Pickled Pear and Irish Cheddar Toasties in a Bread Basket

Little grilled cheese and pickled pear snadwiches stuffed inside a hollowed out bread loaf on a green plateLittle toastie sandwiches, filled with melting Irish Cheddar and piquant pickled pears, are (adorably) presented right in their own hollowed out bread loaf. This recipe makes 2 pints of sweet and tangy pickled pears perfumed with caraway and bay. You won’t need that much for the toasties, so you’ll have pickled pears in your fridge for a month, if they last that long! Enjoy them with cheeses and charcuterie, in salads and sandwiches, or as a tasty snack.

Makes 8 toasties; serves 4 (because everyone will want 2!)

Caraway Pickled Pears
2 medium ripe or slightly underripe Bosc pears
1¼ cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
6 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 bay leaves

For the Toasties
1 unsliced loaf of hearty whole-grain sandwich bread (AKA a “Pullman” loaf)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
7 ounces Irish cheddar cheese, sliced and at room temperature
16 slices Caraway Pickled Pears

To make the pickled pears: Halve and core the pears, and slice each one lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Pack the slices into 2 wide-mouth, pint-size glass canning jars, or other heatproof container(s). Bring the vinegar, water, honey, salt, caraway seeds, and bay leaves to a boil over medium-high heat in a small saucepan, stirring until the honey and salt are dissolved. Boil for about 2 minutes. Pour the hot brine into the jars, completely covering the pears. Cover the jars with lids and set aside to allow the brine to cool to room temperature as it pickles the pears. When completely cooled, use right away or refrigerate the pickled pears for up to 1 month.

To make the toasties: First preheat the broiler.

loaf of bread on a cutting board with the crust and top intact, but the middle removed in a blockUsing a bread knife, saw off the top crust of the bread, just where it begins to dome (if it is a flattop loaf, then just saw off about ½ inch of the top crust); set the top aside. Now cut out the inside of the bread in one giant rectangle, so that you will basically have a crustless smaller loaf within the outer shell of crust. Here’s how to do that: Saw around the perimeter of the bread parallel to the long and short edges of the loaf, leaving about a ½-inch border on all edges and without cutting all the way through the bottom crust. Now cut a slit through one of the long edges of the crust that runs parallel to the bottom crust, about 1/2-inch from the bottom of the loaf, leaving about a ½-inch border on either end of the loaf so as not to completely slice off the bottom crust; this will free the inside bread rectangle, leaving a long slit toward the bottom of the bread bowl (but that won’t matter, it’s a secret!). Carefully remove the now crustless interior rectangle of bread and cut it into 16 slices.

Arrange the slices in a single layer on a large, rimmed baking sheet and brush the top sides with butter. Place them under the broiler, about 4 inches from the top heating element, until nicely toasted. Flip and toast the slices on the other side. Remove them from the oven, and now preheat the oven to 400˚F.

Top 8 of the toasted bread slices with a slice of cheese and then 2 slices of pickled pear. Place the other 8 bread slices on top, creating 8 little toastie sandwiches. Stuff the toasties back into the hollowed out bread “basket.” You will likely only be able to fit about 6 of them inside, so set the other 2 aside for now. Replace the top of the bread. Wrap the entire loaf in a sheet of aluminum foil and place it on the center oven rack. Bake until the cheese is melted, 30 to 40 minutes. Place the remaining 2 toasties on a small baking pan and heat them in the oven a few minutes before the big loaf is done, just until the cheese is melted.

To serve, place the bread basket and extra toasties on a large platter, and enjoy while the cheese is hot and melty!

Put Your Best Fork Forward!

Woman with curly blonde hair in an orchard excitedly about to bite a fresh pearHappy National Nutrition Month! Every year, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages getting back to the basics of a healthful diet, and moving toward healthful habits can be as simple as changing the next bite. Lately, I have been hearing of more nutrition and food fads and myths than usual. It seems the internet has made everyone a nutrition expert. (Insert a shrug and a sigh.) My personal pet peeve is the use of the phrases good food and bad food. Unfortunately, nutrition isn’t black and white unless you’re eating a hot fudge sundae. When I was an obese teen, I’d come home after school and cram my mouth full of snack cakes, potato chips, whatever packaged food I could find in our overstuffed pantry. These, of course, were not nutrient-dense choices and I don’t ever recommend eating this way. But can we still splurge on perceived bad foods while maintaining a healthful diet?

Yes. Eating well doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be as simple as starting with the next forkful. Each bite is important, but never splurging is an impossibility. I eventually overhauled my diet and my palate – but I didn’t start there. I started with one simple change. I added more fresh produce. Notice I didn’t say I cut out the junk, ran five miles a day, and added fresh produce, because I didn’t (at first). I made a conscious decision to add fresh foods to my plate. Sometimes it was as simple as a few carrots in addition to my chips. Sometimes it was a piece of fruit after a meal. Over time, I started to feel a little better and liked how fresh foods tasted – and it wasn’t terribly difficult to maintain one bite at a time. Now, I feel great and I definitely still splurge!

Considering it is National Nutrition Month, let’s focus on a simple change, such as improving the next bite. Do I wish as a teen I had stuffed my face with pears and carrots instead? Of course. But starting with the next bite can turn into a lifelong habit!

Go green and get your culinary jig on this St. Patrick’s Day

Many Irish staples carry an impressive nutrient profile. You can boost the benefits even further by complementing them with flavorful, nutritious pears. Here are 4 ways to do it:

steel cut oatmeal in a small mason jar1) Irish Oatmeal
Start the day with a festive batch of oatmeal. Prepare this simple recipe for Slow Cooker Steel Cut Oats, then speckle with pieces of bright green Anjou pear (in season now!).

pretty diced pear and apple chutney in a jar2) Soda Bread
This quick and easy 5-Ingredient Whole-Wheat Irish Soda Bread is hearty and satisfying without breaking the calorie bank. Serve with a spread of pear jam or spoonfuls of pear chutney and chunks of sharp cheddar cheese.

Hearty sheppard's pie slice with bosc pears on a white plate with a green napkin3) Potatoes
Spuds get a bad reputation for being unhealthy but are actually filled with important nutrients, including potassium, iron, fiber and B-vitamins. Bake, mash or cut into fries and roast in the oven. Serve with roasted chicken and a side of Cinnamon Pear Sauce. For a one-pot meal, add chopped, firm Bosc pears to your favorite recipe for a tasty spin on a classic Shepard’s Pie.

sliced pears atop red cabbage with green onions in a white bowl4) Cabbage
There’s more to this cruciferous and cancer-fighting veggie than corned beef. Enjoy cabbage year-round in salads and slaws. Stick with the green theme by combining cabbage with kale in a fresh and crunchy Kale Cabbage and Pear Slaw with Citrus Dressing.

February is Heart Health Month

Pears have more fiber than most other fruits. A graphic showing how pears rank higher than bananas and oranges in fiberThere’s good reason as to why we have an entire month dedicated to heart health: heart disease is the number 1 cause of death for men and woman in the United States (National Center for Health Statistics, 2016). According to the CDC, this has been the case for upwards of 80 years now, with current numbers pointing to about 610,000 deaths in the United States every year. Translation: heart disease is to blame for 1 out of every 4 deaths in America! While statistics like this are shocking and scary, there is at least one thing you can start doing today to immediately lower your risk: improve your diet.

The truth is, a healthy heart is directly correlated with a healthy diet. Studies show that fiber is excellent at preventing and reducing elevated cholesterol levels, which is a strong predictor of heart disease (Chai, 2012) (Department of Epidemiology, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, 2008). High levels of cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis, which is plaque buildup on the artery walls that can constrict blood flow and lead to heart attacks. Fiber, the zero-calorie indigestible part of carbohydrates, helps lower cholesterol by attaching itself to dietary cholesterol and ushering it out of the body, so it never gets absorbed into the blood (where it would otherwise stick and build up on the artery walls – yikes!).

So, how can you fiber-up your diet? Pears are a delicious place to start! A medium pear puts you 6 grams closer to meeting your daily fiber needs—which for women is 25 grams, men 38. Pears also have Vitamin C, with a medium-sized pear containing approximately 7 mg or 10 percent of the daily value. Because pears don’t need to be refrigerated, they’re also a very portable snack, especially if you work a desk job or are on the go. Pack one with you today to show your heart some pear love.