If there’s one dessert dish I loathe, it’s a fruit salad. Soak it in some exotic liqueur, and I can just about stand it. But throw a bunch of chopped up fruit in a bowl and call it a dish, and I’m instantly depressed. At best, a fruit salad conjures up for me Cloris Leachman as the splendidly gruesome Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety warning that “tardy boys don’t get fruit cup.” At worst, it reminds me of the dietetic pudding option in a fading British seaside hotel.
Thing is, I adore fruit in a salad. Taken away from its “sweet” context, fruit can make a savory salad really sing with flavor. Because sweetness is just one of the flavor notes in any given fruit.
Citrus fruits are also acidic. Green apples, and even pears, have an almost steely edge of sharp crispness. Raspberries and cranberries are as tart as they are sweet. And in the height of summer peaches and nectarines have that juicy tang underneath their sweetness that that sends you off into the dreamy fullness of a hot July as soon as you bite into them.
And what really brings out all those extra levels of flavor is not sugar, or cream, or custard, but a light seasoning of salt and pepper.
If this seems culinarily counter-intuitive to you, consider the tomato, the avocado, and the olive. All, of course, are fruits. Yet we use these fruits in an almost exclusively savory manner. Would you chop a tomato into an Ambrosia fruit salad? Some olives into a fruit crumble? Serve whipped avocado instead of cream alongside a slice of pie? (Actually there are some fascinating vegan recipes for chocolate mousse that utilize avocado, but that’s an extremely inventive response to a necessarily restrictive diet.)
No. When we cook or prepare dishes with these fruits, or even just snack on them, we think of them as being responsive to salt and pepper instead of sugar.
So why stop with these three fruits? There are, after all many world cuisines that already use other fruits in that savory context. North African cuisine uses dates and apricots in tagines. Middle Eastern cuisine scatters pomegranates over pilafs and lamb dishes. Thai cuisine pairs dry-fried beef mince with papaya and those intensely sour little green mangoes in fabulously hot and crunchy salads. Jamaican meals of jerk pork or saltfish and ackee wouldn’t be complete without fried plantains on the side.
European cuisines use fruit this way as well. There’s the classic French salad of pear, endive, walnut and blue cheese, and the Italian salad of orange and fennel that makes a magical counterpart to any grilled fish, not to mention the classic condiment Mostarda di Frutta.. There’s also the German dish of Himmel und Erde, which brings together apple, potato, and black pudding. Even the Indian traditions of fruit chutneys and pickles have become staples here in Britain, their use moving far beyond accompanying curries to being served alongside cheese and cold cuts. Indeed the British are rightfully well known for their inventiveness when it comes to fruit chutneys.
And yet, all too often I get an almost scandalized response when I suggest salting fruit instead of sugaring it (something I’ve done since a child, but that’s another story). I get the impression that in the Western World, we all too often segregate fruit into either that depressing dessert, a virtuous snack, the kind of breakfast that “gets things moving,” digestively speaking, or just juice. It’s been well known for quite a while now that only drinking the juice of a fruit rather than eating it gives you all of that fruit’s sugar, and actually little of its nutritional value, so in this increasingly nutrition-conscious day and age, it’s even more important to find ways to get all that goodness back into our diets.
There are so many fruits that are far more versatile than you might think, not to mention so many pairings that, while perhaps unexpected, really dance together on your plate and your palate. Mangoes and pineapple, for example, both partner brilliantly with the fruity heat of fresh red or green chillies. So in that spirit (and it’s most certainly an evangelical one on my part) here are but a few suggestions:
- Leave out that predictable tomato and make a leafy salad even more verdant with halved green seedless grapes, or slices of kiwi fruit!
- Give a ham, cheese and mustard sandwich an added layer of tart crisp flavor and texture with thin slices of green apple!
- Throw some raspberries into a salad of spinach, mushrooms and walnuts! Even better if it’s a warm dinner salad with chicken livers!
- Go 80’s retro by turning grilled honey-and mustard chicken into a salad with snow peas and honeydew melon!
- Go Greek with a salad of watermelon, feta cheese, red onion and mint to accompany grilled lamb!
- Give a chicken salad tropical zing with green chillies and chunks of pineapple! For added camp value, serve in boats carved out of the pineapple!
- Replace tomato with pineapple for a tart, fiery, and sweet salsa to accompany grilled fish!
- Forget your usual salsa altogether and throw together a salsa of mango and black beans to go with any grilled meat, or even just a bowl of corn chips!
- Make a kiwi fruit salsa to accompany grilled shrimp or calamari!
- Liven up a plain grilled or steamed skinless chicken breast with a salad of mango, radicchio and spring onions, dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette!
- Enjoy the perfect summer lunch of nectarines, prosciutto, and mozzarella, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil! Add radicchio for bitterness and crunch!
- Stir some pesto sauce into well-mashed avocado for a light and creamy dressing for a cold pasta salad!
- Stuff pitted dates with slices of Parmesan cheese for extremely moreish cocktail nibbles!
- Or make the ultimate savory fruit salad of pink grapefruit and avocado, dressed with a vinaigrette made from the grapefruit juice, Dijon mustard, and good olive oil! Add shrimps or scallops to make it a full-on meal!
As I said, these are but a few suggestions. They’re all incredibly easy and quick to prepare, and utterly delicious to boot. Recipes for all of the above abound on the internet and elsewhere, so there’s really no excuse for not being a tad adventurous and turning that grim fruit salad into something spectacular to surprise yourself and anyone else you’re feeding.
So go, go now, and savor your fruits! It really doesn’t take much labor.