Pineapple 101

Pineapple 101

There are certain foods that just make your mouth water. You won't be hungry but their mere mention can kick-start a craving. I'm like that with pineapple. I love how its pungent tang combines with intense sweetness, plus there is that aroma: a little vanilla, a little caramel, sometimes even the scent of browned butter.

But despite this allure, pineapple seems to have never quite been mainstream. At least not in terms of cooking with it. Apart from adding some tropical flair to a fruit salad, it's often relegated to a kind of Mad Men-era expectation, either stuck onto the side of a big Easter ham or paired upside down in a cake with maraschino cherries.

I think it's because pineapple has a few issues. First, it has a big personality. But that doesn't mean it can't have perfect partners: it's excellent alongside fish, poultry, other tropical fruits (think banana, guava, mango, or coconut), and of course, as we know from all those Easter hams -- it's great with pork.

Second, pineapple can be intimidating to buy. I think of it as one of those foods, like artichokes and lobsters, that can make you admire the courage of the first person that overcame its aggressive appearance to take a bite. But there are some simple buying tips, which I'll note in a moment. And none of them include pulling a leaf out of the top.

Third, you can't carry one around like an apple. Instead this vitamin C-rich fruit needs to be peeled, cored and cut into rings or chunks. Plus it can behave differently when raw than when it's cooked, which I'll explain.

But in the middle of winter, when peaches are absent, apples are starting to fade, and it's a waste of money to buy tasteless cherries or grapes, pineapples are a vibrant and satisfying source of sweet flavor. Tired of citrus? Buy a pineapple.

How To Buy A Pineapple

Many believe that the way to test a pineapple's ripeness is by pulling a leaf from its top; the easier the leaf comes free, the riper the fruit. But in fact, yanking a leaf tells us nothing. If you think this method has always worked for you in the past, it's more a sign of the pineapple industry's ability to consistently bring good quality fruits to our market. There is no connection between the stability of the leaves on top of a pineapple and how ripe or not the fruit is below.

Since most pineapples arrive to our grocers only partially ripe and they stay that way, our task is to choose the best from the bunch. And for that there are some helpful methods, none of which include assaulting the fruit.

A little background first. Pineapple is a tropical fruit, native to Brazil, brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus, and today grown throughout South and Central America, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and of course, Hawaii where horticulturalist James Dole arrived in the late 19th century and developed the pineapple industry.

It's a perennial plant that is easy to grow, harvested throughout the year, and particularly popular in the US in the winter when most locally grown fruits (except for Florida and California citrus) are out of season. They are grown to a degree of desired ripeness and then picked, at which point the fruit stops ripening any further.

Fully ripe pineapples are fragile and don't travel well; these are sold locally or else processed and canned nearby. Exported pineapples get picked before they're completely ripe so that they arrive intact at their destination, although this doesn't mean they can't be wonderfully sweet and juicy. But this is why pulling a leaf from the top of a pineapple tells you nothing: besides the fact that you have no idea if you're the first or the tenth person to assault the fruit, there's nothing that can be revealed by a loose leaf to tell you if one pineapple is better than the next.

So how in fact should you choose?

First, pick one up and feel its heft. As when you buy a melon, you want to buy a pineapple that seems heavy for its size. This means it's juicy.

Next, examine it for any soft spots or brown marks, which suggest possible interior rot or bruises. But don't judge the fruit by its color: while it's logical to think that a yellow pineapple is riper than one that is all green, this is not necessarily the case. Varieties can vary in how the skin shows ripeness; for example, Latin American pineapples tend to have a greener shell than Hawaiian ones, even when fully ripe.

Instead, give it a sniff, particularly at its base. Since pineapples ripen from the bottom up, the aroma will be most evident there, and the stronger the fragrance, the riper the fruit.

Finally, choose a larger rather than a smaller pineapple. There will be no flavor difference between the two but the size of the core, top, and skin will be about the same and by the time you finish removing them all, you'll have far less fruit with the small pineapple than one that is larger. So all things being equal, go for a bigger one.

There are organic farms that grow pineapples and some of them sell their crops to be canned. Fresh organic pineapples are hard to find but if it is a reassurance to anyone who strives to buy all organic produce, pineapple is on the "Clean 15" list from the Environmental Working Group as among the fruits and vegetables with the least amount of pesticides.

So forget that pulling the leaf thing. All you'll do is make the pineapple prematurely bald and who wants to buy that?

How to Store and Cut a Pineapple

If you're not going to use a pineapple within a day or so of buying it, peel and cut it and then store in the refrigerator. Or at least, put the whole fruit in the fridge. But it's fine to leave a pineapple at room temperature for a day or so; it won't ripen more but it will get softer and juicier. Freezing pineapple will change its texture so avoid doing so, unless you only plan to use it in smoothies.

Pineapple got its name from its resemblance to a pinecone and in some languages is called anana, which means "excellent fruit." But removing its Sideshow Bob top, thick and prickly skin, and fibrous bottom and core needs a little technique.

Begin by slicing off the top, cutting into the fruit about a half-inch from the stem. Then laying the fruit on its side, slice off the bottom, again about a half-inch so that you're past the thick skin and a little into the juicy flesh.

Using a chef's or serrated knife, remove the skin by slicing from top to bottom. Cut enough into the flesh to get the skin off completely but don't worry about getting every bit of the little eyes; you can go back and remove these later with the tip of a knife. Holding the pineapple in one hand the knife in the other, turn the fruit as you slice from top to bottom until all the flesh is exposed. Trim anything you may have missed.

To remove the fibrous core you can buy a gadget with a sharp edge that cuts from top to bottom, creating the kind of rings as with canned pineapple. But corers can be inefficient and waste part of the juicy fruit. What I do is cut the fruit into thick slices and use a paring knife to remove the core. Even easier, I cut the whole fruit into quarters and simply slice off the edge of core that remains.

Cooking With Pineapple

Pineapple has a big personality. It's sweet and tart, and redolent of vanilla, caramel, clove, or even sherry, making it a partner for both sweet and savory flavors. Its fibrous flesh gives the fruit stability, which means it can be roasted with honey or brown sugar, speared on skewers and grilled, diced with green onions and jalapeños, or baked under a cloak of vanilla cake. Its complex taste gives a spark to a smoothie, adds the tropical high note to a silky pina colada, brightens salsa or chutney, or can be the whole flavor for a simple sorbet.

Before choosing a recipe, know that pineapple has an active protein-digesting enzyme called bromelain. While completely harmless to eat, bromelain (which has been used medicinally to clean burns and treat inflammation in animals) breaks down gelatin. So if you're planning to put pineapple into a gelatin mold you must first cook the fruit or else the gelatin won't set. Likewise, if you are cooking the fruit with milk or cream, cook the pineapple first because left raw it can make the dairy bitter.

Otherwise pineapple is very versatile. It goes really well with rum, brown sugar, banana, curry, ginger, ham, lime, mango, pork, poultry, fish, duck, and shrimp. Here are a few ways to cook with it.

Pineapple Desserts

I have childhood memories of, but alas, no longer the recipe for one of my mother's favorites, which combined melted marshmallows with whipped cream and crushed pineapple into a sweet, cloud-like pudding.

Absent that, you could consider something as simple as raw pineapple with raspberries, or roasted with a little brown sugar and then served with whipped cream or Greek yogurt. In searching my cookbooks for new ideas for pineapple desserts, the best I found, not surprisingly, were from David Lebovitz who uses the fruit in two unexpected ways in his wonderful book, Ready For Dessert. In an elaborate tour de force, his recipe for Kiwifruit, Pineapple, and Toasted Coconut Baked Alaska uses fresh pineapple to make pineapple sorbet that gets layered in this dessert. And his version of Pavlova replaces the conventional berries with a mix of tropical fruit, including diced pineapple.

But for the old-fashioned dessert lovers among us, there's always pineapple upside down cake. I think this recipe probably succeeded because of the fruit's high level of sugar, making the foundation of caramelized fruit a winning idea. Almost every recipe I could find still makes the cake using canned pineapple and maraschino cherries.

Or we could try Gourmet's version that uses fresh pineapple. And not a cherry in sight. 

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