Simply brilliant cold drinks to serve guests, or just yourself, from Vietnamese iced coffee to hibiscus agua fresca
‘ Yes, here, you get out here.’ I’m not convinced but tumble out of the New York cab and stand in a street of mysterious frontages and even more mysterious smells. I’m on my way to meet the restaurant critic who writes the Hungry City column for The New York Times. This features simple restaurants off the beaten track, mom-and-pop hole-in-the-walls and the like. I venture behind the heavy plastic curtain indicated by the cabby and am shouted at by a small, irate Chinese lady chopping a mountain of cabbages. Back to the map. Forty minutes later I reach the Vietnamese restaurant where I’m supposed to have lunch, flustered and parched. I’m handed an iced coffee in a bucket-sized cup. I’ve had iced coffee before. I make my own iced coffee, carefully balancing coffee strength with milkiness, so this is no big deal. But then I taste it: cold, strong and childishly sweet. I fall instantly in love. When I get home I check recipes – they’re barely recipes, just coffee and sweetened condensed milk in specific proportions – and become an addict. Vietnamese coffee is what I drink on hot nights, the coffee making the most satisfying crackle at it’s poured over ice. Ideally you should use a special little Vietnamese metal filter called a phin ca phe, but a simple plastic filter does the trick.
It has been a hot summer so a lot of iced coffee has been downed in my kitchen, but so too has hibiscus agua fresca. Please don’t roll your eyes. I know hibiscus isn’t an everyday ingredient (and I hesitated many times before placing an online order for the dried flowers) but I’ve kept a jug of this in the fridge all summer. Aguas frescas (Spanish for ‘cool waters’) are non-alcoholic Mexican drinks made from fruit, nuts, seeds or flowers mixed with water, sugar and (often) lime juice. Watermelon and cucumber aguas frescas are also thirst-quenchingly brilliant, but make the hibiscus version once and you’ll keep doing it (and people will beg you for the recipe and your precious flowers).
When you have friends round, an imaginative drink isn’t necessary but it shows that you care and, with a few small plates, can make a meal. It’s also, if you’re a keen cook, an interesting area in which to dabble. A home-infused gin (my rhubarb stuff, made earlier in the year, is all gone now so I’m on the raspberry version below) provokes shrieks of delight and you get to line your kitchen shelves with colourful bottles.
Forget all those cocktails with paper umbrellas. Simple summer drinks that you’ve put a little thought into are much more chic (and Vietnamese coffee the best late-night vice you could develop).