I was recently relaxing in the backyard at a friends’ house with after-dinner drinks when our hostess popped out the back door bearing a platter of what looked, for a moment under the fairy lights, like pizza. But no, it was watermelon wedges drizzled with something creamy and white, flecked with macadamia nuts and scattered with mint.
It was beautiful.
And it was a delicious surprise that pretty well floored me.
Seconds were immediately necessary, even though I wasn’t remotely hungry.
What was this wonder, and how did it come about?
Joe Merchanthouse is a chef we’re fortunate to call a friend, and this was his doing. The story came out: as a teen visiting Italy, he was struck by what he called a “food epiphany.”
After dinner at a restaurant one warm summer night, the waiter brought out a big bowl of cherries for dessert.
“It was the most simple yet delicious take on dessert,” Joe said. “It was light and healthy and it was from the tree that we were sitting under. I’d never experienced anything like that being from the Midwest where, you know, it’s like cheesecake and chocolate or whatever, it’s heavier. So it kind of blew my mind how good just regular food could be, like untouched food. It was kind of a revelation. So, it stuck with me and that’s kind of always been part of how I look at food.”
The story reminded me of my own similar food awakening. The last night my husband and I spent in Rome on our first trip to Europe we plowed through some fettuccine alfredo. No way could we eat another bite. Then the server brought a bowl of tiny strawberries with lemon and sugar and insisted we try it. I couldn’t stop once I took that first, perfect bite, and I’ve never forgotten it.
The watermelon dish first came about when Joe was preparing food for an event at a pop-up series called Un[Wine]d in the pre-COVID days. That version, which he served at the Waterfront Botanical Gardens event, had walnuts, feta and basil. That also sounds amazing, but I can’t wait to go back to the mint and yogurt one he made for us recently.
Joe’s approach inspired me to experiment with fruit when I was recently preparing a picnic lunch. A gift of 40-year balsamic from a friend who just returned from Italy seemed destined to go with fresh berries, so I built a dessert-in-a-jar.
In a word (OK, in two)? Summer perfection.
Are you ready to try these fruit-forward desserts? There’s really nothing to it. Keep in mind these are less recipes than templates, so consider them starting points and start playing around with tastes you love.
Also, nobody says they have to be limited to dessert. The actual one-word review from my husband of the berry dish he had for breakfast when I asked how it was?
So what else can and should we be doing with fruit right now while we have access to so much fresh goodness? If you like to cook your fruit, chef Dallas McGarity of The Fat Lamb, said you can’t go wrong with a classic dish.
“When I think of fruit desserts, I can’t help but think of a crisp. I like the freshness of berries with the sweetness of peaches and cinnamon adds that touch of something that brings it all together,” he said. “It’s also gluten-free if you buy the right oats. It’s simple and pretty healthy as far as a dessert goes.”
Tell Dana! Send your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at [email protected]
Watermelon dessert ‘pizza’
Courtesy of chef Joe Merchanthouse
Slice chilled watermelon into wedges and arrange on a platter
Zest some lime and stir into a fairly thin and runny vanilla yogurt (Joe suggests Chobani). Drizzle over melon.
Roughly chop macadamia nuts and top the wedges
Chiffonade fresh mint leaves and scatter over everything.
Berry-balsamic-basil dessert jar
Courtesy of Courier Journal food columnist Dana McMahan
Layer fresh blackberries in a jar (or the container of your choice)
Spoon vanilla creme fraiche on top
Drizzle with salted honey
Scatter with fresh basil chiffonade
Layer fresh, sliced strawberries
Drizzle with balsamic vinegar
Repeat to the top of the jar and garnish with basil leaves
Courtesy of chef Dallas McGarity, The Fat Lamb. 6 servings
- 1 pound fresh peaches (peeled and chopped)
- 1 pound fresh blueberries
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 lemon (zest and juice)
- 2 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 pinches of kosher salt
- 1 cup old fashioned oats (Bob’s Red Mill preferably)
- 1/2 cup almond flour
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- 4 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter (cut into pieces)
Preheat oven to 350F. Toss the fruit with 1/2 cup sugar, lemon juice and zest, cornstarch, and a pinch of kosher salt. Transfer to a 2-quart baking dish or large cast iron pan.
Combine the oats, cinnamon, almond flour, ginger, pinch of salt, and remaining sugar together in a bowl. Using your fingers work the chilled butter into the dry ingredients until crumbly.
Spread the oat mixture over the fruit and bake until the juices are bubbling and the topping is a nice golden brown.
Serve it warm with ice cream.