Summer in Boston is unlike any time or place I have ever before experienced. As the city’s collegiate residents are shuttled to whatever ends of the earth from which they came, there is a moment when Boston feels like a ghost town. Those of us left in the city relish the empty space and clamber about the newly spacious subway cars, happy to find the seats we could never sit in when school was in session. The city only feels empty for a moment though, and then it becomes comfortable. The swimming pools open and the Charles glistens until the sun sets. It almost feels like the sun never sets though, as the days drag on and on and the hours spent tossing Frisbees, running on the Esplanade, or meandering through the cobblestoned streets of Beacon Hill, blend from one day into the next.
All of a sudden, every square – Copley, Union, and the rest – become pop-up expanses of fresh produce. These farmers’ markets are filled with so much color and variety. The beets are huge and the sunflowers beckon the bumblebees that are just as anxious to reap the market’s bounty as the hungry shoppers. I can’t help but smile at the gnarled heirloom tomatoes, each one a different earthy hue. The uglier and more deformed the tomato, the better, I’ve been told.
Aside from the capricious rainstorms, which attack the city and drown out the humidity, if for only a moment, the summer air is thick and hot. Wearing pants is a last resort when I’ve spent too much time outdoors and forget my overflowing laundry basket of dresses, skirts, and airy tops. The heat is often unbearable, causing my joints to creak and exhaustion to take over. The only possible solution is to lie along the Esplanade, or better yet, beside a public pool or waveless beach.
There is no escaping from the sticky heat. Inside is even worse. Old apartments made with thick walls and few windows are commonplace. To pay for air conditioning is to sacrifice a social life or a week’s groceries and those astronomical bills threaten my pride. Instead, I sit in front of a lint clogged fan and wish it were winter. This is a thought I’ll regret in only a few months.
The bounty of the farmers’ market and all the time spent among urban nature is more than enough to inspire gourmets like myself to take to the kitchen and do something with all of this delicious stuff. The only problem is that doing so almost always involves turning on the oven or heating oil in a hot pan. That heat doesn’t slip right out the window, but instead joins the rest of the hot air sitting idly in the apartment. It will stay there and eventually dissipate, if only slightly, until one of those tremendous thunderstorms purifies the air again.
If there is one single dish that embodies all of those wonderful, delicious, juicy bits of summer and does away with the sweaty there-is-no-escape moments, it’s granita. Made with puréed fruit, this frozen dessert is akin to shaved ice, but without the syrups or dyes. Granita is made by spreading a thin layer of puréed fruit onto the bottom of a large dish and freezing it. Every fifteen minutes or so, you use a fork to scrape the slightly frozen mixture until it becomes a fluffy, icy, colorful mound of goodness.
Now, because I’m a sadist, I couldn’t resist using the oven for this recipe. It’s not that puréeing fresh strawberries and tossing them in the freezer was too easy for the overachiever in me, but that roasting strawberries emboldens that sweet flavor of this favorite summer fruit. The basil adds an unexpected hint of green that gives the granita a farmers’ market aroma and cuts the sweetness of the strawberries. Topped with a sugared whipped crème fraîche, this dessert comes together beautifully as a refreshing summery treat. I can’t imagine any other after-dinner indulgence that sums up summer in Boston with such freshness and simplicity.
And, that oven of yours won’t be needed for more than 15 minutes, I promise. Plus, you’ll be sticking your face in the freezer every so often. Complaints? Didn’t think so.
Ingredients (serves 3)
1 lb. fresh strawberries
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
approx. 6 fresh basil leaves
½ cup crème fraîche
Extra basil leaves for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 375o F,
2. Remove green tops from strawberries and slice each strawberry in half. Arrange on a large cookie sheet and coat with 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla.
3. Bake for 10 minutes, moving strawberries around halfway through roasting.
4. Once strawberries are done, place in a blender or food processor with 6 basil leaves and ¾ cup cold water. Blend until completely puréed. Mixture should be the consistency of chocolate syrup.
5. Pour liquid into a large flat Tupperware container or onto a rimmed baking sheet so that a thin layer is formed. Place flat in freezer.
6. After thirty minutes, use a fork to scrape the surface, in all directions, of the just-starting-to-harden liquid. Be gentle. You aren’t stirring but, rather, displacing the icy bits so the rest can freeze. Do this every 15 minutes thereafter until completely frozen.
7. Combine crème fraiche, 2 tablespoons sugar and one teaspoon vanilla in a mixing bowl and beat with a hand mixer on high for one minute, until fluffy like whipped cream.
8. Serve granita in bowls, mason jars, or short glasses and top with a dollop of whipped crème fraîche. Garnish each with one basil leaf and serve.