I'm a big fan of serving simple desserts for my dinner parties. In all but the most formal occasions I can get away with passing a bar of really good chocolate or a single scoop of decadent ice cream. But my most favorite dessert is even simpler: a bowl of whole fruit. Yes, that's it. Just a bowl filled with whole, raw, naked, unadorned, seasonal fruit.
The concept is unapologetically Alice Waters/Chez Panisse: that a whole piece of organic, heirloom-quality fruit offered at its peek of ripeness needs nothing further to make it delicious. Indeed, it would be a crime to do much more than offer it in a pretty copper bowl, perhaps with a small sharp knife if needed. Like Ms. Waters herself, this is a controversial and easily ridiculed offering and I guess I can see why people might get a little huffy.
But before you start pounding away in the comments about pretentious this and precious that, consider that there's some good kitchen wisdom at work here. It's true that if you can get your hands on a really good peach, right at the peak of its ripeness, there is nothing you can do to it that would make it better than it already is. Passing a platter of such peaches after dinner, accompanied by a glass of Muscat or champagne, would be a truly wonderful way to end a meal.
I think presentation is key and I'm firmly in the camp of keeping it simple. There's no need to make a big fuss: simply pile the whole fruit up in a bowl or arrange it on a platter to pass. Keeping the fruit whole is the preferred way to go, as it really highlights the singular beauty of the fruit and allows your guests the delicious opportunity to slowly cut off slices, or inhale the sharp spray of citrus when the peel is broken with the thumb. The only thing else to do is to set out small paring knives and bowls to catch the juices if needed.
You can also slice the fruit onto a platter if that's more your speed, although be careful not to slip into fruit salad territory. Keeping it at one, maybe two, kinds of fruit will keep it simple and focused. Truthfully, sometimes I chicken out a little and also offer a little something extra like a ginger or butter cookie or a few roasted nuts, just to add a little crunchy texture.
This level of simplicity means that the fruit has to be pretty special. That it should be completely in season and as local as possible goes without saying, but there's an art to choosing the right fruit and timing its perfect ripeness. This is where shopping at a farmers' market or a reputable greengrocer comes in, as you may want some expert advice when picking out your fruit. Be sure to buy an extra piece or two as a back up, in case some of the fruit doesn't come to ripeness when you need it. Maybe it can even come from your own backyard, if you're so lucky!
(Image: Dana Velden)