With a paucity of anything remotely local or seasonal this time of year, we look to the tropics to lighten our hearts as well as our stomachs. A pineapple in February is a celebration, nothing less.
Another curious culinary appellation, the pineapple is a product of neither a pine tree nor an apple tree. It is, in fact, a bromeliad and called a “compound fruit,” consisting of many berries grown together. When Columbus brought it home from Guadeloupe in 1493, the Spanish named it piñas, meaning pine cone, because it, well, looked like a pine cone. As it moved through Europe, the English tagged on “apple” to let people know that this prickly-looking creature was indeed a fruit and therefore edible. In the 17th century, being both exotic and rare, pineapples became status symbols, announcing wealth and prestige. Ironically, they were often not even eaten, having been kept out as prized centrepieces for so long they rotted before anyone could enjoy the fruit.
We still tend to associate pineapples with Hawaii even though most of the fruit we see today is grown in Southeast Asia. Dole plantations in Hawaii (at their peak from 1903 until the ’70s) are credited with almost single-handedly introducing pineapples to the average North American, mostly through their range of innovative canned products. Picture pineapple upside-down cakes and baked hams festooned with canned pineapple slices and maraschino cherries. Old-fashioned today, perhaps, but pretty fancy at the time.
Likely stemming from the same period, I offer you a treasured cranberry/pineapple jelly salad recipe in memory of Alice Schuld. Before you turn up your nose, this is delicious and has completely replaced cranberry sauce in my world. I make it all year long, always have the ingredients on hand and rarely share. Dissolve two packets of lemon Jell-O in 375ml (1½ cups) boiling water. Add one can of whole berry cranberry sauce and mix well. Allow to partially set in the fridge and then stir in 10ml (2 tsp) orange zest, 1 can drained crushed pineapple and 125ml (½ cup) diced celery. Return to the fridge and leave at least 4 hours or overnight to set up.
While a can of pineapple, whether crushed, chunked or sliced, is indeed a handy pantry item, nothing compares to fresh, although peeling one for the first time can be a bit daunting. With a large sharp knife, slice off both the leafy crown and bottom of the fruit. Set it upright on a board and begin to slice away the coarse outer skin from top to bottom until entirely peeled; trim up any remaining “eyes” and bits of peel. The core is not edible and must be removed. Since I usually don’t need pineapple “rings”, I slice the fruit vertically into quarters thereby making it easy to cut away the core.
An exception is grilling pineapple on the barbeque which is easier to do with the core intact. Slice a peeled pineapple into 1- to 2-cm (1/2- to 3/4-inch) rounds and cook, brushing with a mixture of melted honey, butter, and cinnamon, until grill-marked and caramelized. Equally lovely adorning a baked ham (sans cherries, please) or served with vanilla ice cream.
Colour, which largely depends on where the pineapple was grown, doesn’t determine ripeness; being able to easily pull out a leaf from the crown isn’t a reliable method either. Pineapples don’t ripen after they’re harvested. They’ll soften somewhat if left out for a day or two at room temperature but will not get any sweeter. Choose a pineapple that is heavy in the hand, has pliable green leaves and is firm, but with a slight give when gently squeezed; the bottom of the fruit should smell fragrant and sweet. Eschew any overly soft fruit with dry dull leaves or obvious blemishes. Wrap the entire thing in cling film and refrigerate for up to five days if you’re not using it right away.
While fresh pineapple is a welcome addition to your morning yogurt or fruit salad, I prefer pineapple jam. Pineapple doesn’t have much pectin, but it’s very easy to make into a jam and cooks to a nice consistency, nonetheless. One fresh pineapple, peeled and cored, should give you about 750 ml (3 cups) of crushed fruit. Either finely chop by hand or use a food processor (don’t over-process to a puree; leave some texture). Just remember that pineapple is very fibrous and does not break down the same way most other fruits do. The size you chop the pineapple is the size it will be in the jam. Combine the fruit with 375 ml (1½ cups) sugar, 30 ml (2 Tbsp) fresh lime juice and 15 ml (1 Tbsp) grated fresh ginger. Bring to a boil and boil hard for 25-30 minutes, until jam is slightly caramelized and mounds on a spoon. Jar and keep in the fridge or seal and process as you would any jam.
Pineapples are high in fibre and vitamin C, low in calories, and boast antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain an enzyme (bromelain) that aids in digestion – the same enzyme that makes pineapple an effective meat tenderizer. Superfood, and just when we need it.