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One person’s fruit cup becomes an elegant start to a holiday meal

Strawberry Champagne Soup may be an nontraditional appetizer for the Thanksgiving table, but this light treat can cut through the carb-laden meal to come.  (Rey Lopez/For The Washington Post)
By Kristen Hartke Washington Post

Americans often wax poetic about the traditional dishes found on their Thanksgiving tables – casseroles of sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallow topping, collard greens swimming in pot likker, tamales stuffed with green chiles and roasted pork. However, my memories of sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother’s house in northern New Jersey center on a teacup placed in the middle of a plate filled with … fruit salad.

To be honest, I had no idea that starting a holiday meal with a refreshing bite of orange and grapefruit segments was not the norm until I began hosting my own dinners as an adult and found a sea of faces looking at me in complete puzzlement at the little bowls of fruit on their plates. “What’s this?” came the chorus of voices, as they gingerly poked at the citrus with their forks, as if I’d presented them with bowls filled with wriggling earthworms.

“It’s a fruit salad,” I explained. “We always had them at Thanksgiving dinner when I was growing up – didn’t you?”

Apparently not. After a couple of years, I simply gave up. Why waste perfectly good citrus fruit when everyone just wanted to head straight to the mashed potatoes, green beans and stuffing? Yet the need for that light taste of fruit at the beginning of the meal nagged at me for years until a bag of frozen strawberries and an assignment to bring soup to a friend’s Christmas dinner prompted me to make a bright Strawberry and Champagne Soup – an elegant but easy starter that quickly became a tradition while allowing me to honor the memory of my grandmother’s gatherings.

It was a relief to find out that recipe developer Chadwick Boyd’s great-grandmother also served a fruit salad – or what she referred to as “fruit cup” – at the start of holiday meals. A cut-glass serving bowl filled with a combination of canned fruit cocktail augmented with fresh bananas and oranges always graced the table to begin the meal, Boyd said. The special dish represented the few items that weren’t grown right there on the family farm in Pennsylvania.

The concept of the fruit salad is a throwback to grannies like mine and Boyd’s who grew up in the early 20th century when canning companies like Del Monte had perfected the art of preserving bits of peaches, pears, grapes and cherries in a thick syrup to be enjoyed year-round. For anyone who lived in the Frozen North, canned fruit was a fancy treat, offering a taste of pineapple and mandarin oranges, representing “exotic” locales from Florida to Hawaii to Mexico.

The idea seems quaint to us in the 21st century, when virtually any fresh fruit can be found nearly any time of year, from mangoes to watermelon, but that combination of sweet and tart flavors is still a tasty way to start a winter meal laden with root vegetables and roasted meat.

For Boyd, it was a side dish that accompanied sandwiches at a favorite lunch spot in Atlanta that brought him back to fruit salads, inspiring his own update to his great-grandmother’s tradition.

“Their fruit salad was filled with the typical fruits,” Boyd said, “like kiwi fruit, grape, orange and apple. The difference was the preparation, because it was what they called a “confetti fruit salad” with all the pieces cut into 1/4-inch dice, so that you’d get a taste of each fruit in every bite. With chunky fruit salads, you can pick around the grapes or pineapple, but the confetti salad means you get all the flavors.”

Boyd likes to play with different combinations of texture and flavor, from kumquats and star fruit in winter to berries and melons in summer.

When starting a meal with fruit, whether as a soup or salad, focus on flavors that don’t skew too sweet, like pairing tart Granny Smith apples with sweeter Bosc pears, then amplify the fruit with acid, herbs and spice. Boyd whisks together a vinegary honey dressing for his fruit salad, while my strawberry soup is topped with a few drops of balsamic vinegar, fresh basil and a grinding of fresh black pepper.

The result is a celebratory starter that wakes up the palate and brightens the dreariest winter day – but, of course, our grannies already knew that.

Strawberry Champagne Soup

1 pound frozen strawberries, defrosted

1/4 cup light honey, preferably orange blossom, plus more as needed

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large orange, plus more juice as needed

1 cup dry champagne or sparkling wine, such as prosecco or cava

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, for serving

Balsamic vinegar, for serving

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, for serving

Freshly ground black pepper, for serving

In a blender, combine the strawberries, honey, orange zest and juice in a blender, and puree on high speed until well incorporated, adding more juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, as needed to get a thick, pourable consistency. Transfer to a lidded container and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.

Just before serving, stir the champagne or sparkling wine into the strawberry mixture to thoroughly combine, then divide among four small bowls.

Garnish each with a couple of basil leaves, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of flaky salt and a grinding of the pepper. Serve cold.

Yield: 6 servings

Make ahead: The strawberry base needs to be refrigerated for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days before serving.

Storage: Refrigerate the strawberry base up to 2 days.