You deserve a better fruit salad

Treating fruit like their vegetable counterparts (i.e. seasoning and dressing them) leads to a better salad

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 29, 2022 5:31PM (EDT)

Variation of tropical fruits (Tamarillo,Carambola, passion fruit, cherimoya,passiflora singularis/grenadilla, mara) on the rose- turquoise background (Getty Images/Yulia Reznikov)
Variation of tropical fruits (Tamarillo,Carambola, passion fruit, cherimoya,passiflora singularis/grenadilla, mara) on the rose- turquoise background (Getty Images/Yulia Reznikov)

I recently sent out a message to one of my group chats: "Hey, when I say 'fruit salad,' what do you think of?" One responded, "The stuff they offer at hotel breakfast buffets?" Another sent a list: "Grapes, strawberries, chunks of melon, maybe a blueberry if I'm lucky." 

Another friend, who recently became a mom, responded initially with a link to the song "Fruit Salad" by the children's entertainment band The Wiggles. "JK," she later sent, followed by a picture of a fruit cup. 

I switched over to a different group chat — made up of a whole different group of people — and the answers were nearly identical. When people hear the term "fruit salad," one particular type of dish comes to mind. But I'm here to tell you that (at least occasionally) you deserve a better fruit salad. Something that maybe feels a little bit more bespoke or sophisticated, that's packed with flavor, texture and the occasional surprising pairing. 

Here's how to get there: 

Let one fruit be the star sometimes 

One of the easiest ways to move away from the continental breakfast-style fruit salad is by choosing a single fruit and making it the star of its own dish. This means treating it with a little extra care and truly thinking about what ingredients pair best with it. 

Start by visiting your local farmer's market or your supermarket's produce section and seeing what jumps out to you as looking exceptionally fresh. Recently, I did so and came home with a little bundle of sleek black plums. Unlike red plums, which have a kind of tart pucker, black plums are predominately sweet and I wanted to enhance that flavor rather than mask it. 

So, I dug through my refrigerator and pulled out a tub of whole-milk ricotta cheese and formed a few tablespoons into a "bed" on a plate. I thinly-sliced the plums and layered them over ricotta. This alone, of course, would be delicious, but I wanted to make the dish feel a little more complete, so I reached for lemon zest, a bottle of agave and some flaky sea salt to dress this simple little salad. 

It was sublime. 

In your own kitchen, have fun playing with similar combinations of complementary and contrasting flavors. Cubed watermelon, for instance, pairs well with funky blue cheese and mint. Give sliced strawberries a try with briny feta, toasted pine nuts and basil. 

Don't be afraid to mix sweet and savory produce 

In many restaurant salads, fruits are kind of treated as a glorified garnish. Even classics like spinach and strawberry salads are definitely more vegetable-heavy than fruit-heavy. Sometimes, it's fun to shake up that balance. 

Again, start with a fruit that appeals to you based on its seasonality and freshness and build out from there. For instance, ripe, tart blackberries are always good with something that is creamy and a little buttery. Sure, that could mean camembert, but it could also mean avocado. 

As we head into warmer weather, make a crunchy fruit slaw with shredded green apples and pears, mixed with shaved fennel and tossed with a little lime juice. Or, play up the sweetness of seasonal, segmented produce with diced, roasted sweet potatoes and a sprinkle of golden raisins. 

Play with heat and texture 

Speaking of roasting, that last salad — roasted sweet potatoes, segmented citrus and dried golden raisins — reminds me of a universal salad truism. They tend to be better when there's some variety in the bowl, and one of the easiest ways to achieve that is by adding some ingredients that have been cooked. 

This doesn't have to be time-consuming. Strawberries that have been roasted, with a little salt, for about ten minutes? A revelation, even if just spooned over a basic fruit salad. Grilled peach segments are a unique summer treat — and pair beautifully with tart cherries, blood orange and a little crumbled goat cheese. You don't necessarily have to do the cooking yourself, by the way. 

Dried fruit, which has been sun-dried or dehydrated, offers some great variety, too. 

Season and dress 

If you ordered a salad at a restaurant and were presented with a bowl of raw, unseasoned and undressed vegetables, you'd probably feel like something was missing. While it's not exactly (sorry) apples and oranges, one surefire way for a fruit-based salad to feel a little more special is by seasoning and dressing your fruit. 

This can be simple. A lot of fruit really shines with a drizzle of really good olive oil and flaky salt. Alternatively, a sweet vinaigrette made with apple cider or balsamic vinegar, citrus zest and neutral oil makes the perfect dressing for many combinations of fruits. 

This post first appeared in Salon Food's weekly newsletter, The Bite. To get access to other special recipes, how-to's and essays, be sure to subscribe. 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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