What's as thirst quenching as lemonade, as colorful as Kool-Aid and as easy to make as iced tea? A Mexican drink called agua fresca -- literally "fresh water" -- is the original vitamin-rich, caffeine- and alcohol-free cooler. Made with water and ripe fruit or juice, sweetened with sugar and chilled to the core, it is a refreshing alternative to the tired-and-true drinks of summer.
Taco stands and ice cream shops from the Yucatan to the Baja sell aguas frescas in a Popsicle-colored array of tropical fruit and exotic flavors, such as melon, pineapple, coconut, lime and tamarind. Ladled out of huge glass barrels filled with brick-sized chunks of ice, they're practically the national drink of Mexico.
In the United States, they're harder to find. Some Mexican restaurants may serve traditional aguas frescas, such as horchata, a rice and almond version, and hibiscus, made from flower petals steeped in hot water.
. Marilyn Tausend, a Mexican cookbook author, most recently of "Savoring Mexico" (Williams-Sonoma), leads frequent culinary excursions to Mexico. "On my trips, I find that hibiscus is one [flavor] that many truly enjoy," she says. "Many, many people bring back bags of the dried sepals of the hibiscus flower."
Brewed into a clear, red, iced drink, hibiscus was my own first agua fresca experience. After weeks of trying to slake a Sonoran desert thirst with soda and beer, I was rescued by this fragrant, citrusy cooler. Clean-tasting like water, it had a mild tartness that was truly satisfying. It's also the healthiest choice because hibiscus is naturally rich in Vitamin C. (However, Taunsend is always careful to say that it also is a diuretic.)
The rest came easily. From street vendor to taco stand, I drank my way through the menu of aguas frescas, each one unique and refreshing.
Watermelon and cantaloupe are popular: Toss whole chunks of ripe fruit in a blender, add water and sugar and push "liquefy." The melony taste is as pure and vivid as the sunset color of pink or peach. The texture is pleasant, too -- a little like orange juice with pulp. A squeeze of lime helps to balance the sweetness from the natural sugars. But always mix them up fresh and make sure to serve them cold.
Agua fresca is an excellent accompaniment for chips and salsa, grilled shrimp fajitas and flank steak tacos -- as well as for non-Mexican, casual summer foods. Two or more kaleidoscope-colored drinks in side-by-side glass pitchers are striking and just exotic enough to have your guests asking, "What is this?"
This rose-colored take on iced tea -- actually more like an adult version of Kool-Aid -- is made by steeping hibiscus flowers or tea in hot water. Hibiscus flowers can be found in some natural food stores and Mexican grocery stores.
1/2 cup hibiscus flowers (3/4 ounce) or 6 bags hibiscus tea
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
Ice and cold water as needed
Place the hibiscus flowers or tea bags into a heatproof bowl. Pour the boiling water over and set aside to steep for 30 minutes. Strain the crimson-colored tea into a 2-quart pitcher, discarding the spent flowers or tea bags.
Add the sugar; stir until dissolved. Fill the pitcher two-thirds full with ice and top it off with cold water. Taste and, if desired, add more sugar to suit your taste. Refrigerate until chilled through, at least 2 hours.
Per serving: 62 calories, 0 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, trace sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
This mildly sweet cooler is as soothing as it is refreshing. The texture is more like an ice-cold glass of milk than a frothy milkshake. Canned coconut milk can substitute for fresh. A few chopped pecans bobbing on top make a delightful accent.
13.5-ounce can (about 12/3 cups) regular or "lite" unsweetened coconut milk
4 cups cold water
1/3 cup sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped toasted pecans (optional)
Pour the coconut milk into a 2-quart pitcher. Add the water and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Fill the pitcher with ice. Taste and, if desired, add more water and/or sugar to suit your taste. Refrigerate until chilled through.
To serve, spoon some pecans into each glass and fill with the cooler.
Per serving (using regular coconut milk): 191 calories, 2 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 14 gm saturated fat, 10 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Any melon, such as honeydew or Crenshaw, is a good choice as long as it's ripe (or even slightly overripe). Or you can use almost any soft fruit, such as strawberry, pineapple or mango. Depending on the fruit, you may not need lime juice.
3 cups cantaloupe, honeydew or watermelon, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 cup coarsely crushed ice
1 to 2 cups cold water
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice, or to taste (optional)
In a blender, combine the fruit, sugar, ice and enough water to reach about 1 inch from the top of the blender jar. Cover and blend until it is very smooth, about 1 minute. Pour into a 2-quart pitcher. (Mixture should be quite frothy, but will settle.) Taste and, if desired, add more sugar and/or lime juice to taste. Refrigerate until chilled through. If the cooler has separated, stir just before serving to recombine.
Per serving: 51 calories, 1 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Lynne Sampson, a freelance food writer in Oregon, recently spent two weeks in Mexico's Baja living on a strict diet of aquas frescas and fish tacos.