In Season: Grapefruit reach their peak during holiday season

12/10/2013 1:00 PM

12/10/2013 7:03 PM

This zingy fruit helps put the zest in Christmas.

“This is prime time for grapefruit,” said Bob Blakely of the California Citrus Mutual, which represents about 2,000 citrus growers throughout the state.

Grapefruit, the misnamed giant of the citrus family, reach their peak of availability during the holiday season. But most of the fresh grapefruit seen in local supermarkets now was shipped from Texas, where harvest starts in earnest in December and peaks in January and February. Most California grapefruit are harvested in late summer and fall, the shoulder season before the Texas Ruby Reds arrive in stores.

Grapefruit’s early harvest spared the 2013 crop from last week’s frost scare, when overnight temperatures dipped into the low 20s in many California citrus orchards. But next year’s crop is already on the trees – and has been there for awhile.

“Typically, the trees bloom in April and May, but you may not harvest until next summer or fall,” explained Blakely. “Grapefruit have a very long gestation period; they’ll hang 14 to 15 months on the tree (before reaching maturity).”

As for the 2013 grapefruit crop, it hit a sweet spot, Blakely said. “The quality was very good. It ate really well with good flavor and was a pretty good season overall.”

Unlike California oranges that have created a citrus belt across the southern San Joaquin Valley, most grapefruit grow in Southern California — not in the desert, but in Ventura County. Ventura accounts for 7,000 out of the 9,000 acres now planted with grapefruit, according to industry statistics. It’s a small segment of the state’s $2 billion citrus industry. By comparison, California grows more than 130,000 acres of navel oranges.

Those grapefruit trees annually produce about 5 million to 6 million boxes of fruit, or up to 240 million pounds. Overwhelmingly, most of that grapefruit will be red or pink and consumed fresh, not squeezed for juice.

“All the top (California) varieties are in the red category,” Blakely said. “They don’t even list the individual white varieties any more; they’re all lumped into ‘other.’ Some of the white varieties eat very well, but they don’t have that color consumers love.”

Red grapefruit, a hybrid discovered in the 1920s, dominate the fresh market. “We grow most major varieties in California,” Blakely said. “Some are the original white varieties such as Marsh. But the red have become very popular; Rio Red and Star Ruby in particular. They all have excellent flavor, but the color also attracts consumers.”

It’s not your imagination; grapefruit are sweeter now, too.

“Higher sugar means better flavor,” Blakely said. “That tends to be what consumers want, so those are the varieties growers want, too.”

To cooks, grapefruit’s distinctive sweet-tart flavor gives this citrus a challenging allure. What really goes with grapefruit?

Its unique taste makes grapefruit a good companion for something opposite. Tart grapefruit matches up with delicate and sweet crab meat; think grapefruit sections paired with Dungeness crab in a salad or seafood cocktail. Or try a seafood salad with a grapefruit vinaigrette; just substitute juice for all or part of the vinegar or wine in a favorite dressing recipe.

Author Nicole Routhier uses grapefruit in a wide range of savory dishes in her “Fruit Cookbook” (Workman Publishing). Her suggestions for creative cooks matching complementary flavors: In addition to pairing with crab meat and shrimp, “grapefruit is also exquisite coupled with veal, chicken and turkey, cilantro, watercress and walnut oil.”

“My mom used to make delicious veal brochettes with chunks of grapefruit on them,” Routhier wrote. “Ever since, I have really enjoyed seeking out new ways to use this usual but refreshing combination.”

Among her ideas: veal scaloppine with pink grapefruit-chardonnay sauce. Routhier also suggests grapefruit sections in shrimp-endive salad or warm on top of chicken breasts. A favorite fall salad: sliced and peeled Fuyu persimmon tossed with pink grapefruit sections and watercress (try walnut oil in the grapefruit vinaigrette).

Another salad idea: Ruby Red grapefruit, avocado and spinach with a grapefruit-spiked honey Dijon dressing.

Grapefruit is a natural refresher, which makes it wonderful in sorbets and granitas as a light dessert at the end of a heavy winter meal.

Sometimes, the classic approach to enjoying this fruit is the best. Longtime New York Times food expert Mark Bittman (“How to Cook Everything,” Macmillan) suggests this mid-century favorite: broiled grapefruit.

Preheat broiler with rack set 6 inches from heat source. Cut grapefruit in half and section. Brush cut halves with melted butter or margarine (about a teaspoon per half). Sprinkle the top of each grapefruit half with a teaspoon of white or brown sugar, shredded coconut and/or minced crystallized ginger. Place on a roasting pan and broil 5 to 10 minutes until the toppings are hot and bubbly. Serve hot.

It’s a warm dessert for a cold winter night, using a juicy seasonal fruit that’s at its best right now. How’s that for a holiday classic?

Pink grapefruit and fennel salad with crab

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

2 pink grapefruit

1 head fennel

1/4 red onion

Salt

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup torn arugula

4 ounces lump Dungeness crab meat

INSTRUCTIONS

Peel the grapefruit and cut it into sections: Using a very sharp knife, cut off the top and the bottom of the grapefruit, so it will sit flat on the cutting board. Starting where you see the pink grapefruit separate from the white pith, cut away one section of peel and pith, following the line of the fruit. This will expose the underlying fruit. Continue cutting away sections of the peel and pith until only fruit remains. When you're done, go back over the fruit, removing any traces of pith.

Working over a small bowl to catch the juice, slice the fruit into sections — make a cut between the fruit and membrane, then do the same on the other side, freeing pure fruit. Repeat until you have removed all the fruit from the membrane. Squeeze any juice from the remaining membrane into the bowl. You will need about 2 tablespoons

Quarter the fennel lengthwise and remove the triangular core at the center. Use a mandolin or a very sharp knife to slice the fennel as thin as possible, about one-eighth inch; you'll have about 3 cups, lightly packed. Do the same with the red onion; you'll have about one-half cup. Combine the fennel and red onion in a large bowl.

Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the red pepper flakes to the reserved grapefruit juice and whisk in the olive oil.

Toss the fennel with just enough of the dressing to lightly moisten it. Arrange the fennel on a platter in a low mound.

Add the arugula to the same bowl and toss to moisten it; you may need to add another teaspoon of vinaigrette. Arrange the arugula on top of the fennel.

Add the grapefruit and crabmeat to the same bowl and toss very gently to avoid breaking up the citrus or the crab. You want it barely moistened; if you need, add another teaspoon of vinaigrette. Arrange this on top of the arugula and serve immediately.

Per serving: 217 calories; 14 g fat; 18g carb.; 7 g protein; 27 g chol.; 726 mg sodium.

Halibut with grapefruit and blood orange sauce

Serves 2 to 3

INGREDIENTS

1 pound halibut steaks

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup fresh red grapefruit juice divided

½ teaspoon minced thyme

1 garlic clove minced

Salt to taste

Freshly-ground black pepper to taste

¼ cup butter - (½ stick) divided

1 teaspoon minced shallot

½ cup blood orange juice

1 tablespoon chives cut 1" pieces

INSTRUCTIONS

Rinse the halibut steaks under running water and pat them dry with paper towels. Set the fish aside.

Combine the olive oil, one-half cup grapefruit juice, thyme and garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the mixture over the fish in a shallow glass dish. Cover and let the fish marinate 15 minutes.

Put the fish in a lightly buttered baking dish. Dot the top of the fish with 1 1/2 teaspoons butter. Bake in a 400-degree oven, basting once or twice with butter and pan juices, until the fish tests done, about 15 minutes.

While the fish is cooking, prepare the sauce. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of the butter in a small saucepan until melted. Stir in the minced shallot and sweat over low heat just until tender, about 1 minute. Stir in the remaining one-half cup grapefruit juice and blood orange juice and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the juice is reduced to one-third cup, about 20 minutes. Whisk the remaining cold butter into the sauce bit by bit until the sauce thickens slightly. Stir in the salt and pepper to taste.

When the fish is done, remove it from the oven and place it on serving plates. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Spoon the grapefruit sauce over and garnish with a sprinkle of chives.

Per serving: 312 calories; 28 g protein; 12 g carb.; 27 g fat (11 g sat.); 84 mg chol.; 74 mg sodium

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