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A savory sojourn

As we swing into the season for apples and pears, think duck fat and Calvados, salt and pepper. Autumn fruit has never been so sophisticated.

September 20, 2006|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

NEXT time you find yourself in the kitchen with a baguette, a little duck fat or hazelnut oil and some lettuce, reach for an apple or a pear. Toast and oil the bread, grate the fruit, salt them and combine with the flash of green. Take a bite and you will almost think what you're eating is a BLT in fall clothing.

And that's just the most basic example of how apples and pears are ripe for transformation into savory sensations. The two quintessential fruits of autumn are all too easily mixed with sugar and sweet spices, but you can do much better by them with salt and pepper. Not to mention onions and herbs. Or cheese.

Cooking apples and pears as if they were potatoes or mushrooms also takes them to a whole other level while opening new avenues to irresistible side dishes for meat or fish.

Sauteing, braising, baking and stewing will all bring out intense flavor while retaining every sweet virtue of these familiar fruits.

Chefs toss out the rules

BOTH have a long tradition of working all sides of a menu, in soups, salads and entrees as well as desserts, particularly in French cooking and especially in the kitchens of Normandy.

More recently, back at the height of the first wave of new American cooking in the 1980s, chefs went wild converting the emblematic fruits into elements of every course of any meal.

Never mind that both fruits are transplants from overseas (only cranberries, blueberries and Concord grapes are native to North America). Nothing said new American like apple in a salad with Wisconsin cheddar.

The French and the new American ways with apples and pears are worth a fresh look, as that easy sandwich proves. Jacques Maximim, the renowned Provencal chef, provided the recipe in his "The Cuisine of Jacques Maximim" (a 1986 cookbook) for what he called apple pan bagnat, a nicoise assemblage more typically made with tuna and a raft of other ingredients needing slicing and dicing. Using fruit makes it simpler, surprising and somehow more satisfying.

If you still have doubts, borrow a page out of Madeleine Kamman's "In Madeleine's Kitchen." Peel, core and slice either apples or pears and saute them in butter with a little salt, just long enough to soften the crisp edges.

The famed French cooking teacher calls that butter frying, which somehow adds to its allure, and it takes you very quickly to a superb partner for roast chicken or grilled salmon or especially pork chops.

Maximim goes a little further with that technique in that same cookbook of his (picked up in a second-hand store a decade ago). He combines the sauteed fruit with eggs and a bit of cream to make a savory clafouti that is extraordinary.

Pears in particular keep just enough of their inherent sweetness against the savory custard; it's almost like Yorkshire pudding squared, and it goes with any roast (and most other main courses).

Braising is the most classic technique for transforming apples and pears. You can do just that -- starting with a little butter and finishing with a little Calvados or Poire William -- or you can add the fruit to the sauce for chicken braised in cider with shallots and thyme. The same idea works as a sauce for veal chops with apples or pears.

Turning apples and pears into savory jams is a more familiar idea but not to be overlooked, particularly if you add onion and vinegar. The sweet-tart tanginess is exceptional as a garnish for pork or meats or even fish but an outright wonder topping potato pancakes with horseradish creme fraiche.

Flavor booster

APPLESAUCE is a more predictable partner, but onions and jalapeno in the jam ramp up the flavor far more than sugar ever could.

Both fruits, simply peeled and sliced, also pair wondrously with the saltiest of cheeses, particularly Roquefort and other blues, sharp cheddars and nutty Gruyere. Those combinations in almost equal proportions to greens make a superb salad, with or without toasted pecans, walnuts or pistachios.

Then again, a classic Norman salad mixes watercress and pears with just croutons, a great contrast in textures and sweet-salty flavors. (Saute cubes of good bread in walnut oil or butter, with or without a little garlic, until the croutons are crunchy, then salt and pepper them.)

Twenty years or so ago, American chefs' cookbooks were crammed with other ideas. Marcel Desaulniers of the Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., was a master at moving the orchard beyond dessert.

He would use pears with sauteed liver and Surrey sausage or with Stilton in a chilled soup; apples in curried onion soup or with sauteed rabbit with cabbage and pearl onions; and of course apples in butternut squash soup.

Apples and more

"COOKING With the New American Chefs" by Ellen Brown, from 1985, is a mother lode of similar recipes, at least with the symbolic fruit: apple-basil sorbet, apple-ham pate, sauteed apples with potato pancakes and goat cheese, even grilled apples.

And none of those sound at all dated 20 years later.

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