Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -Mark Twain

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Beat the Heat with Aquas Frescas

The Mexican beverages known as Aguas Frescas (literally "Fresh Waters") are a magnificent complement to Mexico's cuisine. Unique and refreshing, if you have avoided them thinking they're like Kool-Aid you've really been missing out! Not only do they provide a perfect counter point to the spiciness of the food, they stand perfectly well on their own, they're oh so simple to make and they're healthy! How can you beat something that tastes so good and is healthy at the same time? bic2fs83rm

Usually featuring whatever fruits are currently in season, you may have seen them being served at gazillions of roadside stands (often right in someone's front yard!) and not known what they are. They are traditionally served from huge beehive-shaped glass or plastic containers called Vitroleros, ladled carefully into glasses or styrofoam cups for your happy consumption. The picture at top left is originally from the LA Times, and shows a server at the Vallarta Supermarket in Burbank filling a jug with tamarind juice. Doesn't that look good? Don't you wish you had some right now?

These drinks only require three essential ingredients: fruit, water and sugar. Special touches are often added by inventive individuals, such as the addition of lemon or lime, or a unique mix of fruits. But don't let the simplicity of these recipes fool you, because the flavors are rich and full and you may soon find yourself experimenting with your own combinations of ingredients!

The standard flavors, the holy trinity of aguas frescas, are tamarindo (made with tamarind), horchata (rice and cinnamon), and jamaica (hibiscus), none of which contain fruit. But you can make agua fresca from almost any juicy fruit, and with the heat wave much of the USA has been suffering through lately now is as good a time as any.

NOTE: Don't confuse aguas frescas with licuados, which use a milk base and are generally blended to order.

Following are recipes for several Aguas Frescas, starting with two of the "holy trinity":

Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus Flower Water)

Yes, that's dried hibiscus flowers, known in Mexico as jamaica (pronounced hah-MIKE-ah) and in the USA often called Hibiscus Iced Tea. You can buy the dried flowers in packages at most Mexican supermercados, and also at health food stores throughout the USA. A little on the tart side, Agua de Jamaica is usually prepared by steeping the dried flowers along with a little ginger in boiling water, straining the mixture, pressing the flowers (to squeeze all the juice out), adding sugar (and sometimes a little rum) and stirring. This recipe takes takes about two hours or so to make, counting the chilling time. It makes a half gallon.

  • 2 cups dried hibiscus flowers(2 packages)
  • 2 quarts water
  • 3/4 cup sugar (or to taste) - or equivalent amount of sugar substitute
  • 1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger, finely grated (optional)
Rinse and drain the hibiscus flowers in a colander. In medium saucepan, bring one quart of water to a boil. Stir in the jamaica flowers and ginger. Stir continuously for one minute while the mixture boils.

Remove from heat, add sugar and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Let steep for one hour. (Mixture will be deep red in color and it stains things, so use containers and glasses that won't stain.)

Strain thoroughly and pour into a pitcher. Add remaining water and stir. After an hour, when the liquid is cool, strain through a chinois or fine mesh sieve into a large pitcher. Chill thoroughly before serving. Pour into tall, ice-filled glasses and serve.

Horchata (Rice-Cinnamon Drink)

Horchata (pronounced or-CHAH-tah), which also is not a fruit drink, is served in the same way, and on the same occasions as Aguas Frescas. The blend of rice, sugar and cinnamon is a preferred drink of many Mexicans, and I must say I prefer it, too. There are several ways to make this, with some versions requiring milk, but this simple recipe is my favorite. Start this at night before you go to bed, and finish it in the morning, as the rice needs to steep for several hours. It makes about 2 1/2 quarts.

  • 2 cups long-grained white rice
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Place the rice in a large bowl with enough hot water to cover it completely (about 3 cups). Cover the bowl or seal it with plastic wrap and let stand, at room temperature, for six to eight hours, or overnight. The next day, strain rice into a pitcher through a fine-meshed sieve or several layers of cheesecloth. There should be no grit or large particles in the liquid. Stir in the remaining 3 cups water, sugar and vanilla, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Serve in tall, ice-filled glasses.

Agua de Sandía (Watermelon Water)

Agua de Sandía (pronounced Sahn-DEE-yah) is a favorite with everyone, and lends itself well to the addition of other fruits. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare and another hour or so to chill. Taste the melon before you make this; if it is a very sweet one, you might not need much sugar, if any. It makes a half gallon.
  • 2 cups diced seedless watermelon, with rind removed
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)
Place one cup diced watermelon in blender, along with two cups of the water. Blend until liquified. Pour into a pitcher. Place remaining cup of watermelon in blender, along with two more cups water. Blend thoroughly and pour into pitcher. Add remaining two cups of water and sugar. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Chill thoroughly before serving. Pour into tall, ice-filled glasses and serve. NOTE: You can add half a dozen large strawberries to the blender for a variation on this recipe. It's VERY good!

Berry-Melon Agua Fresca

I got this recipe from Sunset Magazine, and it's my official favorite! Makes about 5 cups (serves 4)

  • 2 cups peeled honeydew melon, seeded and cut into chunks
  • 1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
  • 1 cup fresh raspberries
  • About 1/3 cup sugar
  • About 1/3 cup fresh lime juice

In a blender, combine fruit and 2 cups cold water. Whirl until puréed and add sugar and lime juice to taste.

Pour mixture through a strainer into a serving pitcher. Serve cold in tall, ice-filled glasses.

Some special tips:

1) Aguas frescas shouldn't have too much sugar -- they're meant to be refreshing thirst-quenchers, not sweet drinks. You want to taste the fruit, not the sweetener, so use the sweetener judiciously.

2)Depending on what kind of fruit you're using, tossing cut-up fruit (especially berries) with sugar and allowing them to sit for half an hour brings out the fruit juices, accentuates the flavors and dissolves the sugar, all at the same time.

3) Keep your eye on the produce section at your supermarket for fruits that are on sale because they are a bit past their prime (but don't buy berries that have started to mold!). These often make the best drinks because they are so full of natural sugars, and since they're going in the blender anyway who cares if they aren't pretty.

4) My favorite trick: Make two batches of your favorite agua and freeze one batch in ice cube trays to use when serving. The agua fresca cubes won't dilute the drink.

Buen provecho!

If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)