I was invited to dinner by a good college friend of mine and decided to bring something dessert-ish since she would be cooking everything else. A couple of years ago, faced with having to prepare an "adult" fruit salad for an event I was catering, I came up with a recipe that has wowed party guest after party guest. And I've decided to share that with you today.
The great thing is that it is SO simple. First up, start with the freshest, ripest fruit that you can get your hands on. Cut it into bite-sized pieces. It can be any fruit you like and is in season. Honestly, I can't think of a single fruit that wouldn't work well. I usually try and get between three and four different fruits, and try to vary colors and flavors. Today I had wonderfully ripe strawberries, pineapple, mangoes (I actually found a few that were nice and ripe), and blood oranges. I cut them up and placed them in a bowl:
Then come the secret ingredients that take a simple bowl of cut up fruit to fruit nirvana. You want to add some type of sweetness, the heavenly scent of vanilla, and an orange brandy:
Let's talk left to right. Agave Nectar is a recent addition to most regular grocery stores. You can definitely find it at places like Mustard Seed Market or Heinen's, but I've also managed to find it at Acme and Buehler's as well. If there is an organics section in your grocery store, it's most likely located there. Otherwise, I'd check wherever the honey is located. It comes in both an amber and light variety. The amber has a more assertive flavor which is nice, but for today's recipe I went with light. Not because light has fewer calories (it doesn't), but because it adds less of its own flavor than amber would. You could also do honey or a simple syrup if you wanted. Heck you could even just do plain sugar in a pinch.
Next up is the vanilla. Don't use imitation vanilla. Don't use vanilla bean extract. Go the extra mile and get yourself a fresh vanilla bean. You and your guests will be thankful you did. Yes, it's a bit more expensive, but after you've finished up using the vanilla pod, you can rinse it off and insert it into some sugar to create wonderfully aromatic vanilla sugar for future baking projects. To use the vanilla bean, take a sharp paring knife and split the bean lengthwise. Using the blade of the knife, scrape all the seeds out of the bean and place on top of your fruit. The seeds are kind of sticky and syrupy so you may need to scrape the knife off with your finger. After you've cleaned out both halves of the bean, cut the split bean in half so that it is half the length it was originally and place the beans inside the bowl of fruit. Using the outer skin of the bean will lend an additional level of vanilla flavor as it macerates in the refrigerator.
Finally, the orange brandy. Feel free to use a premium version such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau, but realize that some of the less expensive brands (such as Harlequin) work just as well at half the price. Follow the same rule that you'd use when cooking with wine: if you'd drink it in a glass, you should feel good about using it in recipes.
The amount of sweetener and orange brandy you add is completely up to you. The amount of sweetener will depend on how sweet the fruit is naturally. The orange brandy is there as a counterpoint to the vanilla. Personally, I add enough brandy to the fruit until I can just taste the alcohol harshness of the brandy. For today's batch, I probably added about 1/2 cup. Also add just a pinch of kosher or sea salt. With the "juiciness" of the salad, it should dissolve without any problem. Now, I know it seems odd to add salt to something sweet, but the salt actually accentuates the sweet flavor and brings it to the forefront. Think of what happens when you mix M&M's and popcorn at the movie theater. By themselves, good, but together, yum!
After stirring gently with a large spoon, you get this:
Now the most important part; while you could eat this immediately, it is best served after sitting in the fridge for a minimum of four hours. This allows all the flavors to marry, the brandy to mellow out, and most importantly the formation of the wonderful fruit "liqueur". The sugar from the sweetener acts in a hygroscopic fashion to pull moisture out of the fruit. This mixes with the brandy and the vanilla to form a juice that can be enjoyed even after the fruit salad is gone. People were actually doing shots of this liqueur at the last party I attended where I brought this dish.
I typically put this mixture in a sealed container and give it a good mixing every couple of hours by turning the container end over end to redistribute all the wonderful juices. Like I mentioned before, give it a minimum of four hours to macerate, but you could definitely do it the night before as well. After 24 hours or so, the fruit will begin to break down considerably, so you might want to consider other options such as using it in a smoothie or a fruit compote to serve over a dessert.
If you want to make a kid-friendly version of the above, just leave out the liquor. It won't be quite as good, but the vanilla and agave syrup alone will make a lovely fruit salad that all can enjoy.