Variety, balance help make fruit salads classy

The perfect fruit salad.
The perfect fruit salad.

I don't want to brag, but I make a pretty great fruit salad.

And if I did want to brag, I'd brag about that fruit salad.

Fruit salad is more than just that healthy thing you have to eat at breakfast before you get to the pancakes. It has class, it has elegance, it has the culinary equivalent of savoir faire.

Anyone can chop up a couple of pieces of fruit, mix them together in a bowl, and call it a fruit salad. But that is more of a fruit cup, or maybe a fruit plate. A well-crafted fruit salad is a thing of beauty and a joy for brunch.

The one-word secret to making the ultimate fruit salad, a fruit salad to inspire awe, a fruit salad your friends and family will discuss in hushed tones long into their dotage is: variety. And if we could make it a three-word secret, it would be: variety and balance.

For a fruit salad to transcend the ordinary, for it to be one you can brag about, it must have a minimum — a minimum — of five different fruits, and preferably more. Most of these should be what I think of as main fruits, which are the bigger fruits such as apples, oranges, bananas, and melons. But at least a couple of them should be berries.

The berries serve, quite literally, as the cherry on top. They are the fruit salad's dessert (or as we shall see, one of the salad's desserts). They are something sweet, something special, something extra, but they are not the main focus of the dish. Because of that, they should be used sparingly, just a handful or so of all the berries combined for each serving.

That's part of the balance.

For the main fruit, use about one piece of the fruit per serving. Obviously, if one of the fruits is large, such as a pineapple, just use one ordinary portion of it. That's part of the balance, too.

Ideally, one of the main fruits should be citrus, and no more than one or else the fruit salad will become too acidic. Oranges and their many relatives work best. If an orange seems too ordinary, try tangerines, tangelos, mineolas, or clementines. Because clementines are so small, consider two or three of them to make up one serving. Grapefruit works well, too, but it adds a little bitterness to a sweet dish and needs to be carefully peeled and chopped to eliminate all the white parts.

For the other main fruits, use whatever is freshest and ripe. Apples are always a great choice, and you don't have to worry about whether they are sweet or tart because their flavor will just blend in with all of the others. Don't forget to use pears when they are in season. Melons in general provide a great texture, and watermelons (be sure to remove all the seeds first) add a welcome burst of sweetness. Mangoes, if you like them, make the entire salad seem more tropical and fun.

What size should you chop the fruit? It doesn't really matter, as long as you can fit at least two or three pieces on a fork or spoon. Of far more importance is that the pieces should all be more or less the same size, to keep any particular fruit flavor from dominating any of the others. If the berries are large, such as strawberries and big blackberries, you'll want to cut them about the same size, too. Remember, this is all about balance, and a harmonious blending of similarly sweet and juicy flavors.

Don't forget about raisins or dried cranberries, if you have any in the pantry. Just a handful or two sprinkled into the mix adds a delightfully unexpected chewiness as well as the surprisingly intense taste of dried fruit. You don't want to overwhelm the fresh fruit with the dried, so go light on the raisins — they are another one of the salad's desserts.

And the best dessert of all, if you like them, is nuts. Nothing goes better with fruit than nuts, and they will seem like a real treat if you get one nut with every three or four bites. I like to use roasted, unsalted almonds, but use any kind of nut you like; walnuts make another excellent choice.

This is the point at which I used to stop, believing that no fruit salad could possibly be an improvement on one made like this. But that was before a recent brunch I had at Lena restaurant in Ann Arbor.

I used to work for a caterer who would mix white wine into her fruit salad the night before serving it. The wine added a touch of sophistication, I thought, but also a bit of an edge from the raw alcohol. It wasn't unpleasant, by any means, but neither did it add enough to the whole experience that I felt I needed to follow her example. But Lena takes the wine idea two steps further.

First, they use Port, according to executive chef Gabriel Vera. Port is a sweet wine, but it can be marvelously complex. Be sure not to stint on the quality, Mr. Vera said, repeating the chef's maxim that you should only cook with wine that you would drink by itself. Vintage port can get quite pricey, and sometimes, he admitted, they use the good stuff for their fruit salad.

And the Port isn't added straight, it is first blended with sugar and then reduced to create a glaze.

"Reduce until you coat the back of a spoon with it," he said. This same adhesive quality that helps it stick to the back of a spoon will also make the glaze stick to the fruit.

So you don't need too much, just enough to make its flavor become one note blending pleasantly with all the others in the choir of fruit.

It's all about balance. Balance and variety.

Port Reduction Glaze

Good quality Port


Combine Port with sugar in a ratio of ¼ cup sugar for every 1 cup of Port. Remember, you will be reducing this liquid by 2/3 or ¾, so you may need more than you think. Bring to a high simmer or low boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce until the liquid clings to the back of a spoon and when you draw your finger across the spoon you can see the trail of its path. Allow to cool. Add sparingly to fruit salad, and toss.

Source: Adapted from Gabriel Vera, Lena restaurant