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The art of cutting fruit into sections

The Baltimore Sun

Sectioning a grapefruit can be a humbling task, reminding you of your shortcomings. Who needs that? But if you slog through it, as I did recently, there are rewards.

"Sectioning," removing the skin, pith and membranes, is a procedure that sounds like it should be performed by a surgeon with a scalpel, not a guy with a chef's knife standing over a cutting board. But there I was one recent afternoon with the knife, the grapefruit and the cutting board. I was also encircled by bottles of raspberry vinegar, champagne vinegar, a jar of raspberry preserves, some torn lettuce leaves and a stack of julienne zucchini.

The scene was too pastel for my comfort. The raspberry vinegar and raspberry preserves, along with the pink flesh of the grapefruit, made me feel like I had barged in on a lady's luncheon. But slicing the grapefruit kept me going.

I have a lifelong fondness for grapefruit, even though it often behaves like a demanding houseguest, requiring more effort from me than I feel it should.

As a kid, I battled grapefruit halves. At breakfast, my mother would place them before my brothers and me, and it was up to us to free the fruit's flesh. We were not familiar with grapefruit knives, those ingenious, serrated pieces of cutlery that easily slice out spoon-size portions of the fruit.

Instead, once we were "of age" -- somewhere around 10 years old, the same milestone that marked when we were allowed to carry a pocketknife -- my brothers and I would be permitted to use a paring knife for grapefruit dissection. There was, however, only one paring knife and four kids. Using a butter knife was a possibility but, like so much of family life, grapefruit slicing was a competitive undertaking. The dull butter knife yielded sloppy results.

Anyone who had successfully carved all the sections of grapefruit from his half lorded his mastery over the lesser slicers. We heaped sugar atop the sculpted halves. This was the 1950s, when sugar was regarded as an appetite enhancer, not an enemy of good nutrition. My mother even put sugar in her homemade salad dressing in the hope of getting us to eat something green.

I can't recall if I ever instructed my two sons, now grown and gone, in the grapefruit arts. Once your kids leave your house, you begin to see holes in their upbringing.

I do recall that during my sons' formative years, boxes of grapefruit regularly took up residence in our kitchen. In the winter, schools in the Baltimore area sell cases of grapefruit and other Florida citrus to raise money. My days of hauling boxes of fruit from school are over. But now I encourage parents of young children to ask what commodities a prospective school pushes during its fundraising drive. The candy and the cookies are, in my experience, not that good. But the citrus is top-drawer.

Despite my years as a strong supporter of citrus-based education, I failed to master the art of sectioning a grapefruit. I needed this skill to produce a grapefruit salad, a dish I found the other day while poking through cookbooks.

First, I tried attacking the grapefruit as if it were an orange, removing the peel and pith with my fingers. I got into trouble when I tried to slice away the membranes with a sharp knife. I ended up with unappealing bits and pieces. Then I found a step-by-step technique on a Web site (heb.com/mealtime/CT-sectionGrapefruit.jsp). Following these instructions, I sliced off both ends of the grapefruit and cut away the peel and white pulp. This left me with a pink sphere about the size of a softball. Its flesh was divided by white lines, which were the exposed ends of the membranes.

I turned this ball on its side and used the knife to cut along each of these white lines, pushing the knife toward the center of the ball. Once the knife got to the middle of the fruit, I turned the blade sideways, and presto! out came a section of naked grapefruit.

The grapefruit sections were the centerpiece in a salad composed of romaine lettuce and julienne zucchini and topped with a raspberry-flavored dressing. I found the recipe in Cooking With the New American Chefs, by Ellen Brown. That book was published in 1985. A lot has changed since then, including my tolerance for sweetness. The older I get, the more I lean toward tart salad dressings.

So I tinkered with this recipe, cutting back on the amount of honey and raspberry preserves it called for. I also increased the number of grapefruit pieces it required. I was, after all, on a sectioning roll.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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