We received many cards and gifts from friends this past holiday season. One of the biggest delights came just after the new year—a box of delicious Harry and David pears from good friends and Christmas Box recipients, Jim and Betty Krejci. This luscious gift inspired me to create an over-the-top Vanilla Pear and Fig Crisp that I’m sharing below. But really, inspiration from Jim and Betty began long ago…
The Krejci’s live in Oregon now, but during the early part of my career as a communications specialist, I worked with them at the University of Illinois in its Extension Service. If you are not familiar with “cooperative extension services,” they are the community outreach link from major land-grant state universities to the citizens of their respective states. Extension services utilize university-generated research and expertise to provide free or very low-cost information to help local farmers, nonprofits, community planners, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, etc. Extension Services are traditionally housed in a university’s college or department of agriculture because farming is where extension services got their start and where they still do a lot of work. At the University of Illinois, the extension service’s home is in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. When I worked there, the motto really said it all about what we did: “Helping You Put Knowledge to Work.”
Jim Krejci, now retired, was an environmentalist who became a major educator and a respected mentor for this green gal. In 1993, Jim and I both found ourselves working together during the “Great Flood” that devastated farms and communities along the Mississippi River where we worked. Jim had his hands full trying to help local flood victims deal with the immediate and long-term environmental effects of this natural disaster, while I was in charge of media relations for about six counties along the swollen Mississippi River on its Illinois side. We were bone-tired and feeling pretty helpless most every day.
Betty, a fabulous community organizer and fundraising expert, came to work in our office shortly after flood waters receded but needs were still very high. Eventually, she married good ol’ Jimbo-Bill-Bob (That’s one of my favorite “Jim” names—one of the few I can print here.) and they have since settled in Oregon.
But while we worked together, Jim proved to be one of the most creative and caring people I have ever met. When we were tasked to come up with a way to help local children cope with the upheaval in their towns and the loss of their homes, as well as understand in some way how a flood happens and how nature deals with its aftermath, Jim already had a plan… something he’d been working on for years but never had the opportunity to implement: Jim is the creator of a little puppet named Gofer, as in “go fer” conservation. This furry little guy was supposed to one day be Jim’s “Smokey the Bear” or “Ranger Rick.” Suddenly Gofer was the key component in an educational plan to get traumatized youngsters to begin to understand a complex situation, maybe learn more about their environment and MAYBE even laugh a little.
Jim decided Gofer needed some help, so we created more puppets to help him provide the “lesson.” There was Mr. Pollution (a dirty smokestack), Ms. Soil (a flowerpot), Water (a little raindrop) and a raccoon to represent wildlife. Believe it or not, yours truly was the voice for Ms. Soil. From there, Jim just sailed ahead with coloring books, stickers, a volunteer kit and several skits that we took “on the road.”
Working with Jim, I learned that complex problems, like pollution, soil erosion and climate change (We didn’t have the term climate change then, but talk about global warming had already begun.) have no single cause or single solution. For instance, when you take a small hog farm off the flood plain, where do you put it? Bet it’s not next door to your house. But do you like bacon on that BLT? See…
Beyond all the facts and figures Jim taught me, above his passion that was so catching I’ve been a tree hugger ever since I’ve known him, and well past the joy he gave me through my involvement with Gofer, Jim taught me to listen—to everyone—to not need to be right about everything but to be true to my beliefs… to walk my talk about the environment. Jim made me see that everyone has a stake in the environment, even if we don’t all agree on how to treat it. So everyone, at least until they prove otherwise, deserves our respect and attention. Because at the end of the day, there’s only one planet Earth, and we’re all here together. It’s got to be a group effort. That’s how Jim taught me to “go fer” conservation.
But this was sort of about Vanilla Pear and Fig Crisp, wasn’t it? Well everything is connected, right? So here’s what I did with those fabulous pears. It’ll be a great dessert or a decadent breakfast. Or both because you can warm it up next day. So… go fer it!
This dish is wonderful warm—over ice cream maybe. Lovely at room temperature, and even nice next day from the frig. It will reheat—use a low oven temp and put in a clean, coated casserole with cover to reheat.
- One cup water
- One cup coconut sugar
- One vanilla bean, seed removed and saved, pod reserved
- Pinch of sea salt
- One whole star anise
- A one-inch slice of peeled fresh ginger
- Three lemon slices (You will also need the zest from this lemon and the remaining juice, so be sure to zest the lemon, then reserve your three slices and juice the lemon, reserving for later.)
- One cup rolled oats (You can easily make this dish gluten-free by buying certified gluten-free oats.)
- One cup walnuts
- One-half cup raw, unsweetened coconut flakes
- Four tablespoons coconut spread (We love Earth Balance, especially for recipes where I am replacing some or all butter.) Or, as I did here, you can use two tablespoons commercial coconut spread and two tablespoons of Roasty-Toasty Coconut Butter by My Coconut Kitchen. Or, if you are not going vegan, you can use unsalted butter.)
- Two tablespoons sesame seeds
- One teaspoon sea salt
- Zest and juice from one lemon (The lemon from which you’ve already taken three slices—see above.)
- Two tablespoons cornstarch
- One quarter cup fig preserves or fig butter (The difference between these two is the ratio of sugar to fruit—preserves are more sugar than fruit and butters are more fruit than sugar. I’ve used both and think the fig butter works better.)
- One-half cup chopped dried mission figs
- Five to six cups, peeled, cored and sliced pears (You want sturdy pears such as D’Anjou or Bosc.)
- Salt to taste
- Begin by making your infused sugar syrup because the longer it steeps, the more flavor you will get for your crisp. Place all the sugar syrup ingredients into a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil, give it a stir and then reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the syrup thickens, starts to reduce and becomes aromatic. This will take about 20 minutes on medium. Mind the pot because the sugar can burn, especially along the walls of the pot. Once the syrup has thickened and reduced to about half, turn off the heat; put a lid on the pot and let it steep until you are ready to incorporate it into the dish (This step can be completed several hours before the crisp needs to go in the oven, if you wish.).
- Next make the topping. Put all the topping ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until everything is well combined. While the ingredients should not be smooth, they should look damp and clumpy.
- Finally, prepare the filling. Put the reserved lemon juice in a big mixing bowl. Peel, core and slice your pears, tossing them into the bowl and coating them with the lemon juice to preserve their freshness and color. Add the chopped figs, fig preserves or fig butter, lemon zest, cornstarch and your salt. Stir well to completely combine and coat the pears and figs.
- Strain your infused sugar syrup, discarding the solids. Add the syrup to the filling and stir well; just be careful not to break up the pear slices.
- Pour the filling into a two-quart casserole dish that has been lightly coated with cooking spray or butter.
- Crumble the topping over the filling, completely covering the pears. (You should have plenty of crumble to create a thick coating.)
- Bake the crisp at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest at least 20 minutes or so before serving.
We really enjoyed this dish for brunch on a Sunday and once with ice cream as a Saturday night dessert. The only thing that would have made it better is having Jim and Betty at our table to share. We are so rich to have their friendship.