Fresh and fruity waters

Melon Agua Fresca. There are as many possible combinations as you can imagine: peach/passion fruit; cucumber/tarragon; watermelon/pomegranate; cantaloupe/basil; pineapple/cilantro syrup; papaya/lemon; nectarine/rose.
Melon Agua Fresca. There are as many possible combinations as you can imagine: peach/passion fruit; cucumber/tarragon; watermelon/pomegranate; cantaloupe/basil; pineapple/cilantro syrup; papaya/lemon; nectarine/rose. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Try "aguas frescas": Ripe puree meets cooling water, and refreshment is at hand.

Posted: August 30, 2012

The sun that parched us all summer long also ripened the fruit, which can be transformed into cool, refreshing aguas frescas.

Literally translated as "fresh waters," aguas frescas are traditional Central and South American fruit- and grain-based drinks. Not too sweet or too concentrated, the subtle flavors and glorious hues make them a healthy and delicious alternative to sugary soft drinks.

In hues of pink, green, orange, and yellow, watermelons, cucumbers, cantaloupes, and pineapple create some of the most beautiful and tasty beverages to enjoy in these waning days of summer.

Mexican restaurants north and south of the border offer aguas frescas displayed and sold from barrel-shaped glass jars. Agua de Melon, with watermelon or cantaloupe; Horchata, a sweetened rice and almond drink; Tamarindo, made with sweet-tart tamarind; and Jamaica, a bold red hibiscus-flower drink, are commonly offered.

Traditionally these drinks were made by hand, the fruit mashed with a fork in a mortar and pestle before sweetening and diluting. With a blender and a strainer, variations on these classics can be made easily at home.

The basics are quite simple: Cut fruit into chunks, puree, strain, dilute, chill, serve.

Pieces of fruit or vegetables are processed with some water until smooth in a blender. Because the puree is strained, I leave the skin on fruits and don't worry about seeds in vegetables. The puree is then strained through a mesh strainer or cheesecloth- lined colander over a bowl or pitcher.

Gently stirring the pulp as it is straining allows the juices to run freely.

Taste the strained juice, add any other flavoring juices, sweeten with white sugar, honey, or agave nectar, and dilute to taste with sparkling or still water. Once chilled, these concoctions are served over ice in a glass with a garnish or from a pitcher or punch bowl - simple, elegant, and so refreshing.

Tangy lime, lemon, passion fruit, and pomegranate juice enhance the sweetness and complement most fruits; a juice is included in most of these aguas frescas recipes. And balsamic vinegar can add a tart twist, especially with berries.

Herbs such as mint, basil, tarragon, and cilantro are another complement to these drinks. Herbs can be infused in a simple syrup, pureed right into the fruit before straining, or added to the glass as a garnish, depending on the effect and flavor you desire.

There are as many possible combinations as you can imagine: peach and passion fruit; cucumber and tarragon; watermelon and pomegranate; cantaloupe with basil; pineapple with cilantro syrup; strawberry and balsamic vinegar; papaya and lemon; tomato and lavender; nectarine and rose. These are just the variations I tried this week.

Whatever fruits are abundant and juicy can be considered a candidate for a seasonal agua fresca. Frozen berries, slightly defrosted before blending, can extend the season or add color to a late-summer drink.

Serve aguas frescas in tall, clear glasses. Consider adding a splash of gin, rum, or vodka for a lovely light cocktail.

Offer your family or guests a variety of these fresh waters, to stretch the summery flavors as long as you can, making any occasion a fiesta.


Melon Agua Fresca

Makes 8 (10-ounce) drinks

8 cups cubed melon  (seedless watermelon, cantaloupe, or honeydew)

2 cups cold water, divided

Juice from 2 limes or lemons

2 to 4 tablespoons sugar, agave nectar, or honey

1 quart sparkling or still water

Lime or lemon slices, mint or basil leaves for garnish (optional)

1. In a blender, process half the melon pieces with 1 cup water until smooth. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher. Stir pulpy juice in strainer as needed to help liquid flow. Repeat the process with the remaining melon and water. You should end up with about 8 cups of diluted juice.

2. Stir in the lime juice and sweetener. Chill. Combine with sparkling water. Serve in ice-filled glasses and garnish with lime slices and mint or basil.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving: 60 calories, 1 gram protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Cucumber Lime Agua Fresca With Tarragon

Makes 6 to 8 servings

8 cups coarsely chopped  unwaxed cucumbers (if using waxed cucumbers, peel them first)

1/2 cup tarragon leaves and soft stems (a small handful) - substitute mint or cilantro as desired

Approximately 3 cups of water

1 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice    

1/2 cup sugar, or to taste

Additional water or sparkling water to serve

Lime wedges and additional herb sprigs to garnish, optional

1. In a blender, in batches process about half the cucumber pieces with about half of the tarragon and enough water to allow blending. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher. Stir the pulpy juice in the strainer as needed to help liquid flow. Repeat the process with the remaining cucumber, tarragon, and water. Stir in the lime juice and sweetener.

2. Chill. Combine with sparkling water. Serve in ice-filled glasses and garnish with lime slices and mint or basil.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 8): 77 calories, 1 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Rose-Peach Agua Fresca

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 cup sugar

2 cups fresh unsprayed fragrant rose petals, or 1 tablespoon rosewater

Zest of one lemon

8 to 10 ripe peaches, pits removed, cut into chunks (skin can be left on)

Juice of one lemon

Sparkling or still water

1. Make rose simple syrup. In a medium saucepan combine the sugar with one cup water. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar dissolves. Add the rose petals (or rosewater) and lemon zest. Let sit until cool. Strain. Reserve syrup and discard the petals and zest.

2. In several batches, puree the peaches with the lemon juice and enough water to allow the blender to process. Strain the puree through a mesh strainer, over a bowl, stirring puree as it drains. Transfer to a pitcher and add the rose syrup.

3. Chill. Fill a glass 1/2-2/3 full with peach rose mixture. Add ice. Top with sparkling or still water and stir.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 8): 141 calories, 1 gram protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Strawberry-Balsamic Agua Fresca

Makes 4 (10-ounce) servings

2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4-1/3 cup sugar

1 quart sparkling water

1. Put strawberries, balsamic vinegar, and sugar in a blender with just enough water to allow blender to process. Puree. Strain through a mesh strainer, stirring as needed to allow the liquid to drain through the seeds and pulp. Chill.

2. Fill glasses half- to two-thirds full with strawberry mixture and top with sparkling water.

- From Anna Herman

Per serving: 74 calories, trace protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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