By: Co+op

Ever spot a pineapple carved above a door? Dubbed the "Princess of Fruit" by Sir Walter Raleigh, the pineapple—with its crown of pointy leaves—has long been a symbol of hospitality. In Colonial days, many hostesses would display a pineapple as a centerpiece and then serve the fruit for dessert.

Pineapples are a composite of many flowers whose individual fruitlets or "eyes" fuse together around a central core. The fruit originates in the lowlands of Brazil, and the word pineapple comes from the Brazilian Tupi Indian word anana or "excellent fruit." Europeans found pineapples on the island of Guadalupe in 1493, and Portuguese and Spanish explorers introduced the fruit to Asia, Africa and the South Pacific in the 16th century. Pineapples were first grown in the United States (in Hawaii and Florida) in the 18th century. Hot regions around the world—including Thailand, the Philippines, China, Brazil and Mexico—grow it commercially today.

Within pineapple's spiny shell is a treasure of sweet, juicy and nutritious fruit. One cup of the fruit provides more than the recommended intake for vitamin C and three-fourths the recommendation for manganese. Pineapple also delivers dietary fiber, thiamin, vitamins A, B1, B6, copper, folate, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Pineapple is the only source of the plant compound bromelain, reported to have many health benefits.

The average pineapple is about six inches tall and weighs two to five pounds. The Giant Kew, however, can reach up to 20 pounds. Other varieties include Cayenne, which is commonly seen both fresh and canned. It has both high acid and high sugar content and is average size with yellow flesh. Queen, a smaller variety, is less acidic, with a mild flavor and rich yellow flesh. It's also commonly seen both fresh and canned. Red Spanish, from the Caribbean and Florida, is eaten fresh rather than canned and has an acidic flavor. Sugarloaf is mild and sweet, with white/yellow flesh. Variegated, with its green and white leaves, is used mostly as a houseplant.

Pineapple can be broiled, sauteed and even poached as a delicious accompaniment to salads and meats.

Enhanced by other fruits—like citrus, bananas and other tropical treats—pineapple is a natural in fruit salads like Brown Bag Apple Salad and Tangerine and Jicama Salad. Or try it grilled on a kebab with other fruits, like the peaches or plums in these Grilled Fruit Kebabs. Pineapple pairs well with ham (pineapple-studded ham is a classic) and poultry, especially when combined with jalapeños, as in Udon Noodle Salad with Pineapple. Its fresh taste is perfect with seafood, too. Its fresh, sweet flavor enlivens Tostadas al Pastor (shredded pork prepared in a slow cooker) and Jerk Tofu, too.

Some preparation tips:

  • Meat marinated in fresh pineapple is likely to fall apart, as are jellies or other recipes that call for gelatin. That's because pineapple contains bromelain, an enzyme that breaks down protein. Bromelain is quickly destroyed by heating, so cooked or canned pineapple and juice have no similar effect.
  • Uncooked pineapple will also break down the protein in cottage cheese or yogurt and the meat or poultry in a side salad. If using fresh pineapple, add the fruit at the last moment before serving.
  • The area closer to the base of the fruit has more sugar content and so has a sweeter taste and more tender texture than other parts of the fruit.

Pineapples are available year round, though their peak season is winter through summer. Look for pineapple that's heavy for its size, with a fragrant sweet smell at the stem end (this indicates freshness). Size is no indication of flavor or quality; small pineapples can taste just as delicious as large ones. If pulling a leaf from the crown is effortless, the pineapple is ripe. A pineapple past its prime will show spots, bruises and darkened "eyes."

Pineapples stop ripening as soon as they're picked, but you can increase the juiciness of the fruit by leaving it at room temperature, out of sunlight, for one or two days. After a couple of days, it's best to store the whole fruit wrapped in a plastic bag or a produce bag in the refrigerator, where it will keep for three to five days.

To cut a pineapple into slices, trim the sharp points of the crown. Grasp the fruit firmly, and slice off the skin with wide downward strokes, cutting off the "eyes." Cut off the crown. The fruit may then be sliced crosswise or into wedges or flat slices from top to bottom. Trim out the core. Pineapple that's been cut up should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.