose my secret (which isn’t much of a secret really, except that for the moment I know something you don’t know), allow me to explain myself. Briefly.
To put it lightly, I’m at odds with this place in which I live. I’m a fan of pronounced seasons, and down in these parts the changes are far more subtle. I realize this may draw some good-natured harassment from some of you winter-weary warriors, but sunshine has grown beyond boring in my book, my book with its faded cover and cracking spine (too much sun and dry air, you see). I want the drama, the change, brought by storm and snow. Instead I’m left to watch my bougainvillea – its leaves ever green and fuschia – wave ever-so-slightly in the cool breeze. But – oh! – I think I spot a cloud (those a.m. forecasters did indicate a chance of rain)!
And so now to my secret, the thing I’ve found to be glad about (remember Pollyanna?): We are enjoying a veritable profusion of citrus, which is very much in season, and such abundance only bodes well for cooking. We’ve got Meyer lemons on top of Eurekas (or are they Lisbons?), grapefruits on top of tangelos. Not to mention the regular oranges. They all look so smashing, so bold and cheery, congregated in a big, shallow bowl atop my table. And the overflow looks mighty fine for that matter in the produce bin. That’s right, citrus can look good in anything.
We’re getting all this fetching fruit from my husband’s business, which is on a sort of farm, even though he works in finance. Let me shift into explanatory mode again: Brian’s office is in a converted residence on horse property. (We’re in the middle of Phoenix – more of a modern city with very little left that’s actually horsey about it.) When they bought the place, they learned that a couple of geriatric horses were a non-negotiable part of the house purchase. So while inside it’s all number crunching, outside it’s all carrot munching on the part of the horses – and the donkeys and mules and alpacas, which Brian’s partners later added to the family. There are also chickens, who donate loads of free-range, organic brown eggs. And of course, there are citrus trees everywhere.
Even as the sun does not inspire me, these lemons Brian keeps bringing home sure do, which is how I discovered my Macerated Pears over French Toast. I’ve wanted to experiment with macerating fruit, which may sound rather destructive, but really it’s a gentle, hands-off means of softening and seasoning fruit. And this recipe is a perfect winter recipe, thanks to the warmth of the cinnamon and the savory chew of the French toast. Plus, it’s a respectable vehicle for all these lemons I’m not otherwise putting to use in my weekly batch of hummus or squeezing onto salmon or zesting onto salads or _______ (fill in the blank with your favorite go-to lemon application).
These pears definitely register the pucker factor, that zing that you get from lemon. But that’s lessened somewhat when you eat them on top of the French toast. Brian and the girls enjoyed adding a sweet drizzle of maple syrup, but I preferred the pears alone.
Macerated Pears over French Toast
For the pears:
2 medium-sized pears (I used Comice, but Anjou would be nice, too)
½ to 1 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ to 1 C freshly squeezed orange juice
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tablespoons brown sugar
Thinly slice pears, peeling if desired. In a small bowl, mix equal parts lemon and orange juice with the brown sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add cinnamon sticks and pear slices (you want the pears to be immersed in the juices, so add more juice if necessary). Cover, and let soften for 3 to 5 hours, depending on the pears’ ripeness. Stir and taste the pears at intervals, adjusting seasoning as needed (you may find you want to add more sugar). Pears are done when they are very soft, but not mushy.
For the French toast:
1 loaf challah, thickly sliced
1 C milk
1 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt, or to taste
¼ C chopped walnuts
1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest
Maple syrup, if desired
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray or butter. Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and salt. Dip challah slices into the egg mixture, coating generously, then place slices on the baking sheet. Bake for 9 minutes, then flip slices over and bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until slices are golden brown and slightly toasted. Repeat with any remaining challah slices. (You can make the French toast in batches on a griddle or in a frying pan if you like.)
Serve French toast topped with pears, chopped walnuts and lemon zest. Accompany with maple syrup.