Pear Soup with Pancetta and Blue Cheese

September 23, 2011 § 25 Comments

I wonder why pear picking doesn’t have the same strong cultural foothold that apple picking does in regions like New England.  Pear orchards must exist, otherwise where would our pears come from?  As a matter of fact, come to think of it, I’ve seen pear orchards before, and they’re lovely.  Just as nice for wandering up and down idyllic rows of leafy trees under a blue sky on a crisp day as are apple orchards.

I suppose I could look it up.  Hold on a sec… ok, I’m back!  It looks like, according to the internets, a possible reason that you never bundle up your family and trek out to the pear orchard for pick your own is because pears, for the most part, need to be picked unripe and allowed to ripen in a storage space because if allowed to ripen on the trees the devious birds and insects will get to them before people do.

Photo by James Ransom

This puts me in mind of some friends of mine who had a gorgeous and prolific pear tree in their yard, with branches that dangled conveniently right over their porch.  Every year they would watch the pears grow and ripen and then just in the millisecond before they were ripe for the picking crows would swoop in and steal them all!  Not even netting, or eventually bb guns, could keep the thieving birds away.  Eventually, they stopped even trying to pick their own pears and just considered the tree decorative. Pears are tricky, it seems.  But there are places where you can pick your own pears, you just need to search for them.  Mystery solved(-ish)!

I’ve been thinking about pears because we get lots of apples from our CSA but not pears.  However the other day I got it into my head that I was going to make a pear soup in spite of this.

I’ve had butternut squash soup with pears in it, and sweet potato soup with pears, and I’ve even seen cauliflower soup with pears.  But, I’ve never seen a soup that was pretty much just pears.  Certainly not a savory one.  I started wondering what it would be like, and couldn’t let it rest until I tried it.

And having tried it, I highly recommend it!  The flavor of the pear is delicate, almost haunting.  It fills your mouth with a subtle sweetness at first, similar to butternut squash soup, and you’ll find yourself searching, trying to pin point what that flavor is.  And then, at the very end of the wash of flavor the pear essence of it asserts itself in a lovely resolution.

Though the bulk of the soup is pear, I added a couple of small potatoes to lend their sturdiness to the structure of the satiny soup.  And, one carrot tints it with a soft orange hue, keeping it from looking gray.

This is no dessert soup, in spite of the pear’s sweet nature.  Onion and garlic melted into the base of the soup give it plenty of savory character.  So does the bit of fat rendered from pancetta, which I only used some of, to give the soup a hint of smokiness and depth without overwhelming the subdued flavor of the pear.

It’s a warming, autumnal treat on its own, but it was the garnishes that really made it soar.  Taking the cue from some of my favorite salads that have included pear, I decided to sprinkle our soup with bits of crunchy pancetta (the Italian version of bacon) and salty, pungent blue cheese crumbles.  I was slightly apprehensive that these potently flavored garnishes would draw away all the attention from the soup, but instead they highlight its mellow richness in a similar way that a pinch of fleur de sel makes a deeply chocolatey or caramelly dessert sparkle.

And, the soup got better each time we warmed it up (which, admittedly was only twice because it didn’t last longer than that)!  It’s certainly one that’s going to be on our table again all fall long.

Pear soup with pancetta and blue cheese (serves 4-6)

  • 5 ounces pancetta (or bacon), cut into small pieces
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes (around 1/2 inch)
  • 1 medium-small carrot, cut into small cubes
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 5 pears – I used bartlett – peeled, cored, and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 3 cups mildly flavored vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup creme fraiche
  • crumbled blue cheese (a creamy, potent raw milk one is best, if you can get it) for serving
  • salt and ground white pepper to taste
  1. In a large soup pot, fry the pancetta (or bacon) bits until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and put on a plate lined with a paper towel to drain.
  2. Pour off all but one Tablespoon of the fat in the pot (you don’t want to use all of it because then it will overpower the pear), and add in the butter. Heat over medium until foaming. Then, stir in the onion, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft. You basically want the onion to sweat and soften without browning.
  3. Stir in the garlic, potato, and carrot, cover again. Turn the heat to medium and cook another 10 minutes. Then, add in the maple syrup, pear, 1 1/2 tsp. salt, thyme, sage and nutmeg. Cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes to get the pear all coated with the syrup and other flavors.
  4. Add in the broth, bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook, covered, until the potatoes and pears are soft, about 15 minutes.
  5. Blend in batches until smooth. Then return the blended soup to the pot and stir in the creme fraiche. Taste and add salt and white pepper to taste.
  6. Serve with the pancetta bits and blue cheese for sprinkling on top.
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