I think of grapefruit as the cinderella of fruits. Next to its citrus stepsisters, the sweet orange and that vibrant little tart, the lemon, grapefruit comes off as rather plain, even sour. Perhaps the kindest compliment to come the grapefruit's way is that eating it helps to undo caloric damage done by richer foods. Unfortunately, this culinary penance is nothing more than a myth. The real allure of a grapefruit lies in the uniquely cleansing flavor found under its thick, dull skin.
Grapefruit, or Citrus paradisi, is a newcomer to the citrus clan, which dates back to East Asia more than 20 million years ago. Born in the Caribbean around 1750, grapefruit is the accidental offspring of the sweet orange and the pummelo. The fruit most likely got its name not for its flavor, but because it grows on trees in grape-like clusters. Between 1809 and 1823, a French count introduced grapefruit in Florida and, following a rocky period of rejection, America acquired a taste for the big, bulbous fruit. Today we annually consume an estimated 6.3 pounds per capita and grow about 2.5 million tons of grapefruit, about half of which is turned into juice.
Still, sweetness being the characteristic most sought after in a fruit, grapefruit has yet to be fully appreciated for its sharp flavor. Even the less-acidic varieties, such as Star Ruby and Rio Red, can be bitter--hence the typical dressing up of a grapefruit by sprinkling it with sugar or honey, dabbing it with butter and broiling it. "In this country, we shy away from bitterness," says chef Troy MacLarty, a teaching assistant at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, in St. Helena.
Meanwhile, scientists at UC Riverside have created--and are still improving on--what could become America's dream grapefruits, which really aren't grapefruits at all but their half-siblings. For example, the Oroblanco and Melogold, introduced to the public in the 1980s as the progeny of white grapefruit and the low-acid pummelo, have fewer seeds and are sweeter and more easily peeled than either of their parents.
These hybrids, according to Bob Polito, whose parents founded Polito Family Farms in 1968 in Valley Center, attract customers at Los Angeles-area farmers markets who don't normally like the tartness of grapefruit. But chefs around town don't need convincing. Polito's regular restaurant customers include Spago, The Little Door, and Campanile, where pastry chef Kim Sklar uses Oroblancos in sorbets and ice cream and candies the rinds the way she would orange rinds.
Still, despite all the hype over new hybrids, grapefruit has its loyalists, such as Napa Valley's chef Michael Chiarello of Tra Vigne fame, who admits that "many grapefruit are bitter and pithy, but if you look past the center aisle at more unusual varieties, it is a spectacular family." Chiarello likes to use grapefruit as a refreshing contrast in a lamb loin winter stew. Or he suggests sprinkling the fruit with unprocessed sea salt and pairing it with rich, creamy ingredients, such as Gorgonzola and avocado for a tangy spring salad. "I love it with tarragon, of course, and fennel, anise, coriander," he says. The juice and rind of sweeter varieties, he adds, can be used in place of lemon for a refreshing twist on basic dressings, such as hollandaise or mayonnaise. Or when baking, grapefruit can be used in place of lemon when the recipe calls for juice or zest, but it's important to reduce the amount of sugar used at the same time. And since grapefruit zest is not as vibrant as that of lemons, it leaves room to add flavors, such as candied fruit peel, crystallized ginger, anise, or even rosemary to a dish.
Last March, at the University of California Citrus Variety Collection Dinner honoring 865 varieties of citrus--36 of which were grapefruit--the Cinderella of citrus was far from ignored. For the dessert, MacLarty slipped grapefruit and navel orange wedges into a Citrus in Sherry Simple Syrup for the crowning note on a pine nut tart. "In the last few years, I've gotten into grapefruit. They're kind of complex," he muses. "You taste and they're not just sweet. You realize there's something else going on there."
SHRIMP WITH PINK GRAPEFRUIT
1/2 pound shrimp (fairly large), patted dry
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons bottled clam juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2/3 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon grated grapefruit zest
1 teaspoon sugar
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon
8 to 10 fresh grapefruit sections, either Ruby Red or