Fruit salads(April McGreger photos)

We all know the 4th of July routine: fireworks, grilling, and all-American pies for dessert. But unlike Thanksgiving, no side dishes traditionally stand out. This year, don’t get stuck eating potato salad or tri-color pasta from plastic deli containers. Instead, give fruit salads a chance to redeem themselves.

Forget that big heaping bowl of generic, soulless, supermarket fruit that you pass right over at potlucks. If fruit salad to you seems more like a lackluster dessert or brunch dish than a smashing summer side, let me assure you that you just haven’t met these fruit salads — savory combinations that will charm your tastebuds.

As a child I may have been baffled by my father sprinkling black pepper on his wedge of cantaloupe, but one summer spent in the Yucatan after college enlightened me. There I learned to love black-pepper-kissed mangoes with a sip of good tequila, and the ubiquitous taco-stand treat of cayenne-pepper-and-lime-spiked mango on a stick.

Others have likely had similar epiphanies through fruit chaat, the magical Indian street fare comprising assorted seasonal fruits tossed with salt, mint, lemon juice, and chaat masala. Yes, it seems that in much of world, fruit is no stranger to the savory treatment.

Though Americans have been slow to discover how the sweetness and tartness of fruit is heightened in contrast to pepper, vinegar, and salt, why waste another day? These recipes come from one of my favorite people, Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the author of the charming cookbook, Seasoned in the South. Crooks Corner is hands down my favorite neighborhood restaurant any time of year, but it is in summer that Bill Smith’s menu really shines. He has a deft hand with summer fruits and vegetables, and I usually make a meal out of two or three of his seasonal salads. Two of my favorites, featured here, are savory fruit salads. Try them, and I bet they’ll end up in your repertoire ever after.  

And once you’ve started down this path, you won’t be able to stop yourself — the possibilities are endless. Be sure to check out my suggested variations at the bottom of the recipes, and please, share your own favorite twists on savory fruit salads in the comments.

PeachesBill Smith’s Green Peach Salad with Black Pepper & Mint

This salad makes the perfect accompaniment to grilled chicken, barbecued tempeh or tofu, and ribs.  I also love it served on top of a bed of arugula or other spicy greens with goat cheese and maybe a handful of roasted and salted almonds. The salad is also good with ripe peaches, but really it’s the perfect solution for what to do with those first of the season, less than perfect peaches. Serves 4-6

2 1/2 pounds of underripe peaches, peeled and sliced as for a pie
A scant 1/4 cup sugar, optional (*April’s note – I always omit the sugar and don’t miss it one bit!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (*I add another ¼ teaspoon of black pepper for a little kick)
2 tablespoons robust flavored extra-virgin olive oil, such as a Greek or Lebanese
2 tablespoons fresh mint chiffonade (cut into ribbons)

Toss the peaches with the sugar, if using, and the salt. Let sit for 10 minutes. Fold in pepper, olive oil, and mint. Serve cold within a few hours of preparation, as it will become mushy overnight.

Variations: Nectarines, plums, pluots, mango, and cantaloupe can all stand in ably for peaches.

Fruit saladBill Smith’s Tomato & Watermelon Salad

This salad is amazingly refreshing when served very cold. It is good by itself and with anything, but really shines next to grilled fish or steak. Serves 4-6

5 cups ripe, bite-sized watermelon chunks, seeded as best you can
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, in bite-sized chunks
3 teaspoons sugar, optional (*I leave it out, and it’s just as delicious!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small red onion, peeled, quartered, and very thinly sliced
1/2 cup red wine vinegar (*If omitting the sugar, reduce the vinegar to 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup good, robust-flavored extra-virgin olive oil (*If omitting the sugar, reduce the olive oil to 2 tablespoons)

Toss the melon and tomatoes with sugar and salt. Let sit for 15 minutes. Then fold in onions, vinegar, and olive oil. Serve very cold. This salad is amazingly refreshing.

More variations:

  • Replace the watermelon and tomatoes with cantaloupe and peeled cucumbers. Top with 4 oz crumbled goat cheese and fresh black pepper.
  • Add good quality feta crumbles for a salty punch and herbs such as basil, mint, or dill.
  • Replace the watermelon with roasted and quartered baby beets. Replace the tomatoes with fresh raspberries or chopped red plums or sour cherries, but wait and fold them last, very gently. Just before serving, top with chunks of gorgonzola dulce. So good!