agua frescas

Beat the heat this summer with aguas frescas, all-natural drinks flavored with fruits, vegetables, flowers, seeds and starches. A simple and traditional favorite in Mexico and Latin America, these cooling “water refreshments” come in a variety of tastes and colors and stand up against the hot sun and hotter food from that part of the world.

Aguas frescas are simple, light drinks. Non-alcoholic and less heavy than fruit juice, they are not to be confused with the carbonated “frescos” sold by the bottle in grocery stores. True aguas frescas are never carbonated. Aguas frescas are thirst-quenchers, not sweet treats, and are often sweetened with agave syrup.

Popular flavors of aguas frescas include the cool white horchata (rice and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla), dark tamarindo (tamarind pods), bright magenta jamaica (Hibiscus flower) and pale green honeydew or cucumber-melon flavors. More unusual varieties include chilacayota (Mexican squash), cebada (barley), guanabana (soursop) and tuna (Mexican prickly pear).

Sold fresh from huge glass jars (called vitroleros) filled with ice on the counters of taquerias, farmers market booths and upscale restaurants alike, aguas frescas rotate by season but work best in the summer, when most fruits are in season and the thermometer is pushing up. The bright beverages are usually ladled into your glass, but it is easy to make your own aguas frescas at home and craft your perfect summer drink.

HORCHATA AGUA FRESCA

Ingredients:

4 cups long grain white rice

3 cinnamon sticks

¼ cup agave nectar

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, combine the rice and cinnamon sticks. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil, and then pour over rice mixture in bowl. Cover and let sit overnight.

2. In batches, purée the rice mixture (including the cinnamon sticks) with the agave nectar until smooth. Strain this mixture through a wire mesh strainer lined with three layers of cheesecloth, discarding the solids.

3. Stir in 6 cups of cold water, or until desired consistency. Add agave nectar to adjust sweetness if needed.

4. Stir well before serving over ice. Garnish with toasted chopped nuts or diced fruit. Will keep for three days in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

CUCUMBER-LIME AGUA FRESCA

Ingredients:

5 cucumbers, chopped with peels and seeds intact

½ cup fresh lime juice

1/8 cup agave syrup

½ Serrano chili, minced with seeds removed

Dash of salt

Directions:

1. In batches, purée the cucumbers in a blender with 2½ cups water and the rest of the ingredients.

2. Strain through a mesh strainer lined with three layers of cheesecloth, discarding the solids.

3. Serve over ice with a spring of mint for garnish. Keeps two days in the refrigerator. Olé!

Aguas Frescas Tips:

- For fruit-based aguas frescas, start with very ripe fruit. Slightly past its prime is okay, and feel free to throw in whatever extra fruits you have around, whether it’s a mango, pineapple or a pint of blackberries.

- If your aguas frescas turn out too sweet, just balance with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice to taste.

- Don’t forget to experiment! By adding a dollop of sorbet, diced nuts or a squeeze of lime and shot of mezcal, you can turn a simple recipe into the star of the show.

image: whitneyinchicag