This winter salad takes one of my favourite classic flavour combinations right into the Christmas spirit.
I’ve waxed lyrical about pears, blue cheese and walnuts before. It’s gorgeous teamed up with peppery leaves like watercress or rocket. And then a bitter leaf such as chicory or radicchio to create the ultimately balanced salad of sweet, salty, peppery and crunchy.
I was lucky enough to lay my hands on pink radicchio, which I had never seen before. The leaves were more tender than standard red radicchio and much softer than chicory. The flavour was also a little less bitter than its cousins, but still enough bite to add that much needed extra layer of flavour.
Around Christmas I like to elevate this salad with plump jewel like dried cranberries and the flavours of mulled wine.
The Dutch are quite partial to poached pears. Known as “stoofpeertjes”, it’s my earliest cooking memory, as we made “stoofpeertjes” at pre-school when I was about 5 years old.
I still vividly remember my astonishment at those angelically white pears turning a deep ruby red during the poaching process. And proudly yet carefully carrying the results of my very first cooking efforts home to share with my parents.
I doubt we poached the pears in mulled wine at that time. Traditionally they are poached in red berry juice in the Netherlands. But I admit a fruity red wine and port make an appearance more often than berry juice these days.
It may seem a bit of a palaver to poach the pears, as this salad works wonderfully with crisp raw pears too. But as long as you add some crunch into the salad itself, the mulled wine truly adds another dimension.
I love recipes like this as you can truly make them your own.. Go the whole hog or keep things simple.
The pears themselves are utterly versatile. They can be served on their own as a dessert, with a dollop of thick cream or ice cream and the reduced poaching liquid poured over. In the colder season, they are a great accompaniment to a warming beef stew or to seasonal game dishes, another Dutch tradition, also popular in the Nordics, Austria and Germany.
The Dutch actually eat “stoofpeertjes” as a side instead of veg more often than as a dessert. We like a bit if sweet with our savoury. Which is where appelsauce with pretty much anything in my youth fits on. Although in hindsight, I suspect that may have been a ploy to make me eat stuff I did not like.
These poached pears are wonderful simply served with a hunk of cheese, be it blue or otherwise. Serve them warm or cold. They are a delight either way.
Feel free to choose any blue cheese you like. Christmassy Stilton, a strong Roquefort, a Gorgonzola, mellow Dolcelatte or Saint Agur all work well. If you’re not a fan of blue cheese (although this dish has been know to convert and delight some of my die-hard “I don’t like blue cheese”-friends), try a goats cheese or curd, else a Brie.
Mulled Wine Poached Pears (serves 4 – DF GF RSF V Vg LC)
Always use a wine that you would be happy to drink. It doesn’t need to break the bank but we’re looking for wine, not vinegar here.
1 bottle fruity red wine
4 pears, peeled, stalks left intact if possible
200 ml port, red or white (optional)
Juice of 4 oranges, or 300 ml shop-bought orange juice
Zest of 2 oranges
2 heaped tbsp coconut palm sugar, unrefined caster sugar, else honey or maple syrup to taste
5 cardamom pods, slightly crushed with the back of a knife
5 whole cloves
1-2 cinnamon sticks depending on size
1 vanilla pod or 1/2 tsp vanilla paste
2 star anise
Add everything but the pears to a large pan and heat until boiling. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 mins or so.
Remove the core of the pears from the bottom with a small melon-baller or a paring knife. If you want to serve these whole and upright, cut a small slice off the bottom to create a flat surface for the pear can stand on once cooked.
Lay down the pears in the pan of mulled wine. Ideally they should be pretty much covered with the liquid. if not add a little more orange juice, port or wine.
Cover with a cartouche of greaseproof paper or cover the pan with a lid, leaving the lid slightly ajar.
Turn the heat down and simmer until the pears are tender. You can test this with a skewer. It will depend on the size and ripeness of the pears how long this takes, but you want to simmer them away long enough to also impart the colour and flavour of the mulled wine. I used Bosc pears and let mine simmer for approx 2 hrs.
Turn the pears occasionally and check the liquid level to ensure that all sides get a chance to fully soak up the poaching liquid
Remove the pears and either keep warm or allow to cool.
If you don’t want to use the mulled wine for the dish, you can strain it and serve as a hot drink.
Else allow the mulled wine to reduce over medium heat for up to an hour or until slightly syrupy. Strain through a sieve to remove the aromats.
You can make these pears in advance and keep them in an airtight container or in sterilised jars with the liquid poured over. Jars make great Christmas gifts too, with a pretty ribbon and a rustic label.
Serve the pears hot or cold, with some of the syrup poured over for dessert. Or as is with game dishes or a glorious cheese board.
Else use in a salad. such as my seasonal salad below.. You can mix some of the poaching syrup with a little balsamic vinegar and walnut oil to use as a salad dressing if you like.
Mulled Wine Pear, Stilton, Cranberry and Salted Maple Walnut Salad (Serves 4 – GF V LC RSF)
This is a lovely starter or it can be served as a light lunch with some crusty bread.
I like to present this quite cheffy with all the elements neatly placed on a beautiful plate for maximum effect. But you can simply and casually mix things together and then pile everything up just as it falls for a more rustic presentation.
Add some dry cured ham such as prosciutto if you like. I did here for extra saltiness to balance the pears. And as it coloured so beautifully with the pink radicchio.
4 mulled wine poached pears
4 handfuls of rocket or watercress
1/2 radicchio, leaves separated, preferably leaves from the heart of the radicchio. Else 1 chicory
a small handful of toasted walnut chunks or caramelised honey or maple syrup salted walnuts
200 gr Stilton or other blue cheese, cut into small chunks or roughly crumbled.
20-24 plump dried cranberries
4 slices of prosciutto or other dry cured ham, torn into small pieces (optional)
4 tbsp of the reduced poaching liquid
For the dressing:
juice of 1/2 lemon or 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil or rapeseed oil
1/2 tsp mustard
Slice, fan out or keep the pears whole as you wish.
Add the dressing ingredients to a small jar and shake vigorously. Else whisk together with a fork in a small bowl
Toss the leaves in the dressing. Only use as little as needed as you don’t want soggy leaves. The dressing is just there to gently moisten, not to overpower.
Divide the leaves over 4 plates and top with the other ingredients. Spoon a little of the poaching liquid over each pear.
Else, mix everything but the pears together in a large bowl, then divide over 4 plates or serve family style on a large sharing platter. Top with sliced pears.
Try my easy brunch galettes!
Or if you haven’t got any poached pear left, male a variation on my breakfast galette, with any leftover dry cured ham (if using), an egg, leftover blue cheese, extra grated cheese if the amount of blue cheese is meager, rocket, and serve with more left over rocket and radicchio on the side, topped with walnuts and a dressing of reduced leftover poaching liquor mixed with balsamic vinegar.