Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Jazz it up with pineapple

A tribute to the acid-sweet tropical fruit

by

comment

Yikes! It's been raining cats and dogs to kick off spring break, with freezing levels up to the mountaintops. Despite the La Niña that didn't quite happen, it's been ridiculously grey and soggy in Sea to Sky country lately.

So in hopes of switching things up, here's a tribute to all things pineapple — real pineapple. The last thing we want is a Pineapple Express. Maybe it'll bring on clear skies. At the very least, you might be inspired to dig out some pineapple juice and make yourself a piña colada.

Cocktail or no, just a whiff of pineapple — fresh or otherwise — is enough to cheer things up. One day we're going to have fruit tastings just like wine, beer and honey tastings, and pineapple will head up the table. Caramel, meaty, clove, vanilla, basil and sherry are all contributing aroma notes in pineapple, according to food science writer Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. It's the longest list of aroma notes for the 37 fruits in his list, which includes exotics like cherimoya and cactus pear.

Given recent commercial varieties coming from places like Costa Rica, home to most of our imported pineapples, which account for five per cent of all Canadian fresh fruit imports, according to the Produce Marketing Association, I'd personally add coconut to the list of aroma notes for this amazing tropical fruit native to South America.

Like a lot of fruits, McGee explains, pineapples owe their characteristic aromas to chemicals called esters, molecules that are a combination of two other molecules — an acid and an alcohol. In the case of pineapple, it's a matter of ethyl alcohol and butyric acid combining to make ethyl butyrate, the dominant ester that helps give this fruit its complex flavours.

The other interesting thing about pineapple is its relatively high sugar and acid content — it's 12-per-cent sugar and two-per-cent acid, by weight. Only lemons, limes and passionfruit are more acidic. But a few other fresh fruits are as sweet or sweeter. Cherries and pomegranates carry the same sugar content, while persimmons, mangos, grapes and bananas all have more, the latter hitting 18-per-cent sugar. (Dates take the cake, or at least the sweetness trophy, at an amazing 60-per-cent sugar for semi-dry ones, with no acidic content. No wonder they make such a great snack when your blood sugar plummets!)

Pineapples have been remarkable for centuries for their intense flavour. John Locke used the pineapple to discuss empirical understanding in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1689. McGee quotes 19th-century essayist and poet Charles Lamb, best known for the children's classic Tales from Shakespeare, describing them as "almost too transcendent... a pleasure bordering on pain, from the intensity and sweetness of her relish." Wow — and they're personified as female, to boot.

It's true the acid-sweet combo makes for rare intensity although this falls off because completely ripened pineapples don't ship well at all. But don't bother to try to sweeten them up by leaving them on the counter for a while since they don't store starch that can convert to sugar with time. One more reason to visit Hawaii or Costa Rica — eat a fresh pineapple picked that day and you'll never be the same.

"Exported pineapples are harvested early, with as little as half the sugar content that they're capable of developing, and a fraction of the aroma," writes McGee.

If you cut open the fruit and see brown areas amongst the gorgeous yellow, don't worry — it's a reaction to "chilling injury" caused by improper shipping or storage, not a sign of rot or over-ripeness.

If you give them a sniff before choosing one at the grocery store — when I lived in Hawaii, this was a local "best-kept secret" — remember this: The way pineapples develop in spirals of separate, seedless fruitlets that fuse together and join to the core means the fruit has different "flavour zones."

Bottom fruitlets form first, making them the oldest and sweetest. So if you only sniff the base and get some "pineapple" aroma, it can be deceiving. But if you smell nothing at all, put that one back. Not much hope there.

As well, the acidity of your fresh pineapple doubles from the core to the exterior, so depending on what you're using it for, you might want to cut away more of that fibrous central core although it's perfectly edible, even good for you — eat your fibre!

In fact, eat your whole pineapple. The fruit is loaded with Vitamin C. It also contains protein-digesting enzymes that have made it good for meat tenderizers, but bad for some uses, like jelly salads — the enzyme breaks down the gelatin. It's also been used in medicinal applications to clean burns and wounds, and fed to animals to control inflammatory diseases.

The easiest way is to rinse it, twist off the leafy crown and chop off the base and top. Then slice it vertically, first in half then lengthwise to form spears. Cut away the core as you like, or not, and then chop up each spear crosswise, leaving on the brownish skin. The triangular-shaped pieces are attractive and easy to eat, and you won't waste as much fruit or time as you do trying to cut the skin away.

Pineapple's firm flesh makes it great for baking, grilling and frying, and those sweet caramel notes say bring on the butter and golden caramelized sugar.

As for that piña colada — please pass the pineapple juice, and make mine a double. Cheers!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who likes growing bromeliads, the same family pineapples belong to.

Add a comment