15 November 2010

Free for the taking

There's much to be said about metropolises like Chicago, New York, and Seattle, but if Los Angeles has anything on them, it's the bounty of free-range fruit.

Foraging is second-nature for many, and isn't limited to food—we have dozens of tools in our garage, from ratchets to a whole hammer, that Mike has picked up from the gutter while riding his bike. Many of us may have fond memories from childhood: from blueberries in Alaska to blackberries in Oregon, rhubarb in Michigan to crabapples in New England. While urban foraging is becoming more popular all over the country, I've never seen a bounty like L.A.'s.

If this is starting to sound like an ill-fated expedition to the dumpsters behind the local grocery store, fear not! Countless houses have yards bursting with heavily laden, often un-harvested fruit trees—the lucky ones hang over sidewalks or alley walls for easy, legal, and no-permission-needed picking. (Please note that laws may differ outside of California.) Herbs and fruit trees are used as ornamental plants; kale is sold at garden shops between the azaleas and the snapdragons.

While one must always be concerned with contaminated water, ground pollutants from traffic and animals, and pesticides used by zealous landscapers, there's a steady supply of interesting foods, particularly fruit, throughout the year.

Imagine my excitement, the first winter that I lived in my current home, when I went on a walk and discovered that the attractive, broad-leafed trees lining the blocks around my house were heavily laden with pale orange, fuzzy fruit—loquats! Without stepping off of public property, a stroll around my neighborhood reveals pomelos, lemons, tangerines and oranges ripening before my eyes. My eyes dart from one tree to the next as I look for a reliable source of kumquats this winter, and this summer I spied a few days too late an apricot tree that dropped nearly all of its fruit uneaten.

In the very alley where we drive to park our car, a gnarled old pomegranate tree is beginning to drop its fruit. The fruit is baseball-sized and beginning to split on the tree, revealing deep garnet seeds (or arils, botanically speaking).

pomegranite granita

I couldn't let them go to waste. Lacking a sturdy ladder at the moment, we steered our car below its boughs. After a spry leap to the roof of the car, Mike stretched and contorted and gathered up nearly a dozen big beauties. There was a moment of excitement when one fine specimen slipped and exploded onto the windshield, but no permanent damage was done, and the car needed a rinse anyway.

I made a horrible mess of my kitchen extracting the arils before I read the suggestions from the can't-be-improved Chez Panisse Fruit: Alice Waters recommends filling a large bowl with water (I'd do it in the sink, just to be safe), and plunging the pomegranate pieces into the water before expelling the seeds. Any bits of membrane will float and the seeds will sink; the membrane and peel are very bitter and tannic, and this method makes them easy to remove. I seeded mine directly into the blender, and my kitchen looked like a murder scene; I ended up with pomegranate juice in my eyes, on the backsplash, and on my white carpet (it did come up, wonder of wonders).

pomegranate carnage

But what to do with 8 cups of pomegranate arils? Certainly, pomegranate has its place in salads, and it can't do wrong as a marinade or sauce for roast lamb, but I wanted something simple, something pure, something I could make in my pajamas on a Sunday afternoon.

"What about a granita?"

Mike to the rescue again. He may not care deeply for food, but when it comes to a frozen fruit dessert, he will always be first in line.


I wanted to make a white chocolate mousse to nestle under this, but someone ate the last of my white chocolate ... perhaps next time. Lightly sweetened whipped cream provided an adequate foil for the highly acidic, slightly bitter fruit.

Pomegranate Granita
This would probably also be delicious with ½ cup of the pomegranate replaced with lime juice.

My apologies for an unwieldy recipe.

2 ½ cups pomegranate juice (if making fresh, from about 10 medium pomegranates—see below)
¾ cup water (or diluted juice—see below)
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons good-tasting vodka

To extract the pomegranate juice, score the fruit and seed them as instructed above; it will take 7-8 cups of pomegranate arils to make the juice. Place the arils, as much membrane as possible removed, in a blender or food processor. Pulse several times, until the volume reduces by about half and the mixture is mostly liquefied (brief pulses will extract the juice without pulverizing the seeds). Strain through a sieve or fine strainer, pressing gently to remove extra juice. Measure out 2 ½ cups juice and pour into an 8-inch square glass baking dish; reserve any additional juice for another use.

Place the water or diluted juice in a small pan with the sugar. (Use diluted juice to get every last drop out of your fruit: take the drained pomegranate seeds and transfer to a bowl or back to the blender. Pour about 1 C water over and stir briefly to combine; strain again and use the diluted juice in place of water.)

Place the water and sugar over medium high heat and cook, stirring regularly, just until the sugar is dissolved; do not let boil.

Gently stir the syrup into the juice and add the vodka. Cover the dish with foil and transfer carefully to the freezer.

Freeze, breaking up the crystals with a fork every hour or so, until the mixture is frozen throughout, 6-8 hours.

Serve with sweetened whipped cream if desired.

Makes a very scant quart (about 3 ½ cups)

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