“This is my first contact with a grapefruit tree,” says chef MariElena Raya. “You can’t quite understand how it got its name until you see a tree in person. The fruit grows in grape-like clusters.” Though they’re scarcer in Charleston than their orange and lemon cousins, there is anecdotal evidence of mature grapefruit trees growing in the area.
Daughter of legendary chef Robert Dickson, Raya is co-owner with her husband Joe of the Tippleman’s line of bar syrups; Bittermilk cocktail mixers; and the little slip of a bar, The Gin Joint, where she supplies polished small plates to accompany Joe’s cosmopolitan cocktails. As the Rayas were already giving the fruit some love in their Bittermilk #5, Charred Grapefruit Tonic with Bulls Bay Sea Salt, MariElena seemed the perfect person to serve up culinary grapefruit creativity, while master mixologist Joe contributed a celebratory grapefruit quaff. (Find the recipe at charlestonmag.com.)
MariElena’s first dish, a parsnip and grapefruit soup, pairs the delicate sweetness of the root vegetable with the crisp bitterness of the fruit in a creamy bisque. The fresh ginger root adds just the right touch of spice to make the soup a lovely holiday starter.
In a riff on the classic duck à l’orange, MariElena marries a grapefruit-marinated duck breast with a bitter lettuce salad. (She uses a Ruby Red to stay on the sweeter side of the fruit.) The bite of the lettuces is teamed with the tart grapefruit, salty olives, toasted pine nuts, and sweet raisins to balance the fatty richness of the duck.
By making marmalade from grapefruit, Raya gives a sophisticated spin to a seasonal favorite. She adds shallots and thyme, creating a condiment for meat that is equally suitable for use as a breakfast spread. “I like to pair it with a triple-cream cheese,” she says.
MariElena recommends thicker-skinned grapefruits when cooking the peel, though those with thinner skin are easier to juice. Look for firm fruit without wrinkles or skin discolorations. And if you’re purchasing juice, the best flavor comes non-pasteurized and freshly squeezed.
Dishing It Up with Chef MariElena Raya
RESTAURANT: The Gin Joint
FIRST F&B GIG: Dishwashing and prep at Robert’s of Charleston
EDUCATION: The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York
FAVORITE LOCAL INGREDIENT: Geechie Boy Mill corn meal
RECIPE I'LL NEVER SHARE: ”Will share anything!”