…So says the annoyingly catchy jingle of Rita’s Water Ice. With their red and white awnings, cute cups and an ever-changing list of ices and creamy custards, who could resist? Apparently not this girl; I worked there one sweet summer when I turned 17. When I first landed the gig, I assumed that two weeks of slush-slinging and custard-twirling (and taste-testing!) would render me devoid of any sweet tooth at all. I’m more of a salty kind of girl to begin with. Oh, how the tables turned. I couldn’t get enough. In between customers, I’d make myself mini gelatis in tasting cups or sample new batches of ice the second they hit the freezers. Of course I had my favorites, and those usually involved the ices that boasted real fruit. What a novel idea–real fruit! And I know this to be true because I often chopped up the strawberries and bananas myself or scooped lemon or watermelon seeds out of the finished product. I loved the lemon, watermelon, banana and peach. I would eat chocolate in any form, so that was a winner, too. Vanilla was deceptively delicious and mango and raspberry were on my list even if I wasn’t smashing real fruit for their mix. When the Rita’s flavor master came out with cream ices, namely, mint chocolate chip and cookies and cream, I became addicted, now both a dealer and a user.
The work itself wasn’t bad once you got the hang of it. You wouldn’t think it, but mastering the signature Rita’s ice dome and swirled custard cones takes some practice. But once you learn these important life skills, you are set. I mean who knows when you will be eating at a hotel buffet with self-serve soft-serve and the whole dining room will need your assistance? (Yes, these things actually happen). There was never a dull moment, either, since you are reminded by alarm every 20 minutes to pump the ice tubs, a task vital to keeping an even, slushy consistency. As I quickly learned, if you can plunge a toilet, you can pump water ice. Ahh, those were the days.
I worked at Rita’s long before they had the brainy idea to remain open all year round which forced me to go cold turkey at the end of that summer. It kicked my habit pretty quickly at the time but every now and then I still get a craving for water ice. I could use one now, in fact, as I’m hanging out my window hoping to catch a rare breeze between buildings in this stifling heat. Rita’s franchises seem to be few and far between here in NYC. And I blame that all on the children! Yes, those pesky sugar mongers whose demands over the years have spawned cringe inducing flavors like birthday cake, Swedish Fish, and cotton candy. The horror. I say, cut the sugar, keep the fruit! Until Rita’s or some other brave soul ponies up some adult flavors in town, I guess I’ll have to make my own.
Enter, granita, the DIY of water ice. Granitas are really great, actually, and quite simple to make. It’s the time factor that usually keeps me away. You can’t just fling the mix in the freezer, parade around for a few hours and return to find the perfect water ice. Remember that whole plunging technique I told you about? The same idea applies here. Unless you want a solid block of ice or one of those store-bought ice-on-the top, syrup-on-the-bottom excuses for the real thing, you’re going to need to give it some attention. Three to four hours of attention to be exact. It might not be something you can have on hand all the time, but next time you have movie night or laundry day, make some granita and thank me later.
This recipe was based on one I found, again, in Food & Wine. However, I cut back on the sugar and added some mint to make it wonderfully refreshing. So steer clear of the sugar and peer pressure this summer and “Be cool, eat gra-ni-ta,” instead.
Watermelon Mint Granita
1 baby watermelon, cut from the rind and cubed
(this yields about 11/2-2 lbs of actual fruit)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
juice and zest of 1 lime
1/4 cup chopped mint plus whole leaves for garnish
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, to create simple syrup. Remove from heat and let cool. Add half of the watermelon cubes to a blender with cooled simple syrup, lime juice and zest and pulse until smooth. Add the remaining watermelon and mint and blend until smooth.
Place a sieve over a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Pour the granita mixture through sieve, pushing down on the pulp with a spoon until all the watermelon passes through. Place dish in the freezer, stirring and scrapping mixture every 30 minutes until all the liquid has frozen and you end up with a nice slush. This will take about 3 hours and will keep for about 2 days, if it lasts that long.
Always blend with a fork before serving and garnish with mint leaves….
or add a little chilled vodka for a frozen martini on a hot summer night.