- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

When I was a child, fruit salad was given the royal treatment with a cut glass bowl and a silver spoon. Only as an adult did my mother let me in on her secret ingredient: a generous tot of sweet white wine.

Winter fruit salad with wine has been a specialty of mine ever since. It is a glorious golden dish, easy to dress up with a fine wine for a festive occasion or with an everyday bottle for a casual gathering. The big question is: What wine is best with the sweet, sour, jangling flavors in a fruit salad?

Recently, I delved into practical research with some winter fruit salads. I put together a collection of pear, mango, tangerine and a sprinkling of passion fruit seeds, used in the Middle East in the way we add lemon. Other ideas would be guava, loquat, feijoa (pineapple guava), lichee, fresh figs or kiwi.

In fruit salad, I’m not a partisan of banana (too squishy), apple (too firm), date (pasty) or melon (inclined to fall apart). But the final choice of which fruit to use is always yours, keeping an eye on contrasts of color, texture and what is ripe and in season.

Having assembled the fruit salad, I divided it in portions and then went loco, trying half a cup of different wine on each. First I tried a sauvignon blanc, assuming that a white wine would best display the colors of each fruit. The wine tasted pleasantly dry and grassy in the glass, but when I added it to the salad, I recoiled in distaste.

The sauvignon became aggressive and the fruits fought back. At once, I eliminated two other dry wines to avoid wasting them on failure. At the other end of the scale, a flowery Muscat tasted honey-sweet but flat, lacking the acid necessary to develop the flavors of the fruit. But at the bargain price of $2.50, I could hardly complain that this wine did not materialize into a perfect match.

I was left with two wines of superior quality. A late-picked Gewurtztraminer at $7 (a bargain bought at the vineyard itself) was a pleasure to drink, full-bodied, rounded and with great depth. But, despite its pleasant flavor in the glass, this delicious wine was overwhelmed by the onslaught of so many fruits. I kept the rest of the bottle to enjoy as an aperitif.

The most expensive wine, an intense Italian vin santo at $12 a bottle, proved to be the winner with its raisin flavor (the grapes are partially dried before pressing), acting as a splendid foil to the salad.

This final fruit salad paired with vin santo was a festive dish, indeed, rich but refreshing, and an ideal close to a winter dinner.

After all was said and done, I’d learned several interesting lessons in pairing wine with fruit. First, more than just sweetness in the wine is needed to balance and bind the complex flavors of the fruits.

Second, passion fruit is an excellent flavoring. Without it, you’ll need an extra squeeze or more of lemon juice.

Winter fruit salad keeps extraordinarily well. I set some aside to taste after 24 hours but forgot entirely about the taste test.

Three days later, the fruit salad was superbly mellow without any of the mushiness I associate with macerated fruits that are over the hill — yet another reason to make winter fruit salad your party dessert of the season.

Winter fruit salad

The amount of sugar you need for fruit salad can vary enormously, depending on the ripeness of the fruit, the sweetness of the wine and on your own taste. Don’t hesitate to add more or less, as you prefer.

Although this recipe calls for a sugar syrup, save time and simply sprinkle the fruit with sugar. If it seems dry, moisten it with more wine or with water. For a nonalcoholic salad, substitute apple juice and omit the sugar.

As an accompaniment to fresh fruit salad, it’s hard to beat plain heavy (whipping) cream and a shortbread cookie or a shell-shaped madeleine cake on the side. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and the salad becomes Coupe Jacques.

cup sugar

cup water

2 large pears (about 1 pound)

2 medium mangoes (about 1 pounds)

4 medium seedless tangerines or loose-skinned oranges (about 1 pound)

8 ounces seedless green or red grapes

bottle (325 milliliters) sweet white wine

Squeeze of lime or lemon juice, or to taste

2 passion fruits

To make the syrup, heat sugar and cup water over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring syrup to a boil and simmer 2 minutes. Pour it into a medium bowl and let it cool.

To prepare the pears, peel, quarter them and scoop out the cores and stems. Cut quarters lengthwise into eighths, then crosswise into chunks, letting them fall into the sugar syrup. Stir gently so pears are coated in syrup and do not discolor.

To prepare the mangoes, first locate pit by letting the mango find its level on the chopping board. The oval pit is now horizontal. Hold fruit with the pit vertical and cut it in two, slightly off-center, so the knife just misses the pit.

Repeat on the other side so a thin layer of flesh remains around the pit. Slash mango flesh in a lattice, cutting down to peel but not through it.

Repeat with the other half. Holding mango flesh upward, carefully push center of peel with your thumbs to turn it inside out, opening cuts in the flesh. Cut mango cubes from peel and add to pears in syrup.

To prepare tangerines or oranges, peel fruit with your fingers and pull them in half. Set halves flat side down and cut crosswise in 3/8-inch slices, using a serrated knife. Add to other fruit in syrup.

Pull grapes from stems and add to other fruit in syrup.

Pour in wine and mix fruit very gently with two spoons. Taste and add lime or lemon juice, if needed, to accentuate flavor. Cover with plastic wrap and leave salad to macerate in the refrigerator at least 3 and up to 12 hours.

To finish, cut tops off passion fruit and scoop seeds into a bowl. Spoon fruit salad into a chilled glass bowl and sprinkle with passion fruit seeds. Makes 6 servings.

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