Exhausted by the heat? Try this refreshing Mexican fruit cup. Chunks of melon, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries and mango are sprinkled with fresh lime juice, red chile and sea salt. The spicy seasonings bring out the luscious sweetness of the ripe fruit.
Are you as exhausted as I am by this wretched heat wave?
At 7 AM it’s so hot that going outside to water the tropical garden—which loves the heat, but wants rain badly—leaves me dripping wet, and not from the hose.
By mid-morning it’s so stifling that I just want to stay inside, preferably with my head in the refrigerator. (A dangerous place to be since B has just brought home a quart of heavy cream and assorted cheeses.)
On sweltering afternoons, a refreshing pause gourmande is a must. But why wait till late afternoon? During the dog days, any time is the right time.
In San Antonio last week the temperature soared to 106 for five days straight. By 11 AM the fruterias were unapproachable, cars parked three deep around them. These takeaway stands (or, in some cases, restaurant counters) sell tall Styrofoam cups of fresh tropical fruit, cut into pieces and impaled with a plastic fork or wooden skewer for easy eating. The price? Less than $3.
This is a fabulous year for melons. The ripe ones are super-sweet right now: Every fruit cup I bought was filled with chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew mixed with strawberries, slivers of mango, pineapple and sometimes kiwi. At Las Nieves (which specializes in "shave ice"), I was surprised to find cucumber, and bite-size pieces of jicama and coconut buried deep inside the cup.
What makes a Mexican fruit cup different from a fruit salad is the seasoning: a squeeze of fresh lime juice followed by pinches of ground red chile and salt. These sour, hot, salty add-ons might seem counterintuitive during a heat wave, but they actually highlight the luscious sweetness of the ripe fruit.
Most fruiterias deliver seasonings via Lucas, a pre-mixed blend of ground chile, salt, and citric acid. At La Huasteca, which sells fruit cups from a counter in the back of the restaurant, you have your choice of a fiery blend or one that’s just moderately incendiary.
(The best Lucas I have ever tasted was in Veracruz where it was sprinkled over ripe slices of pineapple. The ground chiles were bright and flavorful, and dehydrated lime juice added the requisite tang.)
A fruit cup is perfect for a lazy girl’s July pause. You don’t even have to cut the fruit if you don’t want to. Just buy a container of already sliced fruit. Styrofoam or plastic cups are fine if you’re at the office, but if you’re at home this weekend, pull out a pretty glass and pile the fruit into it. Just looking at it will begin to cool your fevered brow.
And why bother to mix the seasonings? Just squeeze half a lime over the fruit, then sprinkle on chile and salt. I’ve been switching between Kashmiri red chili powder and some ground New Mexican chiles I picked up in Santa Fe last summer. The latter is both hot and fruity, while the Kashmiri chili powder is mild and far less likely to torch your tongue. (Please note that both are made only of dried peppers ground to a powder, without any other additions.)
I’ve been experimenting with upscale salt too. At the moment I love the way briny Maldon sea salt lingers on the tongue. You might also try a good French or Spanish fleur de sel. Or fool around with vanilla salt, typically used in baking, and the other flavored salts found online at Saltworks and The Meadow.
Lucas is sold in little shakers at Hispanic markets, but it often contains sugar, which is unnecessary, as well as other additives such as silica. These pre-mixed blends are easy to use, but if you already have the ingredients at home, your own seasonings will be much more vibrant. Just go easy if you’re using cayenne instead of ground chiles.
And what if you don’t like the idea of red chile and salt on your fruit? Snip a few stems of fresh mint or basil, cut the leaves into fine slivers and toss with whatever fruit you fancy.
Nonnegotiable: The fruit must be icy cold (slip it into the freezer for 5 or 6 minutes to chill, if need be) and you must have a shady place to eat it.
Oh, here comes the rain…have a relaxing weekend—and stay cool!
You don’t really need a recipe, but here’s a shopping list for a fruit cup:
Chunks of watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, or any of the exotics
Bite-size pieces of ripe pineapple
Slivers of mango
Strawberries, cut in half or quartered
Kiwi, peeled and cut into thin slices
Cucumber, jicama and the white meat of coconut, peeled and cut into small chunks--but only if they are fresh and flavorful. If dull or tasteless, these ingredients will create pockets of boredom in your fruit cup.
Combine any or all in a pretty, clear glass. Season with fresh lime juice and pinches of ground red chiles and sea salt to taste. Or, if you prefer, mix with slivered mint or basil.
If you can get ripe berries, you could also make a cup containing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries or fresh currants. Mix with slivered mint and a little powdered sugar if necessary.