Ultimate Tropical Salad

Anyone from south Florida will tell you we grew up on salads.  As kids coming up in hot, steamy weather, the green dinner salad was our vegetable many a night.  In our house we never had the luxury of a refrigerator door lined with a rainbow of bottled salad dressings.  There was no French dressing or green goddess.  You would NEVER find Russian dressing or poppy-seed.  I don’t know how old I was when I first discovered blue cheese dressing.  And I don’t think I’ve ever had Catalina.  What’s that?!  No.  The Wattley’s had one (1) kind of dressing…Wish Bone Italian and, boy, did we love it.  It had spices; it had flavor and in a house which was a culinary vacuum that meant everything.  Growing up my parents were pretty social.  They attended social function after social function during “the season” and when things slowed down after Easter there were parties every weekend.  My siblings and I loved the weekends because that was the only time Mama did not attempt to cook.  What a treat!  None of Mama’s burned vegetables she tried to pass off as food.  We looked forward to the same menu.  One night would be tuna salad and a tossed salad drenched in Italian dressing and the other night would be, get ready, boxed frozen pizza and the same iceberg lettuce salad swimming in the same Italian dressing.  Food of the gods.  We were in heaven and, for once, not hungry.  I remember one evening in particular when Mama and Daddy were going out.  It was a black tie affair…take your pick as I don’t recall where they were going.  I was in charge of dinner.  The pizza was in the oven, about to come out, and I was preparing the salad.  My older sister, Cynthia, must have been about 15, not allowed to date yet, and I was maybe 13, two years behind her.  Mama had had her hair done that day.  It was all sprayed and lacquered up in place as this was the late ’60’s and big hair was in.  Makeup done, she was completely dressed and was putting on the finishing touches, her jewelry.  Coming into the kitchen. she fastened her earring, twirled around and, with a smile on here face, asked me, “Cielo, how do I look?”  She knew she looked good.  No, she looked like a million bucks and that’s about what she paid for her dress.  I remember it was hideously expensive and one of the most gorgeous dresses I had ever laid my eyes on.  It had been purchased and fitted at Sophie Curzon’s on Las Olas.  I don’t recall who designed the dress but I DO recall the emerald-green silk satin shimmering and throwing off light.  A form-fitting sheath, navy silk satin trimmed the neckline and sleeves.  Three small navy bows formed a perfect vertical column down one side of her front.  Her waist was miniscule; her tiny feet encased in  navy silk peau de soie stiletto heels, she was perfection.  I was about to finish preparing the salad for us kiddies.  Bottled dressing in hand, I spun around and gasped.  Mama was beyond a star.  She was…I don’t know…the epitome of glamour and beauty.  And in the split second that I took it all in, the lid on the dressing bottle I was shaking flew off  and Mama’s haute couture gown was covered with Wishbone Italian salad dressing.  I burst into tears.  Between sobs I repeated, “I’m sorry, Mama! Oh, Mama! I’m so sorry!”  And do you know what she did?  She wiped away my tears and said, “Oh, Cielo!  It doesn’t matter!  It’s just a dress.”  Right now I can’t even.  She went back into her closet, changed and off my parents went.  She had never even worn the dress.  First time!  She never made me feel badly.  Never made a big deal of it.  And, unfortunately for her, never again had a such sophisticated and lavish outfit like that, either.  Somebody had used the salad dressing and hadn’t bothered to tighten the lid.  Mama didn’t even cast blame on them.  That’s how she was.  She simply moved on.  My siblings and I marvel at the example she continually set.  What a marvelous human being!  Her cooking…not so much.  She never tripped the light fantastic in the kitchen, her cooking, possibly the worst ever, but she will always be remembered with dignity, respect and honor.  I love you, Cookie!

This is a juicy, gorgeous salad to serve as a side or as an entrée topped with grilled shrimp or a filet of grilled fish.  Yum.  It takes a little time to assemble but there’s no cooking involved so that’s something, right?  The following recipe makes a good amount of dressing, a little less than 2 1/2 cups.  However, it lasts a week and a half in the refrigerator, perhaps more but mine has always been consumed by that time.  The longer it sits chilling, the more it will thicken.  When needed, I thin this dressing out with a couple of splashes of unsweetened almond milk and then it’s back to perfect.  Not much cheese is called for in this salad as too much will overwhelm the delicate flavors of the avocado, grapefruit and papaya, but feel free to use any of the cheeses mentioned below.  I buy whole coconuts at the grocery store, crack and toast them at home but you can buy bags of plain, toasted coconut in the produce section of the store if you’re so inclined or if you, like my high school friend, Val, live in a place like Maine where the temperature is jumping back and forth from 0° to 1°.  Come home, girl!  By the way, if you make your own toasted coconut “ribbons”, (baked at 350° until partially golden), they are wonderful served to guests alongside cocktails and are quickly gobbled up.  Sprinkle a little sea salt over them before popping in the oven and you’ve got yourself an appetizer.  Needless to say, all the fruits and vegetables must be ripe in order for this salad to shine.

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 1 large head romaine lettuce, washed, dried and cut into bite size pieces
  • 1/2 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 ruby-red grapefruit, cut in half and sectioned
  • 1 Haas avocado, cut into cubes
  • toasted, unsweetened coconut
  • 1 ripe carambola, optional, sliced
  • 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese, feta cheese, goat cheese or shredded parmesan cheese
  • papaya dressing, recipe below
  1. Place lettuce in a large bowl, preferably the bowl you’ll be serving the salad in.
  2. Add tomatoes, scallions and grapefruit and lightly toss.
  3. Add avocado, coconut, carambola and cheese.
  4. Drizzle some dressing over the salad and lightly toss.  Add more dressing if needed, I always need more, gently toss and serve immediately.


Papaya Dressing

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 2 cups fresh papaya, peeled and cubed
  • 1/2 cup fresh papaya seeds, or more if you like
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  1. In a blender or magic bullet, place papaya and seeds and blend until smooth.  You’ll still see tiny black specks of the seeds.  It’s okay, that’s what you want.
  2. Add the vinegar, honey, ginger, mustard and blend until smooth.
  3. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper.
  4. Add canola oil and blend.
  5. Chill prior to serving.




  1. Lisa Gibson

    Love this Alicia and the dressing at our house was also only Wishbone Italian!! Ha- Did they even make any other dressing?? Oh your poor mom in her beautiful dress- that sounds like something that might happen to me but I doubt I would be that nice about it! Your mom was an angel!! Love your stories and especially love your recipes!! I’m not sure I have ever cooked as much as you have and certainly don’t have all these fabulous recipes!! You are an amazing chef!!

    Hope you are well friend!

    XO, Lisa

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Alicia

      Thanks, girl! You have such faith in me! Might be shaken a little if you saw how I kind of burned dinner tonight😂😂😂Hope you and your darling hubby are well also💕💕💕

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