(July 6) Once called the “gift of the gods” by Greek poet Homer in “The Odyssey,” pears have been coveted for their sweet taste for centuries.

Today, you can choose from a multitude of varieties in a range of hues from bright yellow to deep red. The tastiest pear to use depends on the dish you plan to prepare.

THE RIGHT TYPE

America’s favorite pear variety, the bartlett, is best served fresh but also may be used in cooking, according to the Pear Bureau Northwest, Milwaukie, Ore. Bartletts start out green but ripen to bright yellow. Its sister variety, the red bartlett, turns bright red as it ripens and can be used to add color to salads or desserts.

Consider serving another classic — the anjou (along with its red anjou counterpart) — fresh in salads and on cheese plates to highlight the crisp, sweet taste. The flesh stands up well to poaching and baking.

Red varieties of pears are growing in popularity, says Laura Wieking, public relations manager for the Pear Bureau Northwest, especially in winter. Holidays like Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year present a perfect opportunity to showcase the red fruit, she says.

The bosc, also known as the “poaching” pear, is a sweet and spicy variety with dense flesh that melds well with spices and flavored sauces, according to the pear bureau. You can bake, poach, broil or microwave it.

“We are seeing a lot more interest in bosc,” says Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board, Sacramento. The variety is gaining ground with the Asian population in California because its harder, crunchier texture is similar to the Asian pear, he says. The bosc’s russet brown skin does not change color when ripe.

For fresh fruit desserts, consider using the comice variety. With a velvety texture and sweet taste, it goes well with fine cheeses, and you’ll likely want to serve it raw, according to the pear bureau. It hardly chaanges color when it’s ripe.

The forelle works well for display on fruit platters because of its color. It ripens to yellow with brilliant red freckling. The forelle maintains a crisp texture throughout the ripening process and offers lots of juice.

The seckel variety, or “sugar pear,” is a tiny fruit that works well as a garnish, according to the pear bureau. The maroon and olive-colored skin does not change when ripe.

ALL ABOUT RIPENESS

Along with selecting the correct variety, proper ripening is key to success with pears, Wieking says.

To ripen the fruit, let it stand at room temperature at 68-72 degrees, Zanobini says. Placing pears near other ethylene-producing fruits (like bananas or citrus) can speed the ripening process.

Check for ripeness each day using the “check the neck” method, Wieking advises. Apply gentle thumb pressure near the stem; when it gives slightly the pear is ripe.

A soft middle may indicate an overripe pear. However, save the overripe fruit to use in smoothies, soups, sauces and purees.

Once ripe, use the pears immediately or refrigerate until you’re ready to use them, Wieking says. To slow browning after a pear is cut, dip it in water with a little lemon juice.

“The worst thing you can do is serve a tough, unripe pear,” says Carol Frazzetta, owner-executive chef of Carol’s Café in Staten Island, N.Y. “That’s what turns people off. It’s too fibrous.” She thumb-tests every pear she uses.

Someone on staff goes to a local supermarket four to five times a week to get fresh produce, including pears. Frazzetta typically ripens pears seven to 10 days before she uses them, and the kitchen maintains a flow of fruit so there are nearly ripe and fully ripe fruits at all times.

“The biggest challenge is getting them ripe,” agrees Trey Foshee, partner-executive chef of George’s at the Cove restaurant in La Jolla, Calif. He notes that each pear needs to be evaluated before it’s used, adding, “If it’s underripe, cook it. If it’s really ripe, serve it raw.”

PEAR ADVANTAGES

Because of growing concerns about obesity, restaurants are becoming more receptive to adding fresh pears to their menus, Wieking says. Serving fresh pears with the skin on adds fiber to the diet, which gives it a health advantage over canned product.

Dieters who eat pears and apples have been shown to lose more weight than those who don’t eat those fruits, according to a Brazilian study, Zanobini says.

Use pears to sweeten dishes naturally. They are low in fat, high in fiber and low in sugar, yet they taste sweet, he says, also suggesting their usage in spicy and savory dishes.

Go with the trends and add fresh pears to salads. “We’re seeing more fresh pears in salads or offered with cheese and wine as an introductory course,” Wieking says.

In winter at Carol’s Café, Frazzetta prepares a seasonal salad combining apples, pears, blue cheese crumbles and toasted walnuts tossed with a variety of greens and a savory citrus vinaigrette. Frazzetta uses bartlett and anjou varieties because they are readily available, and she serves them with the skin on to add color. She uses a combination of dark, curly lettuces and endive, arugula and radicchio. Sometimes she adds blood orange slices to brighten up the salad. A colorful arrangement is important for presentation, she says.

Frazzetta also prepares a salad of asparagus, pears and strawberries with strawberry vinaigrette in the spring when asparagus is in season.

At George’s at the Cove, Foshee offers roasted pears as part of a salad. He usually roasts the pears with clarified butter. He fans the fruit out on a plate and tops it with a salad of hearty greens like frisee or endive along with a cheese. For example, roasted pears go well with hazelnut-crusted goat cheese, he says.

Try promoting a “pick of the season” menu item that incorporates pears during the fall and winter months, Wieking suggests. For instance, at Thanksgiving add pears to stuffing. You can find a recipe for bread stuffing with pears, bacon and caramelized onions on the pear bureau’s Web site at www.usapears.com.

Using fresh pears in chutneys or sauces also is a growing trend, Wieking says.

“It is not an overpowering fruit and it’s sweet, so it mixes with a lot of different things,” Zanobini says. “Puree of pears is a good base for adding any flavor to a dish.”

Foshee creates a pear-citrus compote that serves as a base for squash soup with duck confit raviolis. “We dice and cook pears down with a little sugar and different citrus zests,” he says. He tops the compote with the ravioli in an empty bowl and pours the squash soup over it at the table.

At the Tuscany restaurant on Clark in Chicago, executive chef Alex Stanciv prepares pear and parmigiano-stuffed ravioli, a dish that’s been on the menu for 20 years. He begins with fresh pears (any variety), peels them and adds roasted almonds and Parmesan cheese. He stuffs ravioli with the mixture. He then heats a sauce made from pureed pine nuts, walnuts, cashews, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh pears and mascarpone cheese and tosses it with the ravioli before serving. “People order it every day,” he says.

PEAR DESSERTS

Baking pears for desserts is a classic preparation method.

Carol’s Café’s Frazzetta likes a combination of apples, pears and cranberries in a crisp. “I love to poach pears in red wine,” she says.

“The amazing thing about pears is that you have to convince people to try it,” Frazzetta says. “An apple pie is an easy sell, but the first reaction to (pear pie) is ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know how delicious that would be.’”

She also prepares a pear sorbet made with pears, pear brandy and a sugar water/syrup mixture that varies depending on the natural sweetness of the pears. “I serve it in a stem glass with two scoops of the pear sorbet,” she says. Customers can order the sorbet plain with a mint leaf or covered in hot chocolate sauce.

To make pear strudel, Foshee with George’s at the Cove poaches pears, wraps them in buttered and sugared phyllo dough and cooks them to order. He stands them up like a tower and serves them with homemade ginger ice cream.