Recently, I took on a project for a client needing recipes and photography centered around the Cajun cuisine of Louisiana. Today, I live in Colorado, but I was born and raised in Arkansas, and made many trips through New Orleans en route to our family beach vacations on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. As a child, I was spellbound by New Orleans. Growing up in the bible belt, I found the culture of New Orleans so different from my own. I sometimes felt like the black sheep of my family, with a tendency to be moody and rebellious. Sarcastic humor was (and still is) my favorite coping mechanism. I appreciated the way New Orleanians embraced both the light and the dark sides of life with their jazz funerals, magical thinking, and revelrous parades. Though they would probably be described as “characters,” I loved Louisiana because the people seemed so real – honest, straightforward, and true to themselves. Years have gone by since my childhood visits to New Orleans, and we’ve both been through a lot. While the city recovered from Hurricane Katrina, I recovered from leukemia. I like to think the ability to laugh when things couldn’t get any worse is what got each of us through.
I left the south 5 years ago, and this freelance assignment – I’m dubbing it the “Louisiana Project” – has brought back a ton of memories. Once a year I return home to Arkansas for a family visit, and it feels as though I’ve been gone a hundred years. It’s funny how time creates nostalgia for the things you used to complain about, isn’t it? I miss the oppressive heat and humidity of summer. We southerners bond over the heat, it’s a source of conversation and camaraderie. As I thought of summertime childhood memories centered around food for the Louisiana Project, watermelon was the first thing that came to mind. You’ll find it served at southern barbecues, and there’s nothing better than an ice-cold slice of crisp and juicy watermelon to quench your thirst. Watermelons can be big and awkward to store for very long, so it’s best to invite all your friends over to help you eat it. I cherish the inherent hospitality of watermelon – how it brings people together. It’s nothin’ fancy, and I like to think of watermelon as a great equalizer – an everyman’s summer treat. Watermelon is just so good and simple.
While it’s hard to come up with the energy to do more than just slice and serve watermelon, I believe this recipe for Watermelon Granita with Mint and Lime is a worthwhile endeavor. A granita is just a fancy way of saying “fruit ice.” Fruit is pureed in the blender with whatever flavorings you desire, then frozen in a shallow tray and stirred with a fork every once in a while to break up the ice. In the end, you’ve got an evenly frozen dessert that can be scraped up into fluffy ice shavings with a fork and served in a chilled bowl. Do as you like, serving it at the slushy less-frozen stage or the completely frozen ice stage. I’ve flavored this watermelon granita with a mint simple syrup, lime zest, and lime juice. You could make it your own by using basil instead of mint, or adding another juicy fruit like strawberries. Watermelon granita tastes best on a blazing hot summer day, shared with good friends and family while commiserating over the heat.
Watermelon Granita with Mint and Lime
Watermelon granita is a refreshing frozen ice that’s just the thing for the hottest days of summer. In this recipe, simple syrup infused with mint sweetens the watermelon, while lime juice adds acidity. The beauty of a granita is that no ice cream machine or popsicle making equipment is necessary. Just freeze the pureed watermelon in a shallow container, fluff the ice with a fork, and you’ve got a flavorful frozen treat fit for a crowd.
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, plus extra for garnish
- 1 lime
- 10 cups cubed seedless watermelon, from 1 miniature watermelon weighing about 7-8 pounds
Make a simple syrup by boiling the water in a small pot. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar, stirring until it’s completely dissolved. Add the mint leaves to the syrup and set the pot aside, allowing the syrup to cool completely before straining out the mint leaves. The simple syrup can be made a day in advance and stored in the fridge, or used immediately for the granita.
Grate the lime zest into a small bowl, and then juice the lime into the same bowl. Working in batches, puree the watermelon in a blender until smooth. For each batch, place watermelon cubes, a splash of the lime juice/zest mixture, and a splash of the simple syrup in the blender to evenly distribute the flavorings. Pour the watermelon puree into a 9×13-inch nonreactive, freezer safe baking dish, such as ceramic, enameled cast iron, or glass. Stir with a whisk to evenly combine the watermelon puree, and then place it in the freezer. Every 30 minutes, use a fork to stir the watermelon puree and break up the ice. Freeze until firm, 2-3 hours, and then cover the mixture. Watermelon granita can be made up to 3 days in advance. To serve, use a fork to scrape up the icy granita into fluffy flakes. Garnish with extra mint leaves.