Food & Drink

August 13, 2014

The Cowgirl Chef: All about aguas frescas and horchata

These summer-perfect drinks offer a refreshing way to appreciate fruit at the peak of its sweetness.

The first time I drank a horchata, I was in Mexico. The small, touristy town was a stopover visit while I was on a cruise, and it was dusty. And blazing hot.

I was on assignment. My friend, a photographer, was with me, and we decided to wander back into the alleyways, away from the souvenir shops selling T-shirts and gimme caps, to find something to eat. We stumbled upon a locals-only outdoor taco stand, and ate fresh guacamole underneath umbrellas and on plastic chairs and felt like it was the first authentic experience, culinary or otherwise, we’d had since we left Miami.

On the way back to the boat, we both bought horchatas from a corner store selling large beehive jugs of the infused waters. Big, tall palstic-foam cups of the milky white, sweet cold stuff — rice milk, it turns out, flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. I’ve forgotten many details of the trip, but that horchata I remember well.

Last month, I was in Spain and saw signs advertising horchata, but never had the chance to stop and try one (one of many good reasons to go back). But I made the Spain/New World connection then. Spain’s horchata, I learned, is made with tigernuts (or chufas, in Spanish), which are not nuts at all, but tubers that grow in abundance there. In Mexico and Latin America, horchata is usually made from rice, and sometimes almonds, too — not unlike a sweeter, slightly thicker almond milk.

No matter what horchata is made from — seeds, nuts or a combination — its purpose is the same: to quench one’s thirst when it’s hot outside.

Which it definitely does.

As do all of the other Latin American flavored waters, or aguas frescas, made from some combination of fruit and water, with herbs and sugar added if you want to get fancy. I’ve seen recipes made two ways: with pureed fruit and water, served on its own, or with the fruit puree strained through cheesecloth, leaving a clearer, crisper drink. I’d rather not toss out good fiber if I don’t have to, so for these recipes, I’ve left it in, and simply thinned out the liquid with added water.

What I like best about these drinks is that you really don’t need a recipe, even though I’ve written some as a guide. Taste as you go, and mix and match along the way. This time of year, fruit is so sweet that you don’t need added sugar.

Drink these as soon as they’re chilled so the goodness of fresh fruit isn’t lost. I’ve found they also make great ice pops. Just pour into molds and freeze. Or, as a friend of mine pointed out, any one of them is a great start for a summer cocktail. Cheers to that.

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