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Ticket to the tropics

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It is peak time for pineapples, mangoes, papayas and more
Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Mini Pina Colada Pavlovas are a sweet-tart ticket to the tropics.
Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS “Pavlovas look challenging but are actually quite simple to prepare,” says Wandering Whisk Bakeshop owner Jennifer Jacobs. “They will definitely make a statement on your table.”
Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS Sticky Rice With Mango
Photo by Sarah Lemon Pineapple and mango top a coconut-enriched waffle with homemade coconut syrup.

Little green nubs on my strawberry vines and blueberry bushes harbor hopes for a bountiful summer. Temperatures still so springlike, though, keep berry harvests hovering on the distant horizon.

I’m hardly one to rush the season when a taste of sunshine awaits at my locally owned grocer. Lest shoppers confuse the cycle of tropical fruits, this narrow window — between citrus’ last gasp and berries’ burst onto the scene — is peak time for pineapples, mangoes, papayas and more.

These species may hail from beyond the locavore’s sphere. Yet I easily justify their purchase when truly local fruits are months in the making. Plus, the sheer size of a pineapple or papaya, particularly paired with a few mangos, can step in and do some heavy mealtime lifting.

The first step is confirming ripe fruits. Green pineapples should be avoided. Light to medium yellow exteriors should be accompanied by a whiff of fruity sweetness from the pineapple’s base. Orangish pineapples that smell slightly funky likely are overripe.

Once you find a favorable stock of pineapples, don’t be intimidated by their spiky stems and thorny sides. It takes only a sharp chef’s knife to lop off the top and carve away the skin. Sliced and diced, ripe pineapple will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for at least a few days, but it has a way of disappearing when kids are around.

That’s why I buy two or three ripe pineapples at once and maybe a half-dozen mangoes, depending on their price. It’s hard to tell by color alone if a mango is ripe. Similar to pineapple, a ripe mango exudes a palpably sweet aroma from its stem end. I also look for fruits with a trace of sticky nectar at their stems and whose flesh yield to gentle pressure.

While pineapples and mangoes play well together, coconut milk marries the two in utmost harmony. That’s how I devised a breakfast of Hawaiian-inspired waffles. “Coconut syrup,” widespread across the islands, is easy to make at home — without the commercially bottled kind’s high-fructose corn syrup. Just simmer canned coconut milk with plain white sugar, then cool it in the fridge or freezer to thicken.

A handful of shredded, sweetened coconut enriched my standard waffle batter. Even more decadent would be chopped macadamia nuts sprinkled into the waffle iron. And, of course, the waffle can be dairy free if made with a standard size can of coconut milk, plus two to three ounces of oil, instead of regular milk.

I topped each waffle with several generously sized chunks of pineapple and mango, drizzled with coconut syrup. Not a coconut fan or watching your fat? Leave it out and instead make pineapple syrup by combining in a saucepan 2 cups pineapple, roughly chopped into half-inch pieces, with 1/2 cup pineapple juice, 1/2 cup water and 1/3 cup granulated cane sugar; simmer for about 20 minutes before using.

Coconut syrup does double duty, though, in a recipe that almost passes for breakfast but is widely enjoyed as dessert.

Sticky Rice With Mango only waited on perfectly ripe fruits once I had purchased a bag of glutinous rice at an Asian market. Also known as sweet rice — although it isn't really sweet — the grain is not interchangeable with any other type in this recipe.

I have been perfecting my rice-cooking techniques over the past six months, but this method of steaming rice over simmering water was uncharted territory for me. It’s critical to soak the rice overnight or for at least three hours beforehand.

Some of the recipe’s coconut milk and sugar slurry is stirred into the steamed rice. The rest is drizzled over the mango slices for a dish that is pure comfort, yet light enough that I don’t want to share a single bite.

Also light and just slightly more involved, these Mini Pina Colada Pavlovas are a sweet-tart ticket to the tropics.

Mini Piña Colada Pavlovas

For pavlovas:

4 egg whites, at room temperature (save egg yolks for curd)

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons coconut extract

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon lemon juice

For pineapple curd:

4 egg yolks

1/4 cup pineapple juice

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cubed

For topping:

Toasted coconut, for garnish

Pineapple slices, for garnish

In a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high until foamy, for about 1 minute. Gradually add the sugar, one spoonful at a time. Continue to beat until meringue reaches stiff peaks, for about 5 to 6 minutes.

Remove bowl from mixer. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the coconut extract, cornstarch and lemon juice. Take care not to deflate meringue.

Using an ice cream or cookie scoop, scoop meringue into 12 equal dollops onto a baking sheet. Use back of a spoon to create a little nest in center or each. (This will hold curd in place.)

Bake at 250 degrees for approximately 45 to 60 minutes. Turn off oven and leave meringues inside for an additional 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

In a saucepan, combine the egg yolks, pineapple juice and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with a whisk until mixture is thick enough to coat back of a spoon and registers 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, for about 4 to 6 minutes.

Remove from heat and add the salt and butter, one piece at a time, stirring until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl.

Cover curd with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto surface of curd. Refrigerate until chilled and set, for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

To assemble pavlovas, top each with a hearty scoop of curd. Add some of the toasted coconut and a slice of the pineapple. Feel free to add fresh berries or any other fruit desired.

Makes approximately one dozen.

Sticky Rice with Mango

1-1/2 cups glutinous rice, also called sweet rice

1-1/3 cups well-stirred canned unsweetened coconut milk, divided

1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted lightly

1 large mango, peeled, pitted and cut into slices

Put the rice into a large bowl and cover with water by several inches. Stir rice with a spoon or your clean hand until water becomes cloudy. Drain water through a strainer to catch any falling rice; repeat 2 or 3 more times until water is largely clear. Soak rice in cold water to cover overnight.

Drain rice well in a sieve. Set sieve over a large, deep saucepan of simmering water (sieve should not touch water) and steam rice, covered with a kitchen towel and a lid, for 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender (check water level in pan occasionally, adding more water if necessary).

While rice is cooking, in a small saucepan bring 1 cup of the coconut milk to a boil with 1/3 cup of the sugar and the salt, stirring until sugar is dissolved; remove from heat. Keep mixture warm.

Transfer hot cooked rice to a bowl and stir in coconut milk mixture. Let rice stand, covered, for 30 minutes, or until coconut milk mixture is absorbed. Rice may be prepared up to this point 2 hours ahead and kept covered at room temperature.

While rice is standing, in cleaned small pan slowly boil remaining 1/3 cup coconut milk with remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Transfer sauce to a small bowl and chill until cool and thickened slightly.

To serve, mold servings of sticky rice onto dessert plates. Drizzle desserts with sauce and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Divide the mango slices among plates.

Makes 6 servings.

Recipe from Gourmet magazine, via Epicurious.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.