There's no way to talk about fruit salad without acknowledging the genre's generally abysmal state of affairs. Whether it's on the menu at a local brunch spot, in a giant bowl on a picnic table, or in a plastic tub at the airport, you can rarely expect more than a mix of season-be-damned berries and chopped pineapple, with a few cantaloupe chunks thrown in for bulk.
I've got no gripe with the individual components, but as a collection, fruit salad reminds me of Michael Jackson's Celebrity All-Stars: an amazing assortment of popular fruits, gathered for a wholesome cause, yet somehow less than the sum of their parts.
In either case, the problem has less to do with concept than with execution, because simply cramming a bunch of lovable fruits together is no guarantee of success. Instead of complementing each other, these elements form a disjointed mishmash of tart blackberries and sour grapes, vying for your attention like Huey Lewis and Cyndi Lauper angling for the mike.
Here the analogy ends, because, while not even a Snoop Dogg remix could save "We Are the World," a better fruit salad is well within reach. The trick is to dress it up with the same little flourishes that make savory salads so enticing.
We've all got ideas about what makes a salad great, but for simplicity's sake, let's consider my current addiction: Daniel's Roasted Potato and Kale Salad. An enthusiastic retweet put the recipe in my husband's feed, and, despite his general disdain for salad, he whipped it up for me as a surprise. Since then, he's made it five or six times because, seriously, what's not to love? The combination of creamy potatoes, crispy shallots, chewy kale, juicy marinated mushrooms, sweet paprika, fragrant garlic, and rich olive oil deliver a salad as satisfying as any entree.
At first blush, it doesn't seem like a fair comparison; "real" salads can pull from a broad range of flavors and techniques incompatible with the dessert-like nature of their fruity counterparts. But when you stop thinking about nouns (potatoes, shallots, and garlic) and start thinking about adjectives (creamy, crispy, fragrant), you reveal the framework behind so many great salads—a diverse range of flavors, textures, and aromas that form a cohesive dish.
In that way, dreaming up a fruit salad that moves past a tired mix of berries and pineapple is about as complicated as playing a game of Mad Libs. Just amble through your kitchen or supermarket looking for creamy ____, crispy ____, chewy ____, juicy ____, sweet ____, fragrant ____, and rich ____. To fill in all those blanks, you'll have to look beyond the produce department, but that's a good thing! Thoughtful but unexpected ingredients are what make our favorite recipes shine.
As a starting point, I'll anchor my salad with one ridiculously excellent seasonal fruit; in this case, the juicy plums that start turning up in early May. With "juicy" checked off my list, I moved on to the other adjectives. Tons of ingredients could fit the bill, but I wanted to make a practical salad from everyday ingredients, so I decided to pull from what I had on hand already.
The bunch of creamy bananas on my kitchen table. A bag of crispy pecans in my pantry. An unopened package of chewy dates on the shelf. One lone sprig of fragrant tarragon from the crisper.
However random those ingredients seem, by choosing each to play a specific role, I'm able to ensure they work well together. Especially with a splash of sweet maple syrup and warm bacon drippings to serve as a unifying element, a dressing, if you will.
It works beautifully because the flavors and textures contrast and complement each other at the same time, making every bite both creamy and crunchy, chewy and sweet, juicy and savory. That makes for a well-rounded salad, suited to a variety of applications.
It's indulgent enough to feel fancy on Brown-Butter Waffles, sweet enough to dress up a bowl of oatmeal, and substantial enough to turn a dish of Greek yogurt into a filling breakfast.
By limiting my "juicy" option to plums, I'm not left with a bowl of fruit swimming in an ever-growing pool of its own juice, which extends its shelf life in and out of the fridge, too.
While this particular combo is my current jam, there's no need to get hung up on the details. When you focus on adjectives instead of nouns, substitutions are dead easy. Soft, ripe Turkish figs might stand in for bananas; chewy dried cherries could replace the dates; and crispy almond slivers can do the job of toasted pecans. No plums on hand? Try a juicy pear. Don't eat bacon? Shave off a few curls of salty Parmesan. Out of maple? Drizzle with honey. Can't stand tarragon? Have some thyme.
Suddenly, you've got a fresh fig, pear, and dried-cherry salad with almonds, honey, and parm...which, frankly, sounds amazing. So think of my recipe not as some hard and fast rule, but as a guideline, a reference for establishing a basic ratio of fresh and dried fruits to nuts, herbs, and sweeteners that you can mix and match to your heart's content.
We'll make a better fruit salad, just you and me.