A barbecue or backyard picnic might seem to demand sodas, beer and maybe lemonade for the kids. But our vote goes with aguas frescas. They are common in many areas of Mexico. I’ve had them in Cuernavaca, Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City.
We see them here in San Antonio as well. Often, restaurants keep the drink in automated, countertop bins that swirl the drinks, but I love them best displayed in the traditional over-sized glass jars, brimming with fruit and ice, and looking absolutely refreshing as well as beautiful. The jewel-like colors are as appealing to the eye as the sweetened drinks are to our palates.
These drinks are simple to make, but I recently noticed an article by Mexican food specialist Karen Hursh Graber that made a very good point. When making the drinks, you don’t want to put all of the water you plan to use in the drink into a blender with the fruit. This will just give you a foamy mass, when what you want is a sparkling clear, colorful drink. Just put a couple of cups of water with the watermelon, for example, to liquefy the fruit. (Cantaloupe makes a good agua, too.) Then add it to the rest of the water, stir it and let the flavors blend naturally.
I like to add lime juice or sprigs of mint to a watermelon agua fresca (recipe is below). Sliced rounds of fresh lime also look beautiful against a glass jar (or glass pitcher) in a lime agua fresca, too. I also sometimes put a stick of cinnamon in a milky horchata. Take a break from syrupy sodas and give these drinks a try.
Agua de Sandia (Watermelon)
1 ½ cups diced watermelon cut off the rind (don’t worry about the seeds)
5 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
Put the diced watermelon in the blender with 2 cups of the water. Blend until the black seeds break up (about 1-2 minutes.) Let the ground seeds settle to the bottom, then pour the liquid into a pitcher, leaving the seeds in the blender to be discarded. You will not need to use a strainer. Add the rest of the water and the sweetener.
Makes about 6 servings.
From Karen Hursh Graber, www.mexconnect.com
Horchata (Almond Rice Cooler)
6 tablespoons rice
6 ounces (about 1 ¼ cups) blanched almonds
1-inch stick cinnamon
3 (2-inch) strips lime zest, ¾ inch wide
About 1 cup sugar
Pulverize the rice in a blender or spice grinder. Transfer to a medium bowl and add the almonds, cinnamon stick and lime zest. Stir in 2 ¼ cups of hot tap water, cover and let stand at least 6 hours or, preferable, overnight.
After soaking, scoop the mixture into a blender jar and blend for 3-4 minutes, until it no longer feels very gritty. Add 2 cups water, then blend for a few seconds more. Set a large sieve over a mixing bowl and line with 3 layers of dampened cheesecloth. Pour in the almond-rice mixture a little at a time, gently stirring to help the liquid pass through. When it all has been strained, gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and twist them together to trap the dregs inside. Squeeze the package firmly to expel all the remaining liquid.
Add 2 cups cold water and stir in enough sugar to sweeten the drink to your taste. If the consistency is too thick, add additional water. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Stir before pouring.
Makes about 1 ½ quarts horchata.
From “Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless
Agua Preparada de Limon Rallado (Lime Zest Cooler)
While a big jar of limeade, made with fresh-squeezed lime juice, sugar and water, makes a convincing lime agua fresca, the recipe below is a little different. It comes from a vendor who years ago sold her famous aguas frescas in an old Oaxacan market. Rick Bayless mentions Casilda, the vendor, in connection with this particularly ‘zesty’ preparation of the refreshing drink.
8 large dark-green limes (the color is important)
¾ to 1 cup sugar
Using a fine, rasp-like grater (not a citrus grater) remove the lime’s green zest (no white). Add 1 quart water, using a little of it to rinse into the bowl any zest that has clung to the grater. Let stand 1 hour. (Wrap up the fruit for another use, maybe limeade.)
Strain the zest mixture through a fine-meshed sieve, pressing firmly on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Add enough sugar to sweeten the drink to your taste, stirring until dissolved. Cover and refrigerate until serving time. Serve over ice.
Makes about 1 quart.
From “Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless