Pineapple:History and Uses
If fruits could think, one fruit would certainly have reason to mull over the multitude of literary discourses on the nature of fate. After centuries as being revered as the king of fruits and a vaunted luxury, the pineapple suddenly found itself in the 1930s in the ignominious position of being slang for the dole. It also became US military slang for a hand grenade.
The Pineapple in History
A native of tropical and subtropical South America, the pineapple (Ananas comosus ) had been cultivated by the Indians long before Columbus' men discovered it in Guardeloupe in 1493. The Spanish called it piñas because it resembled the pine cone. The English word "pineapple" was actually the name for pine cones from the 15th to 17th centuries.
Its French, German, Italian and Dutch names derive from the Portuguese ananaz , coined from its native Brazilian Guarani name artana, meaning perfumed. Its flavour and fragrance certainly inspired veritable eulogies by all who encountered it in the New World. Waverley Root in Food records Jean de Lery describing it as so good "that the gods might luxuriate upon it and that it should only be gathered by the hand of a Venus".
Apart from several early royal rejections - Charles V, King of Spain, refused to even taste it for fear of being poisoned - the European reception was rapturous. Europe was swept by a pineapple craze (affordable only to the seriously wealthy), which ranged from competitive hothouse cultivation to the use of stylised pineapples as decorative effects for buildings.
The Portuguese were responsible for the early global dissemination of the pineapple, taking it to Africa and India. By the end of the 16th century, it was being cultivated in most of the tropical parts of the world. The Lutheran missionaries introduced it to Australia in 1838 from India. The Hawaiian pineapple industry began in the 1880s and by 1951, dominated the world trade in this fruit. Today, Hawaii and Malaysia (which started large scale cultivation around the same time as Hawaii) are the two major producers of pineapple.
How to choose & prepare pineapples
As the pineapple contains no starch, it does not sweeten any further on picking but starts to deteriorate at a pretty rapid pace. The advent of fast sea transportation in the late 19th century only marginally eroded its luxury status as the fruit didn't survive even the then relatively reduced travel time. It was canning that first brought it within the means of the average person.
Thanks to the wonders of superfast modern transportation, temperate dwellers can today enjoy fresh ripe pineapples, whole or conveniently pre-peeled and cut, without break the bank. That said, many commercially grown pineapples are still picked well before the fruit has reached its full glory of sweet and sour flavours. To choose a ripe pineapple, do a sniff test of the base: it should exude a sweet fragrance.
The helically etched peeled pineapple is not done just for decorative effect, but to minimise wastage when removing the "eyes". [The "eyes" are the hundreds of individual berries that have fused together around a core to give a single pineapple.] It's not hard to do.
To prepare a pineapple without wastage:
- First, cut off a thin slice each from the top and the base.
- Then slice off the scale in thin layers, leaving only the eyes.
- Cut the eyes out in V-shaped wedges following their natural spiral formation along the fruit, working on about three to four eyes at a time.
Cooking with Pineapples
Pineapples contain a powerful protein-dissolving enzyme called bromelin which is capable of digesting a thousand times its own weight in protein. It is this digestive capability that has resulted in the promotion of fresh pineapple diets for weight loss. [Don't do it: I am not in favour of fad diets.] Fresh pineapple juice can be used as a tenderiser for tough cuts of meat but be very careful about how much you use and how long you marinate the meat for or you will end up with revoltingly mushy meat.
However, heat destroys bromelin. Thus, cooked (or tinned) pineapple should be used for gelatine-based jellies or moulded aspic dishes unless you particularly want your jelly or aspic turn into a horrible soupy mess.
A fresh salad of pineapple and cucumber cubes, with a smattering of fresh mint leaves or sliced onions, garlic, chilli and lime juice, is a refreshing accompaniment for rich main courses. Equally good are cooked spiced pineapple chutneys and pickles of any origin. Take your pick of recipes from Carribbean, Indian and Nonya (Straits Settlement Chinese) cuisines.
Gammon and grilled pineapple is rarely seen on menus these days but it's such a lovely combination that it's a 'must have' on the infrequent occasions when it does turn up. Pineapple's sweet-and-sour flavour makes it a natural inclusion in ....sweet and sour pork! [By the way, sweet and sour pork is probably one of the most horribly mangled dishes in Chinese cuisine. Its name in Cantonese "gu low yoke " means "venerable pork" and when properly prepared (not often), it is a wonderous dish and nothing like the ubiquitous hideous fluorescent red and gluey renditions.]
Nonya (Straits Settlement Chinese) cuisine uses pineapple in a wide variety of dishes. Pork satay is served either with a pineapple dipping sauce or with finely chopped pineapple mixed into a peanut sauce. There are a raft of curries in which pineapple co-stars with seafood: more-ishly sour and spicy Hae Assam Pedas (a sour spicy prawn curry which redolent of torch ginger and Vietnamese 'mint'), Gulai Lemak Nenas (coconut creamy pineapple and prawn curry) and Gulai Kiam Hu Nenas (pineapple and salt fish curry which includes eggplants and snake beans), to name but a few.
Pineapples: a Chinese New Year feature
The pineapple features in Chinese New Year decorations, particularly for those of the Hokkien dialect. Chinese is a tonal language and punning based on tones is very common. The word for 'pineapple' in Hokkien dialect 'ong la i' is also a pun for the "king" (ong ) "comes" (la i) i.e. hopes for royally rich year!
Pineapple tarts are popular all year round in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. They come to the fore particularly during Chinese New Year where they form part of food hampers as well as the range of tid-bits served to relatives and friends calling by with wishes of "Gong Xi Fa Cai " (Happy and Prosperous New Year) over the 15 day festive period.
Chinese New Year falls on February 5 this year. So why not make some pineapple tarts to greet the Year of the Pig?
Pineapple tarts are usually made as small open-faced tarts or mini sausage-roll like shapes. One of the great drawbacks of the open-faced tarts is that the jam gets dried out when the tarts are baked. Lowering the oven temperature or shortening the baking time to keep the jam moist results in pallid pastry.
The miniature 'apple' form that is featured here is the way my mother makes them. Her pineapple tarts are renowned amongst family and friends. The jam balls remain moist and succulent within a protective casing of incredibly short, buttery and golden pastry. It takes a little (actually, a lot) more work but the results are worth it. Try it!
MY MOTHER'S PINEAPPLE TARTS RECIPE
(makes about 40)
For the pineapple jam:
1 large fresh pineapple, weighing around 2.2 kg to yield approximately 1 kg peeled flesh
Approximately 1 cup caster sugar
½ stick cinnamon
For the pastry:
300 g plain flour
Generous pinch salt
200 g cold butter, cut into tiny cubes
2 egg yolks (size 60 g eggs)*
1 tbsp cold water
To decorate & glaze:
About 40 cloves, with buds nipped out
Egg wash made with 1 beaten egg yolk and 1 tbsp milk or water
*Don't throw the egg whites out! Save them in small plastic tubs and freeze for later use.
Step 1: Make the Pineapple Jam
This can be done several days, even a week, beforehand.
- Cut the pineapple up into narrow strips that will fit into the feed chute of your food processor. Cut off and discard hard central core.
- With the grater blade fitted to the food processor, grate the pineapple strips. [Do not puree the pineapple as the resultant jam will be mushy rather than textured.] You may have to empty out the food processor bowl once or twice, depending on how much pineapple you have and the size of your food processor bowl.
- Transfer the grated pineapple (including juices) to a large heavy-based casserole. Add caster sugar and cinnamon stick to the grated pineapple. Note: Taste for sweetness before adding sugar. The rough guideline is ½ cup sugar to ½ kg grated flesh. However, if the pineapple is very sweet (as opposed to being on the acidic side), reduce the amount of sugar. You want a jam with some of the acidity still coming through rather than an overwhelming sweet product.
- Bring the pineapple to a simmer, stirring constantly to dissolve all the sugar before the mixture reaches simmering point. Leave to simmer, uncovered, for 1 - 2 hours. The length of time to cook the jam depends on how low you have the heat.
- Stir the jam occasionally in the early stages of cooking. Increase the frequency of stirring as the mixture gets drier. Towards the final stages, you will have to stir continuously to prevent the jam burning.
- Cook, stirring continuously, until the jam becomes a dry-ish, rich caramel coloured mass but do not let it become too dry.
- Transfer the jam to a heat-proof bowl and leave to until cold. It can be kept, covered with cling film for several days at room temperature. Do not refrigerate it.
- When the jam is cold, remove the cinnamon stick. Roll the half-teaspoons of the jam with your hands into marble-sized balls. Set aside, covered, until ready to make the tarts.
Step 2: Make the pastry
Note: This pastry works on the ratio of around 65% butter to flour (by weight). If you need to make more pastry, work on this ratio. Use good quality butter (preferably with minimum fat content of 82% or higher). It makes a huge difference to the eating quality of the tarts.
- Place the flour and salt in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse a few times to 'sift' the flour.
- Add the cubed butter pieces and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
- With food processor running, add the beaten egg yolks. Stop the machine as soon as the dough comes together in a ball. [You may need to dribble a little more water in if the flour is older and drier.] Knead the dough lightly and form into a log.
- Wrap with clingfilm and leave it to rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour. It can be left overnight if you are not ready to do the tarts as yet.
Step 3: Make the tarts
- Cut the chilled dough into slices. Knead each slice into a ball. Press it into a circle between your palms. The dough circle should be about ¼ cm thick and large enoght to encase a jam ball. Using your fingers, pinch sides of the circle progressively together so that you form a little dough 'bowl'.
- Use the back of the handle of a teaspoon to lift a jam ball into the dough "bowl'. Gather the edges together to seal the jam ball. Be careful not to squash or pinch the jam ball. Use the blade of a table knife to smooth the fold lines. Roll the completed ball lightly between your palms to get a nice round ball and to smooth out any remaining fold lines.
- Place the ball firmly on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Repeat until all the pastry is used up or jam balls are used up. [If you have excess jam balls, make up additional pastry. Excess pastry can be frozen.
- Stick a clove deep into the top of each tart so that it looks like an apple. Brush the completed tarts with egg wash.
- Bake the tarts in a preheated 250ºC oven for 13 - 15 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.
- Cool completely before storing in an air-tight container. The tarts keep well for about a month - although they'll probably all be eaten within days! Note: The clove is pulled out before eating - unless someone particularly likes eating whole cloves.