6 paper bag kitchen hacks for pears, mushrooms, avocados, fish, popcorn
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6 paper bag kitchen hacks for pears, mushrooms, avocados, fish, popcorn

May 30, 2023

Pears, unlike most other tree- or bush-borne fruits, such as tomatoes and tangerines, apples and apricots, don’t fully ripen into deliciousness on their mother plant. They do so only after being picked and cared for by the eater. Although the refrigerator will suffice, pears will ripen best into sweetness and juiciness in the open air over a period of days after picking or purchasing.

A few weeks ago, I purchased four pears from Ela Family Farms of Hotchkiss. To ripen them, I tried something new: I put two of the pears in a small, white paper bag and sealed the bag with a clip. The other two pears, I included in a countertop basket alongside those in the bag.

As it turned out, the pears in the bag ripened together, evenly and slowly; they were terrifically delicious (as Ela Family Farms fruit tends to be). The other pears ripened, too, but not as sweetly — they were a bit mealy when sufficiently soft to eat, and their skins wrinkled from dehydration. (The semi-permeability of the bag had retained the other two pears’ juiciness.)

Plus, like brothers in arms, the two bagged pears had “helped” each other ripen, exhaling to each other a gas called ethylene that hastens ripening in fruit, something that the open-air pears could not do helpfully because their ethylene burped away. (Ethylene is a factor importantly considered when storing or ripening fruits and vegetables anywhere.)

To test when pears have ripened to their best, gently squeeze the flesh at the stem or neck end. If it yields to pressure, it’s ready to go. Once ripe, a pear (Anjou, Bosq, Forelle, Comice and Bartlett are the ones we see most often in this market) may be refrigerated to slow further ripening, in the fruit bin at the bottom, for up to five further days.

Also, do not wash pears (or, indeed, any other fruit to be eaten out of hand) until just prior to using or eating them. Allow them to ripen with their natural skin and all its flora. And the sticker.

Paper bags are handy in the kitchen in some other ways, too, besides their star role in handing off a school lunch to a bolting schoolkid.

If you buy a pack of mushrooms wrapped in plastic film, then store them in a fridge, you’ll quickly notice that the shrooms give off their water and tend to slime themselves under the dome of plastic. Instead, refrigerate mushrooms in porous paper bags, on an open shelf, pinched closed, for up to a week. Their water evaporates out much better that way.

As with pears, if you are impatient to ripen avocadoes that come from the store rock hard, pair them in a small paper bag on the counter at room temperature.

Few fruits exceed the banana, as it ripens, in expelling ethylene gas. If you wish to speed the ripening of many fruits — stone fruits such as apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums; green apples; avocadoes; pears, of course; mangoes; kiwifruit; even tomatoes — add a banana to the paper bag. It fogs all ripening things, itself included, in ethers of ethylene.

And here are two recipes for paper bag popcorn and paper bag fish:

Use only unpopped popcorn. Cooking times will vary depending on your microwave. Mine scorched a batch at 2 minutes, 15 seconds; a batch at 1 minute, 45 seconds was perfect. Makes 2-3 servings.

Place the popcorn in a small paper bag and fold the bag’s open end 3-4 times to seal. (Crease firmly.) Place in microwave, bottom of bag down, and heat on high for around 2 minutes, listening for the last pop and removing exactly 2 seconds thereafter.

Serve as is or topped with whatever you wish–shavings of cheese, salt, melted butter, extra virgin olive oil, chile powder, whatever.

A little piscine package of paper roasted a few minutes, then opened at each plate for both heady steam and tasty treat. Per 1 filet or piece, easily multiplied.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees and have at the ready a baking sheet to fit however many papillotes you prepare.

For each papillote, lightly and partially oil the 2 bags by rubbing the sides with a bit of vegetable oil, then place 1 bag inside the other. Place the fish (skin-side down, if using) along a wider side of the package, then top with the lemon slices, the sprig of herb, a pinch each of salt and pepper and the butter.

Fold the bags at their openings 2 or 3 times, crimping the crease tightly and seal, either with staples or oven-proof clips (small “bulldog” clips work well). If perchance microwaving, do not use staples or metal clips.

Place the bag, wider side down, on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 12 minutes. If you wish to add any vegetables to the packets (such as baby spinach, thinly julienned leeks or carrots, thin asparagus or asparagus tips, cherry tomatoes), do so before sealing but add 2-3 minutes cooking time.

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