Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 9: The Pineapple

While the pineapple is not a food that anyone would really think of as a Fall harvest ingredient, and it's not; I really wanted to include it for 2 reasons:  1) most people are under the impression that pineapple are native to Polynesia--specifically Hawaii, and they are not, 2)  the fruit has important, even sacred, associations with certain Native American tribes which don't really get talked about a whole lot.  Plus OK, they just plain taste great!!

Pineapples are in fact native to South America, by the time Columbus arrived, their distribution had spread to Central American, all of the Caribbean, tropical areas of what is now known as "Mexico," even to southern Florida.  It's cultural significance was most important in the Caribbean, where it was not only an important source of food, it was also an important component of social occasions.  In Island Carib areas in the southern Caribbean islands, they would place pineapples above the door way to a hut to signal that the household was open to visitors, that visitors well very welcome and that they would be treated as honored guests.  

Modern and elaborate use of the doorway pineapple, Williamsburg VA

Although the name "pineapple" is of English derivation, there are some Native American names for the fruit that are used around the world.  The most popular being Ananas, which come from a Tupian language in Brazil.  Also in Brazil there a particularly large, tall pineapple that is differentiated from the regular Anana, that is the Abacaxi (pronounced Ah-bah-cashi, with short A's).  It isn't really grown much of anywhere besides Brazil; but I have been able to find out that they are very popular in Singapore.  For more on names and the fruit in general, see it's Wikipedia entry.

Abacaxi on sale in Singapore.

Botanically speaking, pineapples belong a group of plants called bromeliads.  The New World sports the largest variation of these plants world wide.  Bromeliads get a large portion of their moisture from humidity in the air, for some this is the only way that they take in moisture--take for example "Spanish Moss".  Most have a leaf structure that allow them to catch and hold water and take water in through their leaves; some like the Brocchinia reducta, has gone down an evolutionary path toward actually being able to take in nutriance from bugs that fall into it's leaf water--the are in a state of evolution, being in a middle stage of evolving into a plant that actually produce digestive enzymes.

Not to belabor the botany here, but just find these plants so fascinating; if you notice that a fresh pineapple has this knobby skin, with little interlocking triangles  These triangles, it turns out, are actually individual berries that have grown together, with each one starting out a berry from it's own flower, before it coalesces into a "berry colony."  That makes "a pineapple" not really an individual fruit at all, but something like an apartment building for huddling fruits.  This structure becomes more evident when you cut into "a pineapple."  If you have ever tried to cut the skin off one and not wanting to waste any of the flesh, you will have noticed that each triangle has what looks like it's own "eye."  These are the places where the seeds would have formed of the individual berries; and by "would have," I mean that fruit grown for consumption can't be allowed to pollinate or it reduces the quality of the fruit.

Other places in the Pacific had pineapples long before Hawaii did.  The Spanish, for example, introduced them early on to the Philippines throw their Acapulco to Manila Galleon trade.  So why do so many people believe that pineapples are from Hawai'i?  Well the answer lies in the fact that the world's very large scale commercial farmers of pineapples were set up on plantations in the Polynesian island chain, starting in 1886.  People, of course, got the idea that the strange fruit was indigenous to those islands, when all the canned pineapple they consumed came stamped "From Hawaii."  Then there came the Tiki craze of the 1950's.  So many G.I." that served in the Pacific Theater in World War II had spent considerable time there and brought home exotic stories of boards Native peoples rode on waves, of pigs being roasted in huge earthen pits, and of drinks heady with rum and pineapple juice.  Before anyone knew it, Tiki was all the rage.  As a result more pineapple was consumed than ever before.

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Pineapples, like one other New World fruit, the papaya, contains and enzyme called bromelian (obviously, from the plant family of the same name) that causes protein to break down.  For this reason, pineapples have to be cooked before they can be used in gelatin dishes, otherwise they will not set up.  For this reason bromelian makes a great meat tenderizer, and it is found in almost all commercial meat granulated tenderizing products.  When uses fresh pineapple in marinades to tenderize meats, however, the meat cannot be left in too long or it will be mushy; and fresh pineapple cannot not be used with fish or shellfish, as in dishes like ceviche, or the seafood will break down completely.  Cooked or canned fruit can be used instead though.  As far as nutrition is concerned, pineapples are an excellent source of manganese.  When served fresh, it very high in Vitamin C.  The bromelian in the fresh fruit is quite low, so it is no danger to ingest, in fact, some studies have found that it can be helpful in digesting of meat.  As for a tip on using the fresh stuff for really tough cuts of meat, the bromelian is actually highest in the center, inedible stem part the fruit.

Fresh cubed pineapple served in pineapple shell

As to things to do with pineapple, well, again, they are almost endless.  In addition to being served fresh or in fruit salads and being used for tenderizing, fresh it can be used for juice, in cocktail (alcoholic  or non-alcoholic), it makes a great ice (that is, sorbet), salsa, relishes, put into meat salads  It is extremely good added to lemonade.  Cooked it is made into cakes, preserves, stewed or candied for dessert, it is even good batter fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar.   It has even been stuffed into meat tacos!  Pineapple is really good roasted or grilled and makes a great side dish with meats and fish.  The canned processed kind can be put into ceviches, put into fried rice, eaten with cottage cheese and sugared as for candy.   It has famously been put on pizza.  In Hawai'i there is a really fancy lobster dish that is made with pineapple flesh, mixed with vegetable and the chopped raw lobster, stuffed back into half a pineapple shell, topped with mild white cheese and baked.  In Mexico, the top of the top of the shell is removed the flesh is scooped out and juiced, the juice is then poured back into the shell and served fresh; this is very popular in Veracruz.  The Totonac people of Veracruz use fresh pineapple to aid the a sluggish circulation.  Famously, Pina Coladas, one of the most famous cocktails in the world, is often packed back into the shell and served with a cocktail straw.

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