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How-To

Cooking Fruit with Fire

Try grilling fruit for an irresistible smoky sweetness that's right for dinner or dessert

Fine Cooking Issue 40
Photo: Judi Rutz
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My wife swoons at the thought of warm fruit and often warms her winter tangerines by the heater before eating them to enhance their flavor. The heat brings out the flavor of the fruit and softens its texture. In the summer, I grill fruit for the same reasons plus this one: caramelization.

Learn to cook and sooner or later you’ll hear about the wonders of this phenomenon: the sugars in foods like fruit, when heated, take on a beautiful golden color and develop a deep, caramel-like flavor. The toasty, sweet, caramelized exterior of the fruit contrasts with the soft, often tart flesh inside, creating a completely new flavor that’s simply delicious.

A gas grill is convenient; a wood fire adds toasty flavor

A gas grill is the easiest to use because you can shut down the grill after the main course and fire it up again at your leisure for dessert. If you’re using a charcoal grill, you’ll want to time your dessert so that the coals are hot enough for another round of cooking, usually within half an hour or so. To keep the coals going, shut the vents almost completely after dinner to reduce the air circulation that makes the fire burn out more quickly. Then open the air vents to stoke the heat before grilling the fruit for dessert.

If you’re grilling fruit as an appetizer or main course, such as the grilled figs with pancetta or the pork and grapes, a wood fire will give you the most aromatic smoke.

Clean the grate and heat it before grilling any fruit. Use a wire brush to get rid of any of the remains from dinner—the one you just grilled or the one you grilled last week—otherwise, your grilled peaches may wind up tasting a lot like your grilled salmon. A dirty grill can also cause the fruit to stick. Other ways to prevent sticking is to heat the grate before putting on the fruit and to lightly brush the grate with a little oil for fruit that’s not marinated.

Cook with moderately high heat. A fire that’s too hot will quickly burn the sugars, resulting in a bitter, unpleasant flavor. Check the heat by holding your palm about two inches above the grate; if you can hold it there for three seconds but no more, you have a medium-hot fire, good for grilling most fruits.

Just-ripe fruits grill best

Perfectly lush ripe fruit, whose juices dribble down your chin when you bite, should be savored in their natural state. On the grill, they’ll just make you curse as they turn to mush and, in the case of kebabs, fall off at the least provocation. Fruit that’s just barely ripe, meaning it has a lovely perfume and is just starting to soften, is better for grilling. Bananas should have a pure yellow skin. Pears, mangos, figs, and peaches should not dent when you pick them up but should give when pressed firmly. (With pineapples and citrus fruits, you just have to assume they were picked ripe.) Occasionally, unripe fruit works best. Green mangos become crunchy and tangy when grilled.

Adding flavor to the fruit. I often rub spices on fruits and marinate them before grilling. The spices are purely for flavor, but the marinade serves other purposes as well. If there is some fat in the marinade, such as melted butter, it can help prevent sticking, as well as add richness of flavor. A marinade also keeps fruit juicy and will keep cut fruit from turning brown before it hits the grill. If there’s sugar in the marinade, it will help the fruit brown once it’s on the grill. Another way to promote browning is to dust the fruit with confectioners’ sugar just before grilling.

Leave the fruit alone for a minute. Once on the grill, let the fruit stay in one place for at least a minute to color and sear. Check the underside of the fruit; when it’s golden with mahogany grill marks—turn the fruit over to finish cooking.

Because there are no safety issues with undercooking fruit (as there could be with meat), there are  no crucial doneness tests, but do be sure the fruit has softened without becoming mushy and that it has taken on some nice color.

Try other fruits on the grill

These fruits are also great grilled:

Apples—Sprinkle a halved and cored apple with some cinnamon. Marinate it in some apple brandy. Brush with melted butter and grill until softened. Serve with good vanilla ice cream and crisp butter cookies.

Pears—Sprinkle halved and cored pears with salt, pepper, and a little sugar. Brush them with butter and grill until softened. Add them to a salad of greens, walnuts, and blue cheese and dress with a sherry vinaigrette.

Bananas—Roll a whole, firm banana or skewered slices in melted butter and dust with sweet spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, before grilling. Serve with toasted pecans, sweetened whipped cream, and a drizzle of honey.

Dried apricots—Larger dried fruits, like apricots, figs, and prunes, benefit from the warmth of the grill. Serve with some fresh fruits, nuts, and a great selection of cheeses.

Grapefruit—If you like grapefruit broiled, you’ll love it grilled. Cut it in half, sprinkle with sugar, and grill cut side down. Drizzle on some Chambord for an after-dinner treat.

Papayas—For a great breakfast treat, grill half a papaya brushed with a little honey. Squeeze a bit of lime over it all before serving.

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