A century ago, in many parts of the country, one single orange constituted a cherished Christmas present. Nowadays, most of us can pick from a rainbow of citrus whenever we like.
Citrus season outlasts the holidays by about two months. But there are many moods and phases to this rollout, thanks to the thousands of citrus varieties growing within our borders. For some types of citrus, like the oroblanco, the season is early, short and worth catching for citrus nerds like me.
A cross between a white grapefruit and a pomelo, the oroblanco’s name is Spanish for “white gold,” and its flesh is all sweet and no bitter. Like a pomelo, it loses a lot of size when you peel it, thanks to a thick, spongy white membrane beneath the rind that cushions the flesh.
Oroblancos would be just another one of many niche citrus varieties to explore this season, if it were not for a special characteristic that only the astute connoisseur of citrus may notice. The bitter membrane that surrounds the fruit’s juicy vesicles can be removed effortlessly, without breaking or cutting any vesicles or spilling any juice. This quality makes the oroblanco especially prized by makers of the Vietnamese salad goi buoi, according to Andrea Nguyen, the cookbook author and authority on Vietnamese cuisine.
Nguyen recently posted a recipe to her blog that resonates with the buzz her family creates during oroblanco season in California. It’s a salad of cabbage, carrot, shrimp and chicken tossed with individual oroblanco vesicles, and it looked fascinating. I have a weakness for citrusy, seafoody salads, and this recipe was still in my bellybrain the next day at my small town Montana grocery store, where I noticed “Oro Blanco Grapefruit” for sale. The oroblanco technically isn’t a grapefruit any more than a donkey is a horse, nor is it broken into two words, but I took one home and peeled it. The membranes came right off, and the vesicles spilled out like packing peanuts.
Those vesicles stuck to the leaves and proteins of the salad like they had static cling, yet remained rather invisible. Whatever I bit into seemed mysteriously cloaked in juice.
The entire recipe for oroblanco salad can be found on Nguyen’s blog at vietworldkitchen.com. Just search for “goi buoi.” It links to a slightly different version that employs the relatively abundant pomelo, which are a tad harder to de-membrane into naked sections, but still far easier than most citrus. The vesicles of oranges cling tenaciously to their bitter membranes, and cutting those vesicles, Nguyen told me, would release too much juice.
Nguyen recommends local shrimp, which depend on healthy marine ecosystems and aren’t associated with environmental or human rights abuses. And she likes her shrimp as intact and well-preserved as possible: “For best flavor and sustainability, purchase domestic, shell-on shrimp to peel and devein yourself. It takes a few minutes of extra work but you’ll get great shrimpy goodness in the salad. Pre-peeled or EZ-peel shrimp can often taste flabby.” Gulf shrimp are her favorite.
The salad can absorb other vegetables like spinach, cucumber and bell pepper. Vegetarians can substitute tofu for the shrimp without issue, but without the fish sauce the flavor would lose a step. But this time of year, as long as the citrus stays, everything else is negotiable.
Ari LeVaux lives in Montana and New Mexico and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @arilevaux.
Oroblanco Grapefruit Salad
For the salad:
• 1 pound domestic shrimp, peeled and deveined
• Two oroblanco, pomelo or grapefruit, peeled de-membraned but left in as large chunks as possible
• Two medium carrots, shredded
• 1/2 pound cabbage, shredded
• Fresh cilantro and mint, chopped
• 1/2 cup coconut flakes
• 1/4 cup crushed peanuts
• Optional garnish: fried shallots from a can, or the recipe from vietworldkitchen.com
For the sauce:
• 4 tablespoons fish sauce
• 4 tablespoons lime juice
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• Fresh hot red chili to taste, minced
• 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
• 1 squirt sriracha or similar garlic chili sauce
Cook the shrimp in salted water. Leave them whole or cut into large chunks. Toss with the herbs and veggies.
Combine the sauce ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Dress the salad and toss, adding salt to taste. Finally, toss in the grapefruit or pomelo chunks, sprinkle with chopped peanuts and coconut and serve.