Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Harbinger of Spring: Água Fresca

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This may seem silly to say, but, looking back over the last few months of posts, I was struck by just how, well, wintery the recipes featured here have been.

Squash. French Fries. Candy. Butter. I mean, honestly. Butter! How rich and heavy can you get?

Now, this makes sense -- a big part of what we eat each week is held in sway by what we get in our farmshare, and, well, winter weather will make anyone crave richer, heavier, rib-sticking food.

That being said, the last few weeks have given us brief suggestions of warmth, and yesterday rang in, officially, the first day of Spring. It's time to start cooking lighter again, to feature dishes with vinegar, and citrus, and crunchy vegetables. It's time to experiment with new cuts of meat, to grill whole fish, and to start counting down the days until you eat that first glorious summer tomato. It's time for Água Fresca.

Translating literally as "fresh water," Água Fresca is a stable of the Mexican taqueria, a perfect balance to the duskiness of chilies and cumin. It's sunlight in a glass; light and subtle, cheaper than buying bottled juice, and surprisingly healthy for you, getting to the very essence of a fruit's flavor. Let me put it to you this way -- if you don't have a pitcher of this in your fridge from now until September, well, you don't know what you're missing.

Água Fresca
Makes about Four Liters

2 pounds fresh fruit of your choice

1 Cup Sugar (or alternative sweetener)
1 Cup Water
Various Herbs (optional)

Cold Water to taste

[Editor's Note: This is a very loose recipe -- the proportion of juice to sugar to water is something that you'll have to experiment with. I myself prefer a beverage with lots of water and just a little sugar, resulting in a lightly tart beverage that has just the essence of the fruit in it. Feel free to adjust things as you like.]

First things first -- make your simple syrup. I suggest making the 1 cup sugar/1 cup water ratio suggested above, and then adding the resulting syrup slowly and to taste. I almost never use more than a half-cup, but, like I said, it's better to make more and have it left over than to run short and have to whip up an entirely new batch.

Mix the sugar and water over high heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. You can also use agave syrup, honey, stevia, low-calorie sweetener, etc.

If you want to add a refreshing twist, you can flavor your syrup with any number of different herbs, flowers, or spices, like lavender...

...or basil.

[Editor's Note #2: The syrup infusion is the same process we used for the Rosemary Salty Dog cocktail. Come to think of it, rosemary would work well here, too. So would lemongrass, fresh mint, cloves -- well, you get the idea.]

While the syrup is cooling, you'll want to peel and cube up your fruit. I'm just going to show you what I did to the pineapple. Once you learn the process with one fruit, you can use any fruit.

Take your cubed pineapple and place it into your food processor (a blender will do just fine if that's all you have on hand).

Add about 1/4 cup of the simple syrup so that there's some extra liquid in the processor.

Puree as thoroughly as possible.

Using a fine wire sieve or cheesecloth, strain the solids out from the juice.

Combine the strained juice with water, and add additional sweetener, to taste. I prefer a four to one ratio of water to juice, but you'll have to see what you like.

And that's it!

Just look at those colors! Pineapple with Basil, puro Watermelon, Blood Orange with Lavender...your imagination is your only limitation. Looking to throw a party? A little splash of rum, a stalk of sugar cane and a few ice cubes turns Água Fresca into a fine cocktail.

Now, perhaps this seems too simple to you, perhaps you think it would be too watery, perhaps you'd imagine that the pressed juice itself is more refreshing. Do me a favor -- go make this, just once. You can come back and admit you were wrong whenever you'd like.

Music: Dina -- "Amor de Água Fresca"

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