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Tue June 12, 2012
Just A Pinch Of Thought Brightens Fruit Salad
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.