Disappointment, thy name is winter fruit salad.
Come winter, how many baby showers, how many brunches, how many holiday buffets and diners have touted “seasonal” fruit salads that turned out to be lackluster – at best?
There you are, trying your damndest to put something healthy on your plate, something to counterbalance the Eggs Benedict/baked brie/eggnog/sour cream coffeecake/French onion dip you are rapidly dispatching as the winter pounds are rapidly accumulating. Minus its bright colors, though, the fruit salad has zero appeal. Those sorry pink watermelon squares, mushy blueberries, fibrous orange segments and flinty cantaloupe cubes are definitely not calling your name.
We live in northern New England. I get it. The luscious berries and sugary melons of summer are but a distant memory. Even the satisfactory crunch, juice and sweet-tart flavor of apples and pears have mostly gone by. Farm-to-table fruit salad in January in Maine is an impossible dream. Maybe we should just all eat sugared grapefruit halves or peel an orange and call it a day.
Wait. There’s hope.
Over the years I’ve found that with these nine kitchen tricks, it’s possible to resuscitate winter’s woeful fruit salads, to boost the flavor of bland fruit and disguise its less-than-perfect texture, to (briefly) learn to embrace – and enhance – the fruits of Florida, California, Mexico and quite a bit farther until Maine’s strawberry season rolls around to delight us again.
Plan ahead. In hot summer, fruit ripens if you so much as glance at it. The challenge in those months is to use/eat the fruit fast before it begins to rot or mold. In cold winter, you’ve the opposite problem: rock-hard pears and kiwi, green bananas, pineapples with nary a hint of fragrance. It goes without saying – though I am saying it anyway – when you are going to make a winter fruit salad, buy the fruit ahead and give it PLENTY of time to ripen.
Make friends with simple syrups and poaching liquids. In summer, peak-of-season fruit needs no help. In winter, fruits that have been in cold storage or travelled many miles to reach your kitchen need all the help they can get. I perk up the fruit with a generous drizzle of flavored (read on for details) simple syrups (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil to dissolve the sugar), reduced cider syrups and leftover poaching liquids (perhaps from that time last fall you made poached plums).
Deploy herbs, spices and peels. Intensify aforementioned syrups with herbs, spices and fruit zests. Add cinnamon sticks, orange peel, a vanilla bean and whole cloves to the reducing apple cider; lime zest to sugar syrup for a Mexican-esque fruit salad; crushed lemongrass, ginger root coins, star anise and Thai basil to an Asian-esque one. Try sage with pineapple pieces or fennel seed with grapefruit segments.
Drink up. Add alcohol, within reason. Sake can improve that fruit salad with Asian flavors. Sweetened, flavored concentrated red wine syrups – more often thought of for fruit salad’s cousin, the compote – can take your winter fruit salad to new heights.
Don’t forget dried fruit. Mankind (or, more likely, womankind) has dried fruit for millennia as a way to preserve it for the lean winter months. For better and for worse, with the advent of refrigeration and global trade, you live in a time and a place with no lean months. Still, the concentrated flavor of dried apricots, plums (prunes), dates or green grapes (golden raisins) plumped up in your syrup of choice and mixed with fresh fruit (see below) delivers delicious, unexpected intensity to winter fruit salad.
Travel to the tropics and play around. Reserve the strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and melons of all sorts for summer, when you can grow or pick them yourself or buy them at a farm stand or farmers market. Next summer, be mindful of how indescribably delicious they are when in season. Since just about nothing in the fruit department is local now, have some fun. Reach for persimmons, kumquats, lychees, pomegranates, Medjool dates, finger or red bananas, kiwi and pineapple. I also use apples, pears, grapes, bananas, oranges and grapefruit, even cranberries — the last, come to think of it, are almost in season. If you simply must have California strawberries, at least roast them first to accentuate what little flavor they’ve got.
Experiment with the savory side. Shaved fennel, cubed avocado, minced chilies, even crumbled feta cheese or a nice fruity olive oil can benefit blah fruit salads. Somewhere or other, I once read that the late food and lifestyle writer Lee Bailey believed that one element of a good menu was surprise. It’s good advice.
Add a little fat. Top winter fruit salads with a dollop of good-quality whole-milk yogurt, sour cream, mascarpone or crème fraîche. A little fat makes most things better.
In sum, when it comes to winter fruit salad (and much else in both cooking and life), let your imagination lead you. The recipes here are templates and are variations on a theme. Adjust the amounts and flavorings to please yourself and those you are feeding.
Fruit Salad with Spiced Cider
This is my fallback winter fruit salad. If friends are coming to brunch anytime from November through February, a sadly rare occurrence these pandemic days, they’re likely to find this fruit salad on the table. Adjust it as you like, adding gingerroot coins, whole cardamom, allspice or peppercorns to the reducing cider, for example. I always supreme oranges if I include the fruit, because I’m fussy that way, but you need sharp knives, and it’s your call whether to bother.
Serves about 5
1 cup sweet apple cider
1 cinnamon stick
8-10 whole cloves
1 strip orange peel
Smattering of dried fruit of your choice
5-6 cups chopped fresh fruit such as pears (peeled or unpeeled, your call), apples (ditto regarding the peel), oranges, kiwi, banana, medjool dates and whole cranberries (they’re tart, so use restraint)
1 cup plain whole-fat yogurt, to serve
Boil the apple cider in a small pot with the cinnamon and cloves and any other flavorings you desire until the cider has reduced to about 3/4 cup (or a little more, you want it slightly thickened). Cool the cider with the flavorings to allow it to steep.
Once the cider syrup has cooled, remove the spices and pour the syrup over the chopped fresh and dried fruit in a bowl. (If the dried fruit is aged and hard, add it when the cider syrup is hot to allow it to plump and soften.) Let the mixture macerate several hours to allow the flavor to develop, giving it the occasional gentle stir to redistribute the syrup. Serve cool, not cold, topping each serving with a dollop of yogurt.
Guacamole Fruit Salad
A couple of years ago I ran into a recipe for a variation on standard guacamole called guacamole con frutas. It adds, as the name suggests, fruit to guacamole, and … wow, just wow! For this recipe, I’ve borrowed the idea and turned it into a fruit salad.
Serves about 5
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
Zest from 1 lime, plus 1 tablespoon lime juice
A few cilantro stems plus a handful of cilantro leaves
1/4 to 1/2 sliced serrano chili, or to taste
5-6 cups cubed pears, mangos and avocadoes, halved purple grapes, and pomegranate seeds
Sour cream or Mexican crema to serve if you’re so inclined
Bring the water, sugar, lime zest, cilantro stems and chili to a boil and leave, stirring, for a minute or so until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat, add the lime juice and let the syrup cool and steep.
Put the fruit in a serving bowl. Strain the sliced jalapenos and cilantro stems from the simple syrup and pour the liquid over the fruit and let the mixture macerate for several hours so the flavor can develop. (Or, if you’ll have adventurous eaters for the fruit salad who don’t mind the heat, leave in the serrano slices, which are now a little candied.)
Stir in a dash of salt and cilantro leaves before serving with sour cream or Mexican crema.
Fruit Salad with Asian Flavors
Serves about 5
1 lemongrass stem
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 -2 star anise pods
1-inch piece ginger root, sliced into coins
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons sake
5-6 cups fruit such as lychee, longan, rambutan (either de-seed these preceding three, or warn eaters about the large seeds), chopped red or finger banana, kumquats, pineapple, kiwi
Handful Thai basil, julienned
To prepare the lemongrass, peel and discard the stiff outer leaves until you reach the more tender underlayers. Slice the lemongrass lengthwise a few inches, until the spot where the whitish color starts to turn green. Slice the white part thinly (hang onto the green part to use to infuse a soup or stew), then pound the slices into a paste in a mortar and pestle (you can also grate the stem on a box grater or rasp). Measure out about 1 teaspoon.
Bring the water, sugar, 1 teaspoon pounded lemongrass, star anise and ginger root to a boil in a small pot, leave, stirring, for a minute or so until the sugar dissolves. Take the syrup off the heat, taste and add more lemongrass or ginger root if needed, then stir in the lime juice and sake.
Once the simple syrup has cooled, transfer to a bowl, remove the star anise and ginger root, then add the fruit to the syrup, combining gently. Let the mixture macerate several hours so the flavor can develop. Add the basil before serving.