For some years now, I have been using low, dry heat to add intense flavor to tomatoes or to make sweet root-vegetable chips. I simply put the vegetables in a very low oven and let them laze away as the moisture is slowly drawn out and the sugars become caramelized and profoundly sweet.
Recently, to add a little distinction to some of the more common fruits that I use in desserts, condiments, salads or garnishes, I began experimenting with this oven-drying technique to bring out their inherent syrupy goodness. After some fits and starts, I think that I perfected the method.At the Aureole restaurant, we have been turning out ambrosial, lightly dried peaches, plums and nectarines as they hit the height of their ripeness this summer. With fall approaching, we began drying heirloom apples and pears with just as much success.
Drying fruit (or vegetables) at home is just as easy. Any type of oven will do: gas, electric or convection.
If you are in no hurry - and if you have an oven setting of less than 200 degrees, which is usually marked "warm" - use that setting and let the fruit dry for up to 12 hours. If 200 degrees is your lowest setting, dry the fruit for no longer than 6 hours. The larger the pieces, the moister the fruit (or vegetable) will remain.
Simply place the pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, leaving at least an inch around each one, and put the sheets in a low oven. Take a peek from time to time; the drying is done when the edges begin to curl, the flesh begins to firm up and the center is still very soft. Or just taste the fruit as it dries, and remove it when it reaches the intensity you like.
For this fall salad, the pears are only lightly dried. They retain a great deal of their moisture, and their sugar takes on just a hint of caramel. To add an even greater depth of flavor, I marinate them in port and ginger before sending them off for a long bask.
RED OAK-LEAF LETTUCE, FENNEL, OVEN-DRIED PEARS, TOASTED WALNUTS AND MAYTAG BLUE CHEESE SALAD
Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including 2 hours marinating and drying
6 Comice pears
1 cup port wine (optional: water)
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fine quality, well-aged balsamic vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
2 medium fennel bulbs
2 heads red oak-leaf lettuce, well washed, dried and pulled apart
1/2 cup toasted walnut pieces (if available, black walnuts add an interesting note)
4 ounces Maytag Blue Cheese
Peel pears, cut them in half lengthwise, and carefully remove core and stem.
Combine port or water, brown sugar and ginger in a shallow baking dish. Add pear halves, cut-side down, and spoon liquid mixture over them. Cover with plastic film and marinate for 1 hour, turning from time to time.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Place marinated pears on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet in the oven, and dry for about 1 hour or until pears are just beginning to firm but remain moist in the center.
Whisk together the olive oil and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and cracked black pepper. Wash and trim the fennel bulbs. Cut bulbs in half lengthwise, then cut fennel lengthwise into very thin slices.
Beginning at the wide end, cut each half of pear lengthwise, down to but not through the stem end.
Toss lettuce and fennel together. Add a small amount of dressing, and toss to combine. Place equal portions of the dressed mixture on each of six luncheon plates. Fan two pear halves across the greens, overlapping the stem ends. Sprinkle a few walnut pieces around the edges of the plates. Crumble an equal portion of the cheese over each plate. Drizzle a bit of the remaining dressing over the top, and serve.
Yield: 6 servings.