Cool off simply, sweetly with summer drinks
The hotter it gets, the sweeter lemonade seems to taste.
In the dog days of summer, an ice-cold agua fresca, tea, limeade or even something as simple as a sparkling water can make the difference between an afternoon spent questioning the choice of living in Texas altogether or an enjoyable afternoon of “it ain’t so bad.”
But even the most refreshing beverage can use a recharge during Austin’s six months of summer, and for that, I have two words: simple syrup. Unlike granulated sugar, which doesn’t dissolve completely in cold liquid, a simple syrup — made from an easy-to-remember ratio of 1 part sugar to 1 part water — is heated first to completely incorporate the sugar into the water, but best of all, it’s a blank slate for just about any combination of herbs, spices or fruit you can think of.
Want to use up the extra basil you bought at the farmers market? Make a basil syrup that will liven up any lemonade. Looking to add a kick to an agua fresca made with cantaloupes or watermelon? Sweeten it with a ginger jalapeño syrup. Make iced tea a little more interesting by flavoring it with a syrup made from lemon thyme, lemongrass or pineapple mint growing in your garden.
Simple syrups don’t just sweeten drinks. You can drizzle ginger allspice nutmeg syrup over cut-up mango or pineapple, pour lemon raspberry syrup over angel food cake or cornbread or top off vanilla ice cream or yogurt with lavender cardamom syrup.
Reinventing your favorite drinks requires breaking it down into its parts: the base liquid, the sweetener and, if using, the alcohol and any garnish. But once you deconstruct the drink, there are infinite ways to put it back together. From the first squeeze to final garnish, here are some recipes and tips for making a summer drink that might just make you forget that the hottest days are yet to come. firstname.lastname@example.org; 912-2504
Tea: Whether you’re brewing loose leaf or bagged tea, make it stronger than you would hot tea to compensate for the ice you’ll eventually add. You can brew it twice as strong as usual and then pour over a pitcher full of ice to cool quickly.
Agua fresca: Fruits with high water content such as watermelons, cantaloupe, honeydew
melons, cucumbers, pineapple and mango are the perfect base for this Mexican drink. Cut up about 4 cups of fruit into pieces and purée in batches with 1 or 2 cups of water in a blender or food processor. Strain any seeds or pulp left behind and dilute with about 8 cups of water.
Lemonade or limeade: Keep your eyes peeled for inexpensive lemons and limes at Mexican meat markets and ethnic grocery stores. To prevent lemons and limes from drying out into rock-hard golf balls, store them in a zipperedtop plastic bag in the fridge. When you’re ready to squeeze, zap the fruits in the microwave for 20 or 30 seconds, which will allow you to get more juice out of each lemon or lime. For a medium tart final product, mix 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice with about 5 cups of water.
Shrub: Want to try something totally new? Make a shrub — a colonial-era drink of fruit such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries or even ginger marinated in brandy, rum or vinegar for a few days. After the fruit has marinated in the liquid, mash the mixture, add sugar or simple syrup, strain the seeds and pulp and then dilute with about 8 cups water or soda.
Sparkling water, seltzer, tonic, club soda: Make your own flavored soda such as ginger ale by adding simple syrup to one of these fizzy liquids. To pack the most bang for your bubbles, use a concentrated simple syrup made with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water.
Most simple syrups are made from a ratio of equal parts sugar and water, but you can make a thicker syrup with 2 or 3 parts sugar to 1 part water for if you don’t want to dilute your starting liquid or if you want to drizzle it on ice cream or cake.
In a saucepan, combine 1 part sugar with 1 part water and bring to a boil for one minute. Add ingredients (see box for suggestions) and let steep. For dried peppers or fruits, or fibrous or woody herbs and spices such as cardamom, lemongrass, cinnamon sticks or ginger, let steep overnight or continue simmering on the stove for five minutes. For more delicate herbs, turn off the heat and let steep until cool. (You can also add 11⁄ teaspoon flavored extract such as
2 vanilla, coconut or almond after you’ve boiled the syrup.) Strain through a small mesh colander and store in a clean jar, bottle or plastic container in the refrigerator. Most simple syrups will keep for at least three months.
Another way to flavor the syrup is to start with 1 part water, 1 part flavored liquid such as lime juice, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice or coconut water and 2 parts sugar.
The booze (optional)
Simple syrups have always been a bartender’s best friend, and you might find that once you start playing with flavor combinations in syrups, you begin taking the booze part of the equation a little more seriously. For those of you wanting to keep it simple, just add an ounce of vodka, whiskey, gin, rum or tequila and maybe a splash of concentrated liqueur to your drink.
The flair (optional)
A summer drink isn’t a summer drink unless it has ice in it, so keep in mind that the bigger the ice cubes, the slower they melt. No one wants to sip on a homemade blueberry lemon soda if it’s lukewarm.
To really take your palate on an adventure, try adding a dash of balsamic vinegar to drinks such as the purple basil lemonade. (See recipe at right.) If you’d like to add a sprig of mint for presentation, slap it between your hands to release the fragrant oils. A little grated nutmeg or zest will do as much for the nose as the palate, and star anise makes a pretty garnish all on its own. You can add a splash of carbonated water to almost any drink to give it a lift.
A Blueberry Shrub drink sweetened with fig and cardamom simple syrup is a perfect base for a tonic or seltzer refreshment. Add a splash of gin to make it a cocktail. (See recipe, D4)
A simple syrup made with ancho chiles and mint adds kick to hibiscus or hibiscus mint iced tea.
Add flavors such as ginger allspice and nutmeg; ancho and mint; or basil to the simple syrup ratio of 1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water. Use the syrups to add flavor to water, lemonade, tea, tonics and seltzers. The syrups can be stored for three months in the refrigerator.