Around the time I was just old enough to know how to cook but still young enough to have some free time, I started throwing brunch parties. The menu was always the same. I would bake a braided challah or Belgian waffles or blueberry muffins or all three. (This was show-off food, since none of my other friends had yet developed an interest in baking.) I'd prepare some mimosas and strong coffee. And then, in a weak and chinless nod to better nutrition, I would make a fruit salad.
The fruit salad, like the menu, never varied: It consisted of whatever fruit was available at the corner bodega, plus mint and maybe some lemon juice, which helped keep apples from browning. I hadn't yet learned to really care about the quality of produce, so sometimes the apples were mealy and the cantaloupe was hard. The blueberries might be mushy and the mint a little bruised, and the bananas always got a bit sludgy after half an hour of sitting around. My fruit salad was colorful, though, and it relieved the visual monotony of a heap of carbs, so I was OK with it.
When I think back on those fruit salads — which lasted me a few days, as I dug through the increasingly unappealing leftovers for lunch — I'm struck by the missed opportunities. Different families of fruit each have a distinct character. A citrus salad will be tangy and bright where a melon salad is smooth and rich. A berry salad is tart and explosive, yet with a honeyed finish. Couldn't there be a way to make the most of each, rather than jumbling them all into a fruity Babel? Yes, there had to be a way to coax them into another dimension, one with texture and depth instead of just a rainbow spectrum of sweetness.
It didn't take long to discover a secret embraced by fruit salads across the world: nuts (the other fruit you find on trees). Nuts introduce an unexpected, evocative element to fruit salads. They lend a textural contrast, and sometimes a savory note, too. Added to citrus, a sprinkling of pistachios and rose water lends a subtle, Arabian-nights perfume, while peanuts give cool, sweet melons a salty overtone reminiscent of Southeast Asian salads. Friable and flaky coconut, on the other hand, punctuates the melting delicacy of berries like a sudden burst of laughter in a quiet room.
Whichever route you pursue, approach it with patience. I have a bad habit of not really taking cooking seriously unless it involves the application of heat. That shouldn't be the case. And a little care will help you avoid the slapdash, bruised melanges I used to make. Choose fruits carefully, shunning brownness, dents and soft spots where firm spots should be. Use a sharp knife for cut fruits, and handle it decisively yet gently. Toss the fruit only gingerly, especially if you've got berries. And if patience is in short supply, resignation works just as well.
Twenty years ago, I had time but little insight into the mysteries of fruit salad, and brunch in general. Today, I have the understanding but not the time. One thing, though, has changed forever: No matter what fruit salad makes it to the table in the rushed, crowded chaos of a family meal, there won't be any leftovers for tomorrow's lunch.
Crunchy Coconut-Berry Salad
This incredibly fast salad from The Sunset Cookbook by Sunset Books and Margo True (Oxmoor House 2010) plays on a sharp contrast of textures – ripe berries, crunchy jicama and brittle toasted coconut. You can find the fat slivers of sliced dried coconut (sometimes called "coconut flakes") at health food and natural foods stores. Otherwise, substitute shredded coconut, but take care as it will toast more quickly.
In a heavy 6- to 8-inch pan, stir coconut often over medium-high heat until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside.
In a large serving bowl, whisk together lime juice and honey. Add berries and jicama. Tear mint leaves into small pieces and scatter over salad. Add toasted coconut and mix gently.
Citrus Salad With Rose Water
This salad is loosely adapted from May Bsisu's The Arab Table: Recipes & Culinary Traditions (William Morrow 2005). Cutting out the fruit segments is a messy job, but not terribly difficult and well worth the trouble. Is it worth the trouble to blanch the pistachio nuts? Up to you. I like it because it gives you a lovely, brilliant green contrast to the sunset colors of the fruit. But they would probably taste just as good unblanched.
To make the syrup, combine the rose water, sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat to a gentle simmer. Stir until the sugar is just dissolved. Set aside to cool.
To separate the grapefruit and orange segments from their skins: With a serrated knife (I find a steak knife actually works best), cut about 1/2 inch off the top and bottom of the fruit, at the stem and blossom ends. The north and south poles will now have flat surfaces, with a bit of the interior flesh showing. With your knife, carefully cut off the peel and pith, curving down and around to follow the shape of the fruit. Be sure to remove all of the pith and skin so that the juicy segments are exposed.
Now for the messy (but not hard) part: Holding the fruit in one hand, hold your knife in the other and use it to gently saw each segment away from the skin separating it from the next. (Sometimes you may be able to simply pull the skin away with your fingers, as if you were turning the pages of a book). By the end you will have a pulpy, juicy mess in your non-dominant hand and a pile of neat segments in your mixing bowl or cutting board.
To blanch the pistachio nuts (optional): Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Simmer the pistachio nuts for two minutes and strain. When cool enough to handle, turn the nuts out onto a clean dishcloth, fold the dishcloth over to enclose them and rub lightly. Most of the skins will come off without complaint. Don't worry about the ones that don't.
Combine the citrus segments, rose water syrup and about half the pistachios in a serving bowl. Gently toss with your fingers or a spatula. Cover and refrigerate the salad. When ready to serve, scatter the remaining pistachios on top (they'll stay crisper if you leave this till the last moment). Best served well chilled.
Thai Melon Salad
Raising the Salad Bar by Catherine Walthers (Lake Isle Press 2007) remains one of my favorite salad books years after its publication. This melon salad, which I just discovered, is embarrassingly, thoroughly addictive. Go for dry-roasted salted peanuts — the ones where the salt falls right off in your fingers in a powder. The saltiness just makes the melons taste more sweet. If you have three varieties of melon, use them. I only used watermelon and honeydew because that's what I had on hand, and they were phenomenal just like that.