The joy of summer fruits for a simple, elegant dessert

Eating a perfectly ripe piece of fresh fruit with aplomb can be a delicious experience. Europeans have long been aware of the capacity of fresh fruit to round out an evening meal. Many of us can take a tip from this way of serving fruit and find it fits easily into our daily menus.

In Italy, for example, at an inexpensive trattoria, you may be served, as a last course, a small unadorned peach on a plate along with a knife and fork. It's up to you how to attack it; but one thing is sure -- you don't pick it up in your hand and bite into it.

In Lisbon, when you end a good meal at your hotel, your properly attired waiter, with a white towel over one arm, will stand at tableside and quickly peel a large perfect peach, turning it deftly with one hand while he manipulates a sharp knife in the other. He then halves it, removes the pit, and lays it on your serving plate, along with a knife and fork, for you to eat slowly and savor , slice by slice.

More and more people are turning nowadays to fresh fruit for dessert, for any number of reasons, and the challenge can be met in two ways -- grab an apple out of the fridge and chomp away, or wash and polish it and core and cut it into equal slices.

This can also be done with a handy gadget. Serve the slices attractively on a pretty dish, and add a side of crunchy peanut butter to spread on each slice with the knife and fork provided. Why not be posh about it? Or core the apple, thinly slice it crosswise into rounds, and make sandwiches with slices of Cheddar cheese.

Fresh pears with cream cheese are a classic team for dessert. Wash and dry them. Peel if you must, but most Americans don't seem to have the inclination to discard fruit skins as much as people in other countries.

An exchange student who stayed one school year with us peeled each grape before it went into his mouth. This was the accepted way in Japan, and he though us rather primitive to eat them unpeeled. Anyway, when slicing pears, remove the seeded center with a melon baller or a small-size round measuring spoon. Slice lengthwise and arrange on a small plate with softened cheese.

In Jamaica, morning bananas (we also ate afternoon bananas, baked bananas, fried bananas, and banana bread) are served in this manner. The top of the banana is snipped off, about 1/4 inch. The peel is slit to the bottom, but not off, in 5 or 6 equal sections. The fruit is then placed on a plate resting on a full-length peel. The rest of the peelings are folded back against themselves and tucked to the body of the fruit in graceful loops. It is then cut into small pieces and eaten with knife and fork.

We are maybe used to half a grapefruit on a plate with, at best, a speck of red jelly in the center, but how about trying this way? Remove sections from the shell, cut away the membranes, cut it in bite-size pieces, and pile it back into the shell with canned pineapple cubes and juice and a few thin red apple slices.

Using navel oranges, slit the skin evenly around from top to bottom (but not quite) with the tip of a sharp paring knife. Pull back the sectioned peel and tuck it in against itself to the orange body. Gently pull apart sections of orange almost to the bottom, leaving enough contact to keep the fruit in its original shape. Serve with slices of fresh coconut.

Slice fresh pineapple from top to bottom in 4 equal sections. Remove core. Section remaining meat in bite-size pieces about half an inch from the outside. Serve each long portion on a plate with an assisting fork and a side of sour cream if you wish.

Any number of imaginative fresh fruit compotes may be served using any combination of the following: Grapefruit sections, pink and white Orange sections Thinly sliced apples with red skin Pineapple cubes Banana chunks Green and red grapes; remove seeds if necessary

If not enough juice results from your peeling and sectioning, cover with apple or orange juice.

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