Truth be told, March is one of my all time least favorite months. It’s not quite winter anymore, but it’s also not really spring. It’s a cold, grey, in-between month that lasts for what seems like forever. Though I love this Midwestern state dearly, this month I really just want to get on a plane, fly to some tropical place, and not come back until April when spring is really here and I can start digging in my garden.
Some years I’m able to take that March getaway; but on years like this one when it’s just not in the cards, one of the best ways to avoid the gloom is to immerse myself in the fruits of the tropics: taste a perfectly ripe mango, close your eyes, and you might as well be in Mexico, Costa Rica, or some other place far from here where the trees are green, the breeze is warm, and snow is just something people look at in pictures.
Below is a quick guide to some of my favorite tropical fruits that you’ll find on our shelves this month.
This fruit is native to Brazil and Paraguay and was widely cultivated throughout the tropical Americas in pre-Columbian times. The pineapples we eat today come from those same regions—mainly Costa Rica.
•Ripeness: Pineapples do not ripen after they are picked; they ferment. A little fermentation isn’t a bad thing; it can help intensify the sugars in the fruit, but left for too long, overly fermented pineapples develop an off flavor.
Contrary to popular belief, color should not be used to determine the ripeness of a pineapple. Aroma is the best way to pick the perfect fruit. Smell the pineapple at its base; if it smells of sweet pineapple, you’ve got a winner. If it smells fermented, it’s overripe; and if there’s no aroma at all, chances are it was picked too green. Note that any fruit under refrigeration will not havemuch aroma, so always sniff your fruit at room temperature!
•Preparation: With a little practice, cutting a pineapple can be a very quick process. Simply cut off the top and bottom, then use a sharp knife to carve off the spiny exterior all the way around the fruit. Use a paring knife to cut out any remaining spiny skin, which may remain in the dimples around the fruit. Once your pineapple is free of skin, slice it into quarters and use your paring knife again to cut out the woody core of the fruit.
•Pro Tip: Raw pineapple contains an enzyme known as bromelain. This enzyme is very good at breaking down proteins in meat, and it commonly used as a marinade for steak. Be careful, however! If left too long in a fresh pineapple marinade, bromelain can break the proteins in some meats down so far that they become mushy and unappetizing. If you are using fresh pineapple as a marinade, make sure to use a good recipe and follow it carefully! Too much bromelain can also start breaking down the proteins on your tongue, so beware of gorging on too much fresh pineapple. It may make your mouth a bit sore.
Papaya has a unique sweet, musky flavor, and a beautiful buttery texture. Until recently, we didn’t have a good source of affordable high-quality organic papaya, but in the last year an organic source has popped up in Mexico and we are able to stock it almost all the time. Lucky us!
•Ripeness: Because ripe papayas are extremely delicate, I recommend purchasing one that’s not quite ripe. Looks for one that’s about half yellow/orange in color and half green. Let it ripen on the counter at home. It’s ready when the fruit is mostly yellow and somewhat soft to the touch.
•Preparation: Cutting a papaya is extremely easy! Simply cut it in half, scoop out the shiny black seeds, and enjoy! I like to scoop the flesh from the skin with a spoon and eat it straight away, but it can also be peeled and cubed for use in fruit salad or other recipes.
•Pro Tip: Papaya is the perfect breakfast food! It’s delicious, and extremely high in many vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. It also contains an enzyme called papain, which, similarly to bromelain in pineapple, is useful for digestive health.
With good reason, mangoes are the most commonly eaten fruit worldwide. The silky smooth, sweet, creamy, juicy flesh of a perfectly ripe mango is simply unbeatable!
We usually carry two types of mangoes: Ataulfo mangoes, which are yellow kidney-shaped fruits renowned for their smooth, stringless flesh; and what we label as simple mangoes, which are oblong, green-to-red fruits. Depending on the season, there are several varieties of mango that fall into this category, including Tommy Atkins, Kent, and Haden, to name a few.
•Ripeness: Mangoes can be eaten at many different stages of ripeness, depending on how you’re planning to use them. Choose firm mangoes that give just a bit to pressure if you want them to hold their shape after being cut (for example, in a fruit salad, or into spears). The softer the mango, the sweeter it will be, but the sloppier it will be as well!
Whatever you do, don’t judge your mango by its skin color. Some of the best tasting mango varieties, such as the Kent, are green even when perfectly ripe.
One thing to note about mango ripeness: There are times when the flesh of some mangoes turns brown inside, even when from the outside everything seems to be fine. This happens when the fruit isn’t treated quite right in every leg of its long journey. We do our best to test every batch of mangoes we receive to make sure these fruits don’t get onto our shelves, but if you ever find a brown mango, please don’t hesitate to bring it back for a full refund!
•Preparation: There are two ways that I know to cut a mango. I’ll try to describe them, but a quick trip to YouTube may also be helpful!
The first method is to cut along the pit from stem to bottom, cutting it into three pieces. The middle piece is mostly pit. Take one of the side pieces and score the flesh into squares. Turn the fruit inside out, pushing the skin up from underneath, and scrape the mango cubes off the skin using a knife.
The second method uses (believe it or not) a drinking glass. Cut the mango into three pieces as described above. Take one of the sides and place the edge bottom against the lip of a glass. Slide the mango down, and the glass will separate the skin from the flesh. It’s like magic!
•Pro Tip: Don’t confine yourself to sweet mango recipes! Mangoes can be used in a multitude of dishes, in any stage of ripeness, and for any course of a meal. Try them in salsas, curries, fresh salads, and grilled with meat or seafood. This is truly a versatile fruit.
You’ll find two types of coconuts on our shelves: young green coconuts and what we call simply coconuts, but which I refer to lovingly as “brown hairy coconuts.”
Young green coconuts are picked when not quite mature. They are used mostly for their deliciously sweet water. There isn’t a whole lotof meat, on a young coconut, and what is there is gelatinous and not easily used.
Brown coconuts are the mature fruit of the coconut palm. They have a much higher fat content than their younger siblings, much denser flesh and less water. These coconuts are typically used for their calorie-rich meat.
•Ripeness: Coconuts do not ripen like other fruits, although they do age over time from the green, water rich young fruits, to denser, more caloric fruits. Look for coconuts that are free or cracks, mold, or soft spots.
•Preparation: There’s no getting around it, getting into a coconut just isn’t easy, and it takes some practice. Don’t be intimidated, though; if you stick with it, fresh coconut is well worth the effort!
If you’re looking to drink the water from a young coconut, use a heavy cleaver to make an incision in a square shape around the top of the husk, then simply lift off the top and enjoy.
There are many methods for opening a mature coconut, but I’ll give you the most failsafe (and least refined) way I know. Use a corkscrew or screwdriver to pierce the three “eyes” at the top of the coconut and drain out the water. Place the coconut in a large plastic bag, find a sturdy floor or countertop, grab a hammer, and strike the coconut until it splits open. Use a kitchen knife to separate the meat from the husk.
•Pro Tips: Because it can be quite labor-intensive to acquire, and doesn’t store long, the meat from a fresh coconut is not something you see every day—but it is so delicious! Once you extract the meat from the husk, simply process the coconut meat in a food processor, and use it in place of dried coconut.