Poached pears are so easy to prepare that this simple, healthy dessert should become a signature dish in your fall and winter repertoire. It's also a great do-ahead dessert and can be served warm or cold.
For best results, the pears should be just shy of perfectly ripe, but the recipe is so forgiving that it really doesn't matter. The poaching liquid is the key to success; make sure it has enough spices and flavors to add pizazz to the final dish. Red wine tints the pear flesh a lovely claret color, but white wine is also effective, especially if you want to serve the poached pears with a ruby-red pomegranate or raspberry sauce. If you prefer not to use wine, substitute cranberry, raspberry or pomegranate juice.
Carefully remove the core from the bottom of each pear, using a small knife or melon baller. If necessary, remove a small slice from the bottom so that the pears will sit upright.
Combine the pears, water, wine, nectar, sugar, star anise, vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, and peppercorns in a small, deep pan that will comfortably hold all 4 pears. The pears need to be covered with liquid, so if your pan is too large, you won't have enough.
Using a vegetable parer, remove the rind from the lemon in strips. Don't remove the bitter white pith, only the yellow skin.
Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the pears are tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove the pears to a platter or bowl and set aside. Strain the liquid through a sieve, discarding all the solids except the vanilla bean. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add these to the liquid. Rinse the pod, dry thoroughly and save for another use (or bury the pod in sugar for a few weeks to make vanilla-flavored sugar).
If you intend to use the poaching liquid as a sauce for the pears, return the liquid to a pan and reduce over high heat until it thickens and becomes syrupy, about 20 minutes. You want to end up with about 1 cup of syrup. If you'd prefer to serve the pears with another sauce (like berry, chocolate or caramel), don't reduce the poaching liquid. Instead, refrigerate it, covered, and add it to your cooking liquid the next time you poach pears.
To serve, place each pear in a shallow bowl. Divide the syrup between the pears. Serve warm or cold.