The pineapple's sweet spot

In the winter, I look south for my fruit. Summer's sweet strawberries and ripe peaches are months away, but the tropics offer a steady supply of alternatives until then. My favorite has always been pineapple; at its best, it is sweet, meaty and great for eating as is or added to other dishes. For a long time, though, picking a good pineapple in the market was a tricky business.

Most fruit doesn't come with a guarantee. Plump, round grapes may turn out to be tough. One orange in the bin can be sweet, another sour. Pineapple used to be a particularly difficult customer; beautiful specimens could be hard and acidic.

In 1996, however, the first "Gold" variety of pineapple hit the produce aisles and eliminated consumer guesswork. It was more attractive, with deep-yellow flesh. The real surprise was its taste. The flesh was, and still is, far sweeter than that of its pineapple predecessors.

"It's a much more enjoyable pineapple," says Steve Gisler of the David Oppenheimer Group, an international produce company. "It's less acidic than the Champaka, which was previously the principal pineapple sold in the United States," Gisler says. "Lower acidity makes the pineapple taste sweeter."

Gisler has spent years in the pineapple trade, but you don't have to be an expert to note the difference. I used to sniff and prod the fruit to determine whether it was ripe. Now I just pick one from the pile. I haven't been disappointed. The older, less-sweet varieties are no longer widely available in the Washington area.

"Of course we're seeing people buy more pineapples," says Mike Patterson, spokesman for Magruder's. "Once you get a pineapple and it's good, you come back for more."

So it's no surprise that the Gold varieties have been a retailing success, though the differences among brands may be imperceptible to most consumers.

"We have seen a 174 percent gain in pineapple sales since 1996," says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce. At the retail level, the new variety pushed sales. Safeway has made the Del Monte Gold a signature item in its produce department.

"We met with Del Monte and set a high level of sweetness," says Greg TenEyck, Safeway's director of public affairs for the company's eastern division. "Our buyers visit the fields, check the shipments. We want a standard of quality in every pineapple."

The changes sparked controversy and geographical shifts within the pineapple industry. There were disputes, now settled, over who had developed and owned the Gold, or MD2, strain. Almost all the big players &

Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Oppenheimer and others &

have a version of it.

Gisler says Hawaii's climate and soil proved not conducive to growing the sweeter variety, so "Hawaii's not a big player in the fresh pineapple market anymore." Del Monte has announced that it will plant its last commercial crop in Hawaii this year.

Thailand, the Philippines and Brazil are the top pineapple-producing countries, but most of Del Monte's imported pineapple in the United States comes from Costa Rica, according to Daniela Stern, assistant manager for marketing communications at Del Monte Fresh Produce.

"Most growers have moved to Central America," Gisler says. "The conditions for growing a juicier pineapple are all there."

Juicy, for sure. Slice one, and the juice floods the cutting board. To peel the fruit, slice off its top and bottom. Set the pineapple upright and cut the shell away from the flesh with downward slices. Then cut the flesh into long quarters and carve out the hard core. A four-pound pineapple should yield about seven cups of bite-size cubes.

I love using my Vacu Vin pineapple slicer, a handy gadget that became popular a few seasons ago. It separates the core while it slices the pineapple into perfect rings. It's often sold next to the pineapples in the supermarket.

Quality does not seem to suffer when the fruit is pre-cut, so for those who want less than a whole pineapple, peeled and cored segments stored in their own juices are sold in many grocery stores. I add the juices to salsas and dressings, but I don't usually cook them down because they are already so strong and sweet.

Whole or cut, choose pineapple that is firm and smells sweet, and store it in the refrigerator. The fruit ripens on the plant and will not ripen further after it has been picked. A whole pineapple can easily last a couple of weeks.

One of my favorite ways to eat pineapple is in a tropical salad with mango and papaya. But I also add it to green salads; sweet pineapple plays well against arugula and spinach. Diced pineapple and a healthy dash of hot pepper sauce do wonders for guacamole. I compose quick pineapple salsas with herbs, onions and spices to top fish and chicken, and I pair lobster and pineapple with a light vinaigrette for a simple salad.

Pineapple contains an acid that breaks down the proteins in meat and fish, so add it just before cooking or serving. And pineapple to be used in gelatin should be cooked first; an enzyme found in raw pineapple will keep the gelatin from setting.

Still, my favorite way to eat a pineapple is simply sliced or diced. In the season of slow cooking, when even fruits are stewed and baked, pineapple's a fast and delicious fresh choice.

is a former Washington Post Food section recipe editor.

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