July 14, 2008

The Essence of Cool


Aguas frescas can take the heat out of the season

LOS ANGELES -- On counters of neighborhood "taquerias" and Oaxacan restaurants, at Salvadoran farmers market stands and East Los Angeles backyard parties, even at swank Hollywood restaurants, you can see the huge glass "vitroleros," beehive-shaped jars filled with "aguas frescas" in a spectrum of stunning colors.

Each flavor is like a point of reference on a color wheel: the deep magenta of "jamaica" (a variety of hibiscus flower), the pale green of honeydew melon or cucumber-lime, the scarlet of just-made "sandia" (watermelon), rice-based "horchata's" milky white.

Aguas frescas have a long tradition in Mexico and Latin America, where the "fresh waters" -- made with fresh fruit or rice, tamarind pods or dried hibiscus flowers, sugar and water -- are the perfect thirst-quencher for hot weather and sometimes hotter cuisine. In the pre-Columbian 15th century, the story goes, Aztec farmers would paddle their canoes into Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) with fresh fruit that they would mash and mix with water for a refreshing drink.

Just what's in the gorgeous, ice-loaded jars depends on what fruit is in season. Right now, you might find cantaloupe, a pretty watermelon laced with lime, maybe a pale honeydew melon or peach, or a combination of more than one fruit. Year-round, you'll usually find the classic trinity of aguas frescas not made with fruit: "tamarindo," horchata and jamaica.

These are neither sodas nor fruit juices, but subtly flavored drinks that are balanced, light-bodied -- and not overly sweet.

An agua fresca is a minimalist's drink: With so few components, the quality of the ingredients and the simple twists (a squeeze of lime, a shot of agave nectar) make all the difference.

Over at the Hollywood restaurant the Hungry Cat, bartenders take their aguas frescas as seriously as their cocktails -- a plus for kids and nondrinkers -- and if you sit at the bar, you can watch as your agua fresca is created. Aguas frescas are offered as daily specials. A peach agua fresca is sweetened with lavender-infused simple syrup. Another Hungry Cat favorite is a cucumber-lime.

Aguas frescas shouldn't have much sugar -- they're refreshing thirst-quenchers, not sweet drinks -- so it's key to use the sweetener judiciously and to make sure it's fully dissolved. And, depending on what kind of fruit you're using, macerating the fruit can also work wonders. Macerating -- tossing cut-up berries, for example, 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.

Sweetening the aguas, says Ivan Calderon, co-owner with his brother Marco of the Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa restaurants, "enhances the flavor of the fruit; it does the same thing that salt does to food." But he suggests using agave nectar instead of sugar, as he does with all his restaurants' aguas frescas. The nectar is less cloying than sugar and more healthful (higher in fructose, lower in glucose than sugar), and it dissolves instantly.

If you don't have agave syrup on hand, take a tip from bartenders and make a quick simple syrup by briefly boiling equal parts sugar and water in a pan. You can flavor the simple syrup with lavender or with other herbs or spices (a trick used by pastry chefs as well as bartenders).

Use ripe fruit for aguas frescas, even fruit that's slightly past its prime. You're throwing it in the blender, after all, and you want the sweet rich notes of the fruit rather than its perfect appearance.

At his two Loteria Grills in Los Angeles, chef-owner Jimmy Shaw, born and raised in Mexico City, prominently displays the glass vitroleros.

Shaw combines a traditionalist's approach and a chef's creative flair when making his aguas. He's outfitted his classic jars with spigots; he spikes his cucumber-lime agua with Serrano chile and a little salt. On a recent night behind the stoves of his new kitchen, Shaw shared a favorite trick. Make two batches of your favorite agua, he suggests, and freeze one batch in ice cube trays to use when serving. The agua fresca cubes won't dilute the drink.

Improvisation ("Mexico is a land of masking tape and wire," Shaw says) is as key an element as seasonality when making aguas frescas, so use whatever fruit you have handy. A ripe pineapple or papaya, a few pints of blackberries.

Then blend and balance out the flavors with a little sweetener, maybe some lemon or lime. Take the edge off your summertime thirst by tasting your agua as you make it.

Depending on how ripe the fruit is, you may not need anything more at all -- except the cold, fresh water that gave this glorious drink its name.

This recipe was inspired by Jimmy Shaw of Loteria Grill in Los Angeles.


Servings: Makes 2 quarts.

5 whole cucumbers, coarsely chopped (not peeled or seeded)

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1/2 serrano chile, seeded and minced (or more to taste)

1/8 cup agave syrup

Sea salt

In a blender, in batches, puree the cucumbers with 2 1/4 cups of water, the lime juice, chile, agave syrup and a generous pinch of sea salt on high speed. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer lined with a triple layer of cheesecloth (or use a chinois), discarding the solids. Serve over ice. Keeps 2 days, refrigerated.

Each 8-ounce serving: 19 calories; 0 protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 36 milligrams sodium.


Servings: Makes 2 1/2 quarts.

1 medium seedless watermelon, rind removed and cut into medium pieces (about 6 pounds)

2 tablespoons agave nectar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 3 limes)

Sea salt

1. In a blender, puree the watermelon with 4 cups of water and the agave nectar, in batches.

2. Strain through a coarse strainer or mesh sieve, discarding any solids. Stir in the lime juice and a generous pinch of sea salt.

3. Adjust the seasoning and consistency to taste: agave nectar for sweetness, lime juice for tartness, sea salt to enhance flavor, and water to thin. Serve over ice. Garnish each glass with a slice of lime, if desired. This will keep for 2 days, refrigerated.

Each 8-ounce serving: 57 calories; 1 gram protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 7 milligrams sodium. Total time: 15 minutes.

Adapted from Anthony Medina of La Taquiza in Los Angeles.


Servings: Makes 2 1/2 quarts.

2 cups dried hibiscus (jamaica) flowers

2 pounds strawberries, hulled and quartered

1 cup sugar

1. Combine the hibiscus flowers with 4 cups of water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, then allow to steep for about 2 hours. Strain and reserve the hibiscus water.

2. Place the strawberries in a large bowl, toss with the sugar and macerate for 30 minutes.

3. In a blender, puree the strawberries (and any syrup) with the hibiscus water; this may need to be done in batches.

4. Strain the mixture with a standard sieve into a large pitcher; stir in 2 quarts water. Adjust consistency as desired with additional water; add more sugar if desired to sweeten. Serve over ice. This will keep for 2 days, refrigerated.

Each 8-ounce serving: 75 calories; 0 protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 milligram sodium.

Originally published by AMY SCATTERGOOD Los Angeles Times.

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