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The Secrets of a Perfect Fruit Salad

You’re invited to a pot-luck barbeque, and you’re assigned to bring fruit salad. You grab the already-made stuff from the supermarket and serve it out of the plastic container it came in. Or, if you have time, you choose picture-perfect melons from the produce aisle and cut them up yourself. In both cases, you end up in the same place: a fruit salad of under-ripe, hard pieces, not very sweet, and certainly not outstanding. Most of it is left over. You wish you had been assigned the brownies because everyone loves brownies. Nobody seems to love fruit salad.

In fact, just about everybody loves fruit. We humans have been eating fruit for thousands of years longer than brownies. (Brownies are brand-new to the food scene -- refined sugar and cocoa powder are less than two hundred years old). What we humans really crave is a perfectly ripe, sweet fruit that has complex aromas, unctuous texture, and multi-layered tastes. A lot of people don’t know what a properly-ripened melon or mango tastes like because they’ve grown accustomed to the bland chunks they find in supermarket containers and restaurant buffets.

I’m going to tell you how to compose a spectacular fruit salad. You’ll learn the secret to finding the right ingredients that will have people coming back for seconds and thirds.

How to choose fruit: Don’t look for perfect

Traditional advice tells you to look for smooth fruit, free of blemishes, perfectly shaped. Sometimes this is good advice. Sometimes it is not. Many people think a spotted, ugly fruit should be thrown away. In fact, it may be at the peak of flavor. When choosing certain fruits, going ugly and almost rotten is one of the best-kept secrets of an excellent fruit platter. A cantaloupe or papaya or pineapple that is getting rotten spots on the surface is often the sweetest and most delicious.

Check out the mold and rotten spots on this papaya:

I peeled and cut this papaya right after I took the photo. It was perfectly ripe, sweet, and at the peak of its flavor. I seek out these ugly fruits at the market – especially if I need them in a hurry.  If I can only find hard, unripe fruits, I leave them on my countertop until they’re starting to look like they’re headed for the compost pile. In cool weather, the ripening process can take a few weeks. Once fruits are ripe, they must be eaten soon. Otherwise, they will over-ripen, and that’s as bad as under-ripened fruit. The exceptions are watermelon and berries, which you have to buy already ripe at the supermarket because they don’t ripen once they’re harvested.

When buying fruit, don’t confuse bruised or damaged fruit with ripe fruit. Bruised fruit will have just one or two soft spots and the rest will be hard. Avoid these. A ripe fruit will be ripe all over, not just in one spot.

If you don’t have time to let fruit ripen at home, then compose a platter of fruit that is sold already ripe. This includes grapes, oranges, berries, watermelon, and high-quality frozen fruit such as cherries.

Here is how to tell if these fruits are ready to eat:

Honeydew: An unripe honeydew is very firm and the skin is smooth and slippery. As it ripens, the skin gets rougher, almost tacky. I wait for the skin to get to this rough point. I also smell it. If it smells fruity and delicious, it’s ready to eat. 

Cantaloupe: As with honeydew, smell is a good indicator. Unripe cantaloupes have no fragrance, but ripe cantaloupe does – sweet and cantaloupe-y. Also, the stem end of the fruit will give when you press it.

Papaya: When you press it, it should feel like a ripe peach: soft, but not mushy. If it is looking mottled and starting to get rotten spots on the skin, don’t toss it in trash! It is ready to eat.

Watermelon: This is one melon you pretty much have to pick correctly when you buy it because they don’t really ripen off the vine. If you look on the bottom of the melon, there is a pale patch where it sat on the ground. I look for a patch that has a lot of yellow in it. Sometimes you may still end up with a watermelon that doesn’t have great texture, especially if it is out of season in your area and was shipped a long distance. Try to buy when it’s in season.

Pineapple: It should smell fruity and sweet and have some give when you press it. If there is surface mold, don’t worry. That will get peeled away.

Mangoes and kiwis: Like peaches, ripe mangos and kiwis should feel soft, not mushy. There is no need to let them get to the point where their skin is wrinkled so long as they feel soft. If they’re starting to wrinkle, eat them right away, otherwise, they’re going to get over-ripe and won’t taste good anymore. If the mangoes have big brown patches on the inside when you cut them open, discard them -- they’re no good.

Citrus such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit: Choose fruits that are heavy for their size. The rind should not be dried-out or shriveled.

Mystery fruits (such as dragon fruit and lychees): You may find yourself in an ethnic supermarket, confronted with fruits you’ve never seen before. That’s an opportunity to expand your culinary horizons. Ask the produce guy how to pick the fruit and how to know when they’re ripe. Or as a shopper who looks like they know what they're doing.

How to think about a fruit salad

The old-school way – before the days when stores sold already-cut fruit in clear plastic containers -- was to hunt around for whatever is on hand, such as apples, pears, bananas, grapes, melon, maybe some berries. You’d cut everything up into irregular pieces, toss it all in a bowl, and maybe add a squirt of lemon juice to keep the bananas and apples from going brown. After a few hours, you’d have a fruit salad that had thrown off way too much liquid, the flavors were starting to blur into each other, the banana slices were mushy and gray, and the apple pieces look old and tired. This was not exciting then, and it’s not exciting now. But a lot of people are still trapped in the old-school mindset. Let’s break out of that. Here are the rules I follow.

Rule #1: Don’t toss fruit together. Fruit salad is not really a salad. Think of it as a composed plate, where each kind of fruit is kept separate. For example, chunks of watermelon next to chunks of pineapple next to a section of blueberries makes it easier for people to pick out exactly what they prefer. When different fruits are mixed together (especially if the fruit has been cut too small), flavors get muddied and everything seems to break down faster and leave a bigger puddle of juice in the bottom of the bowl.

By keeping varieties of fruit separate, you can create a gorgeous fruit platter that lasts longer and tastes better. You can get creative, too. For example, you can divide the platter into three or four sections and fill each one with a single kind of fruit. Or you can create concentric rings of different fruits. The internet is a great place to look for ideas on this.

There are two exceptions to this rule: Berries and melons.  Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries look great mixed together. Melons, such as watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew can also be mixed together, so long as the chunks are roughly the same size. Caveat: Be gentle when mixing so you don’t damage the fruit.

Rule #2: A fruit platter can be composed of a single type of fruit. As a guest at a dinner party, I was asked to bring fruit. I brought just one kind: perfectly-ripe, in-season Korean pears from the Asian market. Shortly before serving, I cored and sliced them and tossed them with freshly squeezed lemon juice. They were superb, and got rave reviews.

Another single fruit that is fantastic on its own is fresh cherries. Presented solo in a bowl, cherries are one of the great joys of summer. No need to pit them – just rinse and serve. In winter, frozen pitted cherries are a great option (see below). Fresh, in-season strawberries, rinsed and hulled, with whipped cream on the side are also superb. The shortcake is optional.

Orange slices on a platter -- garnished with pomegranate seeds or snipped mint -- is refreshing and easy to compose. 

Rule #3 Cut fruit into large pieces, don’t mince. When fruit is minced too finely, it breaks down faster. I prefer to cut fruit into larger chunks (1 inch or more), or into slices. Whether you should peel it is up to you. I always peel pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe, mango, kiwi, and papaya. Sometimes I leave the rind on watermelon slices and orange slices so they’re easier to pick up and eat.

Rule #4: Never use bananas. Bananas break down quickly no matter how much lemon juice you put on them, so leave them out. Other fruit that bruises and browns easily -- such as apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and apricots -- should be cut shortly before serving. These fruits are not good choices for a fruit platter that needs to sit out for a long time.

Rule #5. Frozen fruit can be a good option. I have served partially-defrosted frozen cherries tossed with Amaretto, with whipped cream on the side, and they are delicious. Other frozen-fruit-options are blueberries, pineapple, seedless grapes, and peaches. (I avoid frozen mango because it tends to be disappointing). Frozen fruit is best served semi-frozen for the best texture, because once it reaches room temperature, it becomes soft and watery.

Rule #6: You can go savory. Aside from the classic pear-and-cheese platter, some fruits work well in savory dishes. For example, watermelon tossed with feta cheese cubes and garnished with mint is delicious. Watermelon also works as a sweet counterpoint in tomato salads with basil. Pink grapefruit supremes (that is, sections of grapefruit that have been cut free of membrane and peel – see YouTube for the technique) are delicious tossed with arugula and avocado chunks, and dressed with citrus vinaigrette and fresh tarragon or mint. Strawberries are a good addition to a simple green salad, dressed with a hazelnut dressing.

Rule #7: Use garnishes. Mint is a great garnish for most fruits. So are lemon and lime slices. Basil works with melons. A mild Mexican chili blend, called tajin, is a traditional sprinkle (along with lemon or lime juice) for tropical fruit such as melons, pineapple, kiwi, mangoes and papayas. I keep a bottle of tajin next to the fruit so people can decide how much they want.

Nuts are a classic accompaniment to fruit. Aside from pairing walnuts with pears and apples, one of my favorites is hazelnuts with strawberries. Peaches with almonds are another favorite, as are pistachios with apricots. Macadamias harmonize with tropical fruits. An unusual and delicious combination is purple concord grapes and roasted peanuts – this is reminiscent of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin can also work in place of nuts, along with shredded or flaked coconut.

I always keep nuts and seeds on the side, in a bowl with a spoon, so that people can add their own – and those who have allergies can avoid the nuts.

Bottom line: Compose your fruit salad as a fruit platter, not as a tossed salad.  Use ripe fruit, and remember that ugly fruit is often the tastiest. Take the time to cut and arrange it nicely. Use garnishes such as nuts, herbs, and lemon slices. Done correctly, you’ll leave the brownies in the dust and get rave reviews. Happy summer!

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