Taste of the Tropics
Pineapples bring a double dose of sweet flavor and bright color to dishes during the last months of cold, gray weather, and the best crop is just beginning to arrive at area markets.
The sweet flavor and tropical scent of fresh pineapple are the perfect antidote to the end of a long, cold winter. And now is the time to enjoy it—although the fruit can usually be found year-round, the best season for pineapple is March through June. Eating fresh pineapple isn’t an everyday affair for most of us in cold climates. The fruit is not inexpensive (partly because it’s imported from so far away) and requires a battle with a crown of sharp leaves, scaly outer skin and fibrous inner core.
But there are many reasons, and many recipes, that make pineapple a tempting proposition. Baking with pineapple is rewarding: Pineapple upside-down cake is a well-loved dessert that plays up the fruit’s subtle flavor components of vanilla and caramel. Yet pineapple is equally delicious in savory recipes, especially when its sweetness is balanced by spicy and sour flavors (try our recipe for pineapple salsa, below).
What’s known about the history of pineapples points to the fact that they were adored, transported and transplanted by all who tried them: Although they originated in Brazil, they spread throughout much of Central and South America long before Columbus found them on the island of Guadalupe in 1493. Our name for the fruit is descended from the word piña (pine cone), which the Spanish explorers used to describe its appearance. As the pineapple arrived on new shores, it continued to gain popularity, and during the 16th century, cultivation began in India, Java and China.
In the colder climates of Europe, the fruit was grown in hothouses and, particularly in Victorian England, viewed as a status symbol. By the 1800s, the American colonists were importing pineapple via the long and arduous route from the Caribbean. It was considered a major accomplishment to have a fresh pineapple to offer guests—which is partly why the exotic fruit became a symbol of hospitality in early America. In subsequent years, the pineapple came to adorn bedposts and tablecloths.
Today, it remains a symbol of warmth and welcome and appears as a common design element everywhere from fabric to furniture. Fortunately, offering fresh pineapple to guests in your home nowadays is an easy proposition—and an indulgence to relish now while the season is at its height.
What exactly makes pineapple taste so distinctive and delicious? In his excellent book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee attributes the fruit’s boldness to its balance of very sweet and very tart flavors as well as to its usually rich aroma, which contains fruity esters, sulfur compounds, and hints of vanilla, clove, caramel and sherry. It’s an excellent source of vitamin C and manganese, and a good source of vitamin B1, vitamin B6 and dietary fiber, making the fruit a healthy as well as delicious indulgence.
How to Cut a Pineapple:
* Slice off the top and bottom of the fruit so that it sits level on the cutting board.
* Slice the skin off from top to bottom and cut away any dark spots, or “eyes,” that remain visible on the fruit.
* To make wedges, quarter the peeled fruit, then hold each wedge upright and slice off the core.
* To make rounds, slice the peeled fruit in half crosswise. Remove the tough core using an apple corer or paring knife.
Selecting and Storing Pineapple
Pineapple has reached its full flavor at the time of harvest—unlike other fruit, it doesn’t ripen or sweeten further once picked, although it can soften and become juicier. Choose pineapples with a fragrant sweet smell at the stem end, avoiding those that have a sour or fermented scent. Look for fresh, green leaves in the crown. Pineapples with a very distinct greenish cast at either end are likely underripe, while those with soft, mushy spots are likely overripe.
In general, pineapples do not keep well and should be used soon after purchasing. Whole pineapples can be stored at room temperature for up to two days or in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for three to five days. Use an airtight, nonmetal container stored in the refrigerator for leftover canned pineapple (use within a couple of days) or pineapple juice (use within a week).
Pineapple Ginger Salsa
Pineapple’s sweetness is balanced by fresh ginger, spicy jalapeño, lime juice and cooling cucumber in this delicious salsa. Serve it with salted corn chips to please a crowd or as a wonderful addition to a dinner of roasted chicken or grilled fish.
In a large bowl, combine the following ingredients:
1 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped, to make about 2 cups; 1/2 cup English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped; 1/2 cup red bell pepper, seeded and chopped; 3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped; 2 tablespoons red onion, finely chopped; 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated (use a Microplane grater for the best results); 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice; 1 tablespoon brown sugar; 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced; 1/16 to 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper; and a pinch of salt.
Allow the salsa to sit at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes before serving.