Correction: An earlier version of the article identified George Pagonis as chef-owner of Kapnos restaurant. He is chef de cuisine, and a partner.
At Minibar downtown, 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 (granité 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 the Washington area’s punishing heat and humidity descending early this year, it is no surprise that chefs have turned to icy confections as integral components of summertime dishes, 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.
In the Palisades at BlackSalt, tasting-menu oysters get the royal treatment with champagne, sake or yuzu granita and dollops of caviar. At Fiola in Penn Quarter, 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 in the West End, lemon granita is part of a meringue-and-grapefruit dessert. Kapnos, on 14th Street NW, 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 at Navy Yard, 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 piña colada, jalapeño 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 piña 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.
Hagedorn is a former chef and frequent Food section contributor. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Minibar 855 E St. NW. 202-393-0812. www.minibarbyjoseandres.com.
Menu MBK 405 8th St. NW. 202-347-7491. www.menumbk.com.
Rose’s Luxury 717 8th St. SE. 202-580-8889. rosesluxury.com.
BlackSalt 4883 MacArthur Blvd. 202-342-9101. www.blacksaltrestaurant.com.
Fiola 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-2888. www.fioladc.com.
Marcel’s 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. marcelsdc.com.
Kapnos 2201 14th St. NW. 202-234-5000. kapnosdc.com.
Osteria Morini 301 Water St. SE, Suite 109. 202-484-0660. www.osteriamorini.com/washington-dc.
More from Food: