It's midsummer, the traditional "dog days," and sometimes it's just way too hot to cook. This week let's make something cool and fresh ... the delicious, healthy fruit drink called "agua fresca."
The Spanish name means "fresh water," but it's more than that, this refreshing blend of a lot of water, a kiss of sugar and a little fruit. Long a tradition at Latino restaurants, it has started turning up at trendy eateries in recent years, spreading from Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. across the nation and around the world.
I first encountered it at a couple of upscale Mexican and Yucatanese restaurants a few years ago, and got a little postgraduate education when a fellow "foodie," Californian Hoke Harden, posted this mouth-watering testmonial for the drink on our Food Lovers' Discussion Group early in the summer of 2000.
Agua fresca, Harden wrote, is "so simple it's perfect ... so amazingly simple it's hard to believe it's as good as it is, but it sure does reinforce the KISS principle. Basically, agua fresca is a Mexican tradition that's become quite the trendy California thing. ... it's a bit of fresh crushed fruit in a big pitcher of ice and water. The trick is not to make a smoothie or an ice, but to put just a bit of fruit essence in the water.
"At the burrito and tortilla joints, you're apt to find several flavors of the day: strawberry, mango, papaya, watermelon, etc. The icy brace of water with just the hint of fresh fruit is amazingly refreshing, and it is so light and clear you can gulp down gallons of it on a hot day without ever tiring of it. Okay, I'll go ahead and say it: You can drink it down like water. It's even better than iced tea - and that's from a boy from the Deep South who was bred on Luzianne."
Just about any juicy fruit such as melons or berries will make a good agua fresca. Popular bases include watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, mango, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, papaya and, in more exotic realms, tamarind or nopalitos (cactus fruit).
This simple recipe uses watermelon, my favorite for agua fresca, but feel free to mix, match or create your own.INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
2 cups (500 ml) cold water
1. Cut the watermelon into roughly 1-inch cubes (precision is not important) and remove the seeds. If you're using other fruits, prepare them accordingly, removing seeds or skins and cutting into small pieces if necessary.
2. Combine all ingredients and blend in blender or food processor until smooth.
3. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher, forcing through most of the pulp. (The pulp is tasty and adds texture to the drink, but if you must have a clear drink, use a fine strainer and don't force the solids through.) Chill and serve.
CONCENTRATION: If you like agua fresca enough that you decide to keep a pitcher in the fridge, you'll soon notice that a big pitcher takes up a lot of room. Fortunately, it's easy to make it in a concentrated form that you can mix with water when you're in the mood for a glass. Put about 4 cups of fruit in a tall, narrow pitcher, add the sugar and lime juice, and then pour in just a little water, only enough to fill the spaces around the fruit (maybe 1 cup). Buzz it with the blender and put the result in the refrigerator to chill. When you want a tall glass, pour in a little of this thick slurry, then stir in three parts water to one of fruit, and add ice cubes.
Plan to drink it soon - it seems likely that the fruit would oxidize, ferment, or otherwise deterioriate after a few days in the fridge. But I'm not sure ... I've never let it last that long.
MATCHING WINE: Wine? D'oh! But if you want an alcoholic version of agua fresca, you can add a shot of Tequila. Harden advises against it, though: "Uh-uh! Messes up both drinks. If the tequila is good enough to drink, don't mix it, drink it separately, then enjoy the agua fresca afterwards."
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Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
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