G-67. G-67? Calling ticket number G-67 to window 12 please. That’s “G” as in giraffe. G-67 …
Sitting in my grey plastic chair, I shuffled my feet restlessly on the cracked linoleum floor and searched through my oversized purse for something to snack on, to help pass the time. I’d been waiting at the DMV for far longer than I cared to and was beginning to wonder if the person sitting next to me could hear my stomach growling. I’ll admit that all of the riffling and digging that I was doing in my purse had also served to mask the rather embarrassing sound that my stomach was making. It would growl and I would dig, it would growl and I would dig. I must’ve looked more like I’d lost my mind than anything else, now that I’m thinking about it.
G-68? G-68. Calling ticket number G-68 …
I reached down to double-check my ticket number for the dozenth time, hoping that it had magically changed to G-68, but alas, it had not. “H-12” it read and who knows how long I’ll be here at this rate, I groaned to no one in particular. In the midst of my internal temper tantrum, I began to scan the sea-like crowd of people to count how many had been there before me … wait, was she here when I got here? I think this couple walked in after me … I’m surely going soon … My restless feet they shuffled still, and my hands had yet to locate something edible in my bag.
And that was when I saw her. The tiny woman with the biggest hat I’d ever seen on a person that wasn’t a cowboy or at a Kentucky Derby party. It was a fancy sort of hat; formal, frilly, and with a brim that jutted out from her forehead and made an impressive, dramatic sweep around her face, dipping down behind her narrow shoulder and then back up again around her neck. I surveyed this hat the way one might a celebrity who’d just entered the room. It stole my attention, piqued my curiosity, and all but made me forget my starving, growling stomach. It was eggplant. The hat’s color that is – it was decidedly eggplant. The woman in the eggplant hat had a large basket tucked under her own plastic chair, which was only one row in front of mine and three seats to the right. I strained my neck to get a better glimpse of what was inside her basket because at that point, not knowing wasn’t an option. What does a tiny woman with an exceedingly large hat need a big basket for while she waits to renew her license? I wondered this as I sat there.
This is the part of my utterly random story where I fall out of my chair. Not an all-the-way-to-the-ground sort of fall – the kind that can produce injury and bruised egos – but just a slight tumble forward, rather, causing me to lose some of the items in my bag and helping the legs of my chair to screech backward on the floor. It was the screech that caused her to turn around. The woman shifted slightly in her chair and looked down at me then, and smiled. I could clearly see the contents of the brown wicker basket now. It was filled with pears – plump, attractive green pears. Huh. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see in that basket, but it wasn’t pears that’s for certain.
Clearly sensing my instant fascination and curiosity, the woman in the eggplant hat kindly offered me one, with nothing more than an outstretched arm and a nod of her head, as if to say it’s okay … it’s not poisoned.
I’d yet to actually say anything out loud, so she did. “In my culture, pears are a symbol of immortality, longevity … survival,” she informed me with a kind, warm smile and very broken English. She was from China.
I never fully understood why she had the pears at the DMV with her that day. But I happily accepted mine and returned to my seat where I remained in my full and upright position until my ticket number was finally called. As I made my way up to the window, I noticed that the man sitting two rows in front of me had a pear in his hands as well. He was holding it like he, too, wasn’t quite sure what to do with it but he seemed happy about it regardless. The woman sitting with him had a pear too, and so did their small child. I looked around the room and counted probably half a dozen more people who all had pears, given to them by the women in the purple hat, no doubt. I turned to look for her again then, and saw that her seat was empty. Scanning the room for the unmistakable hat, I spotted her sitting down in a chair at window number 6 … or maybe it was 7 … that’s not really the point. She’d given the remaining pears, basket and all, to the man behind the counter and he gave her a hug in return. They were friends. There was a story there, a reason for the gift that I suddenly was desperate to understand. Was he sick?!? Why was she giving him a boost of symbolic immortality? Or maybe it was just a bunch of pears, without any symbolism attached. Did she grow the pears herself? On her own trees? WAS HE GOING TO BE OKAY? The whole scene had just been downright peculiar.
But alas, I never heard or figured out the reason for her gift. I’ve often discovered that sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones whose endings you don’t ever really get to know … the ones that allow you to draw your own conclusions. Those stories can keep you just as entertained, just as riveted … hanging right on the edge of your seat. Just make sure you stay in that seat, is all I ask.
I walked back to my car satisfied with not knowing the full meaning behind the gifted pears that day, and I ate mine in its entirety as I drove home … feeling just a little more immortal than usual. It was really the funniest thing.
I’ve partnered with Cosorzio Produttori Antiche Acetaie this week to create a couple of fantastic recipes that highlight interesting and unique ways to use balsamic vinegar. I was fortunate enough to score two incredible bottles (the bottles themselves are actually beautiful) of their Traditional Balsamic Vinegar de Modena – or just simply, “Traditional Balsamic” – and have been just so inspired by the flavors going on in these vinegars. Traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena, Italy are a far cry from what you are probably familiar with – Balsamic Vinegar de Modena (lacking the “traditional”). Aged for as many as 25 years these vinegars have qualities and flavors that I’ve never experienced in any vinegar before and that frankly, I didn’t know balsamic vinegar could have. Tasting these vinegars is almost like experiencing a great wine – you pick up notes and nuances of things buried deep in the flavors of the original grapes from which the vinegar was made. To me, they were sharp and sweet and velvety, with almost a chocolatey undertone, which is why I chose to use them in sweet recipes here.
I’ve got two recipes here for you, both using one of my favorite seasonal ingredients (that pear again), and they highlight two easy, delicious ways to incorporate balsamic vinegar into your dessert repertoire. By poaching pears in a super flavorful liquid that includes balsamic, you infuse them with great flavor while also tenderizing them into something soft and absolutely luxurious – perfect over cold vanilla ice cream. The poaching liquid gets reduced at the end and becomes an amazing sauce to pour down over the pears and the ice cream. Trust me on this – you will LOVE everything about this recipe. It’s a new favorite of mine.
I’ve also included one of my favorite go-to caramel sauces here, but in this case, I’ve infused it with this syrupy, sweet balsamic vinegar and used it to coat some gorgeous pears. A finishing sprinkle of crushed, toasted hazelnuts and you’ve got a pretty show-stopping dessert. Caramel apples shouldn’t get to have all the fine, right?
I encourage you to seek out the real-deal, traditional balsamic vinegar the next time you’re looking to purchase a bottle and make sure check out the website below for these wonderful vinegars (there is an option to read the information in English) and be sure to keep them in mind when searching for great food-related Christmas gifts. I know I will …
Balsamic & Vanilla Poached Pears
3 pears (any variety), peeled, halved and seeded (I use a spoon to scoop out the tougher interior/seeds)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup apple cider
1.5 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (you can sub 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
Place all of the ingredients, except for the pears, in a deep skillet set over medium-low heat. Lay the peeled/cored pears into the skillet, core side-down. Bring the liquid to a gentle simmer and cook the pears for 20 minutes. Flip the pears and cook on the other side for an additional 10 minutes. Remove the pears from the pan and set aside. Increase the heat again to medium-high and simmer the sauce to reduce it by half. Once reduced, turn off the heat.
To serve, place a poached pear half over a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a serving bowl and serve with a generous drizzle of the balsamic poaching sauce.
Balsamic Caramel Pears with Toasted Hazelnuts
Balsamic Caramel Sauce (see below)
6 fresh pears, your favorite variety, washed
1 cup hazelnuts
In a small pan over medium heat, toast the hazelnuts until they are barely golden and fragrant, about 4 – 5 minutes (shake the pan a few times as they toast). Transfer the nuts to a cutting board and finely chop them. Set aside on a plate.
for the caramel:
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 – 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (to taste)
Add the sugar to a high-sided, heavy bottomed pot set over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar has totally dissolved and liquified. (note: you’ll need to use a high heat-resistant rubber spoon or spatula for this).
As soon as the sugar is melted, add the butter. The mixture will bubble violently, and will again when you add the cream. No worries there, just be careful. Stir to melt the butter. When the butter has completely melted (takes about 1 – 2 minutes), slowly pour in the cream. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar; stir to incorporate.
To make the caramel pears, dip each pear into the cooled caramel, stopping about halfway up (or 3/4 of the way). Roll the pears in the toasted, chopped hazelnuts. Place the pears on a baking sheet and let the caramel come to room temperature to set.