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Sweet or savory, granitas are icy summer refresher

Published: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 4:48 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Washington Post photo)
Pina Colada Granita.
Caption
(Washington Post photo)
Sweet or savory, an icy refresher you can freeze with ease. From left, Watermelon Basil Granita with Poblano Granita; Honeydew Muscat Granita with Red Grape Relish; Bread and Butter Granita.

At Minibar in D.C., an intriguing dish on the May menu bridged the gap between the meat and dessert courses. The palate cleanser, called Spring Thaw, tiptoed between sweet and savory via two icy granitas: one a loose snowball of tangy frozen buttermilk formed into superfine granules, the other frosty green hillocks made from apple juice and pureed mint, parsley and cilantro.

The former came out of a Pacojet, a costly machine that restaurant chefs use to effortlessly microshave frozen ingredients into ices, sorbets or ice creams. The latter was made the old-fashioned way: Chef Johnny Spero poured the chlorophyll-colored liquid into a shallow pan and froze it, using the tines of a fork to break up the forming crystals every half-hour or so to create a mass composed completely of tiny prickles of flavored ice.

Typically a dessert item made with sugar syrup and fresh fruit juice, the granita is a humble relative of the sorbet. Sorbets are turned in an ice cream machine, which adds air and keeps the ice crystals ultra-fine, resulting in a smooth-textured product that melts pleasingly in the mouth. A granita (granite in French) is a liquid simply frozen in a pan; the cook breaks up the crystals periodically with a fork, resulting in a fluff rather than a block. The ice has the texture and momentary feel of little glass shards landing alarmingly on the tongue, then quickly melting into refreshment.

How big the crystals are depends on the amount of sugar in the mix. Sugar inhibits crystal formation and therefore should not make up more than one-fifth of the total mass. The less sugar there is, the larger the ice crystals will be. Too much sugar, and your granita won't advance past the slush stage.

With summer's punishing heat, it is no surprise that chefs have turned to icy confections, but granitas are a standout trend.

"We like to play with temperature and texture," says Spero. "Granitas are especially fun in a savory application, because typically you expect shaved ice in a dessert. A granita adds texture that you wouldn't get from a sauce made from the same ingredients."

In the peppery tomato granita that Menu MBK chef Keith Cabot sometimes matches with sliced tomatoes, spice adds flavor contrast while ice provides chill and crunch.

And then there are oysters. Chefs love to use granitas as stand-ins for vinegary mignonettes, with sweetness and flavor notes (often lemon) complementing and balancing the raw oysters' brininess.

Plus, a pile of granita keeps oysters ice-cold and pert.

At Rose's Luxury on Capitol Hill, chef Aaron Silverman crowns the bivalves with a house-made bourbon/ginger ale/vinegar granita or a rummy Dark and Stormy granita.

At BlackSalt, tasting-menu oysters get the royal treatment with champagne, sake or yuzu granita and dollops of caviar. At Fiola, Kumamoto oysters come with limoncello granita, spoonbill caviar and chives.

That doesn't mean granitas have lost their standing as favored dessert components. At Marcel's, lemon granita is part of a meringue-and-grapefruit dessert. Kapnos has just introduced a dessert of basil cake outfitted with celery sorbet and a granita made with gin, tonic, honeydew and Cointreau.

"The granita adds temperature contrast and citrus elements to the savory aspects of the dessert," says chef-owner George Pagonis.

Alex Levin, pastry chef at Osteria Morini, makes a dessert special of vanilla panna cotta, blueberries and lemon verbena granita.

"Visually, the granita sparkles on top of the glass because of the way the ice crystals interact with the light," he says. "Its crunch balances the panna cotta's smoothness." Lemon verbena's sweet, acidic and herbal notes, he adds, are perfect foils for blueberries and vanilla.

I was long suspicious of mucking up sweet things with savory elements, but fashion, minds and palates evolve, and now I often add herbs and spices to desserts, with restraint. Armed with inspiration, I decided to whip up my own granitas.

I used poblano pepper and mint to make a granita to serve as the "rind" for a watermelon-and-basil granita, the pair served in a clear glass for full effect. Spinach helped make the poblano greener; papaya made the watermelon pinker. I garnished with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds to drive my cleverness home. Heat, herbs and melon meld in every bite.

A few things to know: Use shallow containers for freezing granitas; plastic food containers with lids work well. If the liquid is much more than an inch deep, it will take forever to set. Flavor and sweetness dissipate a little in the freezing process, so don't worry if you think the base is too bold: That's just what you want, in fact.

Also, the blender, especially a high-powered model like a Vitamix, is your friend. You can skip making sugar syrup on the stove by simply whirring all of the ingredients on high speed, letting the motor do the dissolving.

Straining the solids from your base results in a clearer granita with larger crystals, but fruits with fine fiber, like melons, don't have to be strained. My honeydew muscat granita proved the point; I preferred the unstrained batch's texture.

I've always loved the perfume of muscat grapes, so it was only natural to use a muscat dessert wine, with its melon notes, for a honeydew granita. A relish of red grapes and mint contributed color and flavor contrast and a hint of herbaceousness.

In my granita remake of the pina colada, jalapeno pepper and fresh thyme eliminated the cloying quality that the beloved summertime cocktail sometimes has.

A batch of bread-and-butter pickles I made for a dinner party induced me to get into the granita-on-oysters game. I used the strained brine, infused with aromatic spices, herbs and chili peppers, as a granita base. The imbalance of sugar, vinegar and water meant it didn't freeze beyond slush. With adjustments — more water, less sugar — I achieved the icy texture I sought.

A couple of dozen oysters later, with some pina colada granita tastings thrown in here and there, it was clear that despite the weather gods' efforts, my summer was going to be absolutely chill.

//Recipes//
Special to The Washington Post.

Watermelon Basil Granita With Poblano Granita

8 servings

(makes 4 cups watermelon granita, 2 cups poblano granita)

This duo makes a beautiful presentation, with zesty, vibrant green poblano granita standing in visually as the "rind" of the watermelon granita placed atop it.

A jigger of tequila poured on top transforms the granitas into a refreshing, slushy cocktail.

Plastic food storage containers with lids work well for freezing granitas; you can also use nonreactive metal containers such as shallow baking pans. Choose the correct size; you don't want the liquid to be more than 1 inch deep, or the granita will take much longer to freeze.

MAKE AHEAD: Granita is at its best the day you make it, but it can be made up to a week in advance. The two granitas here each need at least 3 hours' freezing time. Fluff/scrape with a fork before serving.

From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

Ingredients

For the poblano granita

1 large poblano chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons sugar

8 fresh mint leaves

1 cup packed spinach leaves

For the watermelon granita

1 pound seedless watermelon flesh, cut into 1-inch cubes (3 cups)

5 ounces ripe papaya flesh, cut into 1-inch cubes (1 cup)

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

5 tablespoons sugar

4 large fresh basil leaves

Pinch kosher salt

Black sesame seeds or chocolate wafers broken to resemble watermelon seeds, for garnish (optional)

Steps

For the poblano granita: Combine the poblano, sugar, mint and spinach in a blender on high speed for 1 minute, then use a spatula or the back of a spoon to push the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, letting the liquid fall into a plastic container or shallow, nonreactive metal pan; discard the solids. Cover and freeze for about 1 hour, until the mixture is slushy around the edges. Stir with a fork, then return to the freezer and repeat the stirring every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours or so to create texture/crystals.

For the watermelon granita: Combine the watermelon, papaya, lime juice, sugar, basil and salt in a blender on high speed for 1 minute. Pour into a shallow container; straining is not necessary. Cover and freeze for about 1 hour, until slushy around the edges. Stir with a fork, then return to the freezer and repeat the stirring every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours or so to create texture/crystals.

To serve, fluff/scrape each granita with the tines of a fork. Scoop 1/4 cup of the poblano granita into the bottom of each cocktail (martini) glass; use the back of a spoon to press the green granita into the bottom and sides of the glass, leaving a well in the center. Pile 1/2 cup of the watermelon granita into the well. Sprinkle with seeds or cookie bits, if using. Serve right away.

Nutrition Per serving: 80 calories, 0 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 35 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 18 g sugar

---

Honeydew Muscat Granita With Red Grape Relish

8 servings (makes 5 cups)

Muscat dessert wine captures the perfumy, summery essence of muscat grapes. The honeydew brings out the wine's melon notes.

Plastic food storage containers with lids work well for freezing granitas; you can also use nonreactive metal containers such as shallow baking pans. Choose the correct size: You don't want the liquid to be more than 1 inch deep, or the granita will take much longer to freeze.

MAKE AHEAD: Granita is best served when it is ready, but it can be made up to a week in advance and fluffed/scraped with a fork before serving. The relish needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day in advance. The granita needs at least 3 hours' freezing time. Fluff/scrape with a fork before serving.

From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

Ingredients

For the granita

1 1/2 pounds (from 1 medium honeydew) honeydew flesh, cut into 2-inch pieces (may substitute cantaloupe)

1 cup muscat dessert wine, such as Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise

4 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon dried culinary lavender

For the relish

6 ounces red seedless grapes, each one cut in half (about 1 1/4 cups)

1/4 cup muscat dessert wine, such as Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise

3 large mint leaves, stacked, rolled and cut into thin ribbons (optional)

Steps

For the granita: Combine the honeydew, wine, sugar and lavender in a blender; puree until smooth. Pour into a shallow container; straining is not necessary. Cover and freeze for about 1 hour, until slushy around the edges. Stir with a fork, then return to the freezer and repeat the stirring every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours or so to create texture/crystals.

Meanwhile, make the relish: Combine the grapes, wine and mint, if using, in a medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Divide the granita among cocktail (martini) glasses. Top each serving with 2 tablespoons of the relish. Serve right away.

Nutrition Per serving: 100 calories, 0 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar

---

Pina Colada Granita

6 servings (makes 4 cups)

This granita is a pleasing, bright yellow color. Its bit of jalapeno lends a nice note of spiciness. The addition of dark rum turns the ice into a slushy summertime cocktail.

Plastic food storage containers with lids work well for freezing granitas, but you can also use nonreactive metal containers such as shallow baking pans. Choose the correct size; you don't want the liquid to be more than 1 inch deep or the granita will take much longer to freeze.

MAKE AHEAD: Granita is best served when it is ready, but it can be made up to a week in advance and fluffed/scraped with a fork before serving. The granita needs at least 3 hours' freezing time. Fluff/scrape with a fork before serving.

From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds fresh pineapple flesh (from 1 medium cored pineapple), cut into 2-inch chunks

1 cup cream of coconut

1/2 cup coconut water

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon rum extract

1/2 teaspoon coconut extract

1/2 medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and sliced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

6 ounces Myers's rum (optional)

6 pineapple leaves, for garnish (optional)

6 maraschino cherries, for garnish (optional)

Steps

Combine the pineapple, cream of coconut, coconut water, lime juice, rum extract, coconut extract, jalapeno and thyme in a blender; puree on high speed for 1 minute.

Strain the liquid into a shallow container through a fine-mesh strainer or chinois, using the back of a spoon to press out all of the liquid. Discard the solids. Cover and freeze for about 1 hour, until the mixture is slushy around the edges. Stir with a fork, then return to the freezer and repeat the stirring every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours or so to create texture/crystals.

To serve, pour an ounce of rum, if using, into each cocktail (martini) glass. Fluff the granita with the tines of a fork, then scoop it into the glasses. Garnish each serving with a pineapple leaf and a maraschino cherry, if using. Serve right away.

Nutrition Per serving: 160 calories, 2 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar

---

Bread and Butter Granita

8 servings (makes about 2 cups)

This savory granita is made from a brine for bread-and-butter pickles. Its vinegar and spice are perfect foils for a mignonette-like topping for oysters on the half shell or sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil.

Plastic food storage containers with lids work well for freezing granitas; you can also use nonreactive metal containers such as shallow baking pans. Choose the correct size: You don't want the liquid to be more than 1 inch deep, or the granita will take much longer to freeze.

MAKE AHEAD: Granita is at its best the day you make it, but it can be made up to a week in advance. This needs at least 3 hours' freezing time. Fluff/scrape with a fork before serving.

From food writer and former chef and David Hagedorn.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar

6 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon mustard seed

1 tablespoon celery seed

1 dried bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 red onion, coarsely chopped

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Steps

Combine the vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, celery seed, bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, red onion and salt in a blender; puree on high speed for 1 minute.

Strain the liquid into a shallow container through a fine-mesh strainer or chinois, using the back of a spoon to press all of the liquid out. Discard the solids. Cover and freeze for about 1 hour, until slushy around the edges. Stir with a fork, then return to the freezer and repeat the stirring every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours or so to create texture/crystals.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

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