Fresh fruit and fire, a summer romance

July 24, 2012

A longtime friend and I were on the phone. Before I even finished my sentence, I sensed how she would react when I told her I would be putting pineapple and plantains on the grill.

I could practically hear her eyes roll.

She’s from Texas.

Real Texans barbecue.

When they do grill, the food is steaks or chops. Not, for cryin’ out loud, fruit.

I exaggerate, of course. Texans grill. They even grill fruit. But they don’t brag about it.

You’ve been in the North too long, she said. The verbal arrow was wounding, but not fatal.

My early barbecue education took place in the classroom called the Lone Star State, and my lessons in the first years were aimed at perfecting the iconic three-meat barbecue plate: succulent slow-smoked beef brisket, tender pork ribs and spicy German sausage.

My studies broadened about 20 years ago when my wife and I returned from a trip to the Texas Hill Country. We had visited a peach orchard, where we picked several baskets of the Red Globe variety. Succumbing to the scent there, I looked at a peach I had just plucked, hesitated, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then took a bite.

My teeth sank into the fat fruit’s flame-hued skin, as much slurp as bite. The just-picked texture was as soft yet firm as a mother’s love. Before I finished chewing, a rivulet of nectar ran down my arm.

This was not the rock that passes for a peach in the supermarket. This was a sense memory. Someone else’s, to be sure. I had never tasted a peach like this. But our forebears had, and that knowledge was transmitted to me in a kind of culinary genetic encoding. Call it the food-taste equivalent of deja vu.

When we returned home, I glanced at my smoker, then at the baskets of peaches. I knew what I had to do.

Put together two great flavors — chocolate and peanut butter, ketchup and fries, ice cream and anything — and you’ve got something sublime. And so it is with the two great flavor makers of summer: fresh fruit and fire.

Peaches are substantial enough to handle flame. They have plenty of sugars in them to benefit from the concentration of flavor that fire imparts.

Many other fruits like a little turn over the fire as well. Pineapple might be the gateway grill fruit. Its solid texture makes it nearly impossible to mess up, while its year-round availability provides ample opportunities to try different treatments. I like setting a slice beneath a scoop of sherbet or adding it to a barbecue sauce, and, although I haven’t made it, I have enjoyed it smoked in an upside-down cake. But my go-to treatment is salsa, with its play of stinging peppers against the tart pineapple. It’s summery and goes great with grilled fish.

Success with pineapple will entice you to expand the fruited field. A quarter-inch- to half-inch-thick slab of watermelon (cut into quarters for easy handling) grills in about two minutes per side and pairs incredibly well with feta and mint. A small halved and seeded cantaloupe grilled cut side down for a few minutes, then filled with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream makes a sort of grilled Creamsicle. Even plantains, which seem too soft to take the heat, caramelize nicely when brushed with vegetable oil and taste fabulous when tossed in a mixture of melted butter, brown sugar, a little orange juice and a sprinkling of cayenne or ancho chili powder.

Because fruit generally likes a medium or medium-hot fire, adding them on the grate puts to good use the dying coals after you’ve grilled a main course. If you like char, simply set the fruit over the fire, and in a few minutes, your work is done.

If you prefer smoke, set up an indirect fire (charcoal on one side of your grill) and, as you eat dinner, let the fruit slowly cook on the cool side of the grill, a method that imparts a deeper, though still subtle, smoke flavor than grilling alone. If your fire is medium, you can usually have your dinner without constantly monitoring the grill. Most fruit will cook slowly enough to allow you to enjoy your dinner party without constantly monitoring the grill. In 20 to 30 minutes, the fruit will look tanned and taste of a whiff of smoke.

But don’t save fruit solely for dessert. Salsas are a fabulous way to use grilled fruit. Pineapple and habanero salsa is one of my favorites for grilled fish. The pineapple’s meaty texture and tangy flavor, spiked with the bracing habanero, transport grilled fish to the tropics. Never a bad place to be.

The thing to remember when grilling fruit is that recipes, however detailed, are truly a jumping-off point. Because of the vagaries of fire and the differences in solidity and moisture content among fruit — a firm pineapple is more forgiving than a juicy peach — fruit can throw you for a loop. I have over-grilled peach slices on a low fire, thinking that the cooking process would take more time than it did. I walked away from the grill only to return to blackened cinders. Lesson: Slices require more watchfulness than whole or halved peaches. Same goes for apples, pineapples and pears.

Although I can’t think of a fruit you can’t grill, the firm, large specimens are easier to deal with than small, juicy ones. Strawberries take nicely to the grill, but you have to be vigilant so they don’t get mushy. Blueberries and raspberries require the use of a vegetable grill basket, and they respond better to a quick pass over a medium-hot fire than to a slow cook over a low fire, as their juices will dissipate. Grilled slices of orange and grapefruit are phenomenal; you just need to expose them briefly to the fire — about a minute or two.

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that grilled fruit adapts easily to nearly any creation. Add it to yogurt for a yin-yang kind of grilled-cool thing. Put some char on lemons before you make lemonade and on apples before you make applesauce. Toss grilled fruit in a food processor for a summery chilled, pureed soup. Add it to leafy salads, perhaps with toasted pecans.

One of my favorites is grilled fruit in the morning. It wasn’t long after I discovered grilled peaches that I tweaked the classic combination of peaches and cream. On a lazy weekend morning I’ll pad out to the grill and light a fire. Then I’ll read the paper and drink coffee. A half-hour or so later, when the coals are ready, I’ll slice up a peach or two, placing the wedges cut side down on the grate. Within five minutes, I can dig into a bowl of melting, smoky decadence. It makes the perfect summer breakfast.

Even my Texas friend might agree.

RECIPES:

Grilled Peaches and Cream

Grilled Plantains in Cayenne and Cinnamon Sauce

Fire-Grilled Pineapple Salsa

Shahin’s column appears monthly. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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