Pineapples, you may be surprised to find, grow on top of the plants, nestled in the spiny leaves. They are the fruit of a low growing plant called a bromeliad and look for all the world like some kind of joke--like a jackalope or those spaghetti trees they show every April Fools Day.

Fields of pineapple plants look like the spiky moussed and twisted hair of a punk rocker. The fruit's name comes from the resemblance to pine cones that European explorers noticed, along with the slight apple flavor the early fruits had.

Pineapple is an American native and has been cultivated for at least 1000 years. European explorers found them well established when they arrived in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

They loved them and proceeded to carry them all over the world. Pineapples, you see, have a lot of vitamin C and were good for preventing sailor's scurvy. The tops were planted where the sailors landed and by the late 1500s, pineapple was widespread in the tropics.

Hawaii, the place most associated with pineapples, didn't see its first one until the 1700s and wasn't widely grown there until the early 1900s, when James D. Dole (sound familiar) established a plantation on Oahu. Others followed, building plantations on other islands in the chain and part of Hawaii's history was born.

Today, pineapple is available fresh and canned almost worldwide, with the majority of pineapples canned. The canning operation is a mechanized work of art, beginning in the field where plants are bred for consistency in fruit size so that they fit in the canning machines.

You can find pineapple canned in juice or heavy syrup--the syrup is just juice with sugar added, and it's great for adding to drinks. Which to buy? It's up to you--the syrup canned pineapples tend to be a little sweeter, but I like the acidity of the juice-canned ones, too.

Fresh pineapple doesn't ripen after picking, so it's best to select a ripe one. How to do it? It's a myth that you can tell a fresh pineapple by a yellow color. Heck, the industry distinguishes seven shades of ripe--from green to yellow. Ripe green pineapples are called "green-shell ripe."

So, if you can't tell by color, how do you know? The eyes (the little round chain mail of the rind) should be plump and symmetrical and the leaves should be green and look fresh. Ripe fruit will be firm and will have that unmistakable pineapple scent.

Fresh pineapple tastes different from canned--the heat process of canning changes the flavor. The fresh fruit is more acidic and has a brighter flavor. It's also fun for summer get-togethers because you can use the shell as a serving bowl or decoration.

To prepare a fresh pineapple, the easiest way is to twist the crown from the pineapple, slice it in half lengthwise and then again. Slice out the core, trim off the rind (as you would a cantaloupe), and cut the trimmed, peeled, quarters into chunks. Get fancy if you like--you can buy pineapple corers at kitchen supply stores and curved knives designed to cut the curved shell.

Use the crown to grow your own plant, but you probably won't get any fruit unless you have a greenhouse. To start your own, grab the crown of leaves (you might want to wear gloves) twist it off the fruit and suspend it in a glass of water to that the bottom part is submerged. In a few weeks, you'll have roots and you can plant the crown--make sure it's in well-drained soil. It's easy to drown a pineapple with too much water.

Use the juice in tropical drinks (it's great with vodka or rum), mix it with lemonade or orange juice or add it to your next marinade for extra zing. It's part of this terrific punch that's refreshing served alcoholic or virgin.

Pineapple Punch

  • 4 cups chilled pineapple juice
  • 4 cups chilled apple juice
  • 4 cups chilled orange juice
  • 8 cups cold ginger ale
  • 2 cups light rum (optional)
  • Orange and lime slices for garnish

Mix the pineapple, apple and orange juice (you can make it this far up to two days ahead). Just before you're ready to serve it, add the ginger ale and rum (if using it). Serve immediately.

Fresh pineapple is best eaten that way--fresh. Serve it in salads or just sliced and plain. Canned pineapple is great for baking, using in sorbets or with meats or just eating out of the can.

You know the little warning label on boxes of gelatin that cautions against using pineapple as a fruit additive to it? There is an enzyme in pineapple--bromelain--that breaks down protein like your enzymes to do to digest food. That's why you shouldn't use it in making gelatin--the enzymes prevent it from setting. That property does make it somewhat of a meat tenderizer, though (basically slightly pre-digesting the meat) and it's juice adds great flavor in marinades.

Try it mixed with some soy sauce for the next chicken you grill--served with some pineapple punch or a Mai Tai, you might just create an island breeze in your backyard.

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