Directions: Cook the rice: In a large sauce pot, bring 3 c. water to a rolling boil. Add rice, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender, about 30-35 minutes, or until almost all of the water has been absorbed. Add more water if liquid cooks down too quickly or the rice isn't quite ready. (When ready, rice should crack open slightly and develop 2 or more beads.) Add coconut milk & salt, cover again, and cook for 7-10 more minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes, fluff with a fork, and then set aside.
Make the syrup: While the rice is cooling, bring 1/2 c. water to a rolling boil in a separate medium-sized sauce pot. Add honey, then ginger and Chinese star anise. Scrape seeds and essence from vanilla bean into the pot, followed by the vanilla pod. Boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until honey has completely dissolved and the spices' essences have been released. (Add just a bit more water if liquid should cook down too quickly.) Allow to cool slightly, about 2-3 minutes, before straining and pouring over rice. Set aside until rice has finished cooking. Then strain over rice, pressing the whole spices into the strainer to extract any remaining liquid and essences. Add lime juice if desired. Mix thoroughly and set aside, or refrigerate until serving time.
Sauté and caramelize the pears: Meanwhile, in a large (12-13") nonstick sauté pan, add pears and pineapple juice, cover, and simmer on low heat until they begin to soften and liquid has been reduced to half its volume, about 6-8 minutes. Remove lid, flip pears over onto the other side with a spatula, and deglaze with triple sec until only a thin layer of liquid remains, about 5 more minutes. Place the pears in a medium-sized bowl & set aside to cool to room temperature while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Or, if serving cold, cover and chill in the refrigerator until serving time.
Caramelize the coconut: For best results, do this step just before serving time. Place 2 Tbsp. honey and 2 Tbsp. water into a small sauce pot, boiling until dissolved, about 30-60 seconds. Watch carefully so it doesn't burn. Then add 1/4 c. shredded coconut and stir continuously until golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
Serve the pudding: When ready to serve, spoon the rice pudding into small bowls. Top each portion with the pears and then sprinkle with caramelized coconut flakes. Garnish with mint leaves, if desired. Add a bit of low-fat whipped dairy topping if you like. Serve warm, hot, or at room temperature, with herbal or green tea, or other mild, subtle-tasting beverage.
Yield: 4 servings.
Chef's Notes: Be sure to use Chinese sticky black rice and not wild rice. ( Wild rice is a dark color, but trust me, it's not what you want to use for this pudding. ;) The taste of wild rice is woody and savory, and totally wrong for a dish like this. Furthermore, wild rice isn't even technically considered to be rice.) Also, since this pudding is very sweet, it's a good idea to buffer/balance out the sweetness with something plain or mild tasting, like a cup of (herbal) tea or a glass of milk.
Variation: If you can't find Asian pears at your local grocery store, simply substitute Bosc or Barlett pears. Also, feel free to substitute other fruit, like mangoes or strawberries. These fruits are good selections because they'll provide a good flavor contrast to the sweetness of the pudding.