watermelon agua fresca

It’s been hotter than the surface of the sun for about eight weeks. Here in a couple more weeks, we can all calm down and enjoy the cool, breezy 90-degree temperatures, but until then the prospect of cooking pretty much anything seems completely beyond me. The gas stove in my new apartment, while astonishingly wonderful, heats the whole house for hours, and I just don’t want to spend the time, money, and discomfort waiting for the apartment to cool down to a more palatable temperature. A friend and I even postponed our great canning adventure because neither of us could stomach the thought of standing over boiling water for that long.

The summer has brought one bright spot: I have rediscovered my love of farmer’s markets. I’m blessed to live in a city that is home to a dozen such weekly markets, and there isn’t a night of the week that I can’t find some grouping of stalls through which to wander, sampling wares and contemplating meals. A few weeks ago, I bought more small bushels of peaches than I thought I would ever eat, and my boyfriend and I ate them all in three days. Cherry tomatoes are my best friend, delicious cold out of the fridge and my juicy gateway to easy, ten-minute weeknight meals. (Think pasta with tomatoes and basil, homemade guacamole, tomato-basil salad on toast.) And watermelon.

The bright green, striped exterior of this bad boy called to me. I knew immediately that I wanted to make a cool, crisp drink with him. As I chatted with Courney, the representative from the farm whose stall I was stalking, I mentioned thinking of making agua fresca. She pointed me toward the beast of the bunch, a heavy, oblong thing that reminded me of that scene from Dirty Dancing (“I carried a watermelon?!) as I toted it to my car. Courtney assured me this fruit would yield the pinkest, ripest, juiciest fruit I’d ever tasted, and would yield me more than enough agua fresca. Oh, she was right.

I can’t tell you how easy this is, though it does require a tiny bit of patience and labor. The hardest thing you have to do is strain the pureed fruit, and speeding the process along is easy enough: I squished the pulp through the strainer with my fingers, making a bit of a mess, but enjoying feeling like a kid with a pink mud pie for a moment. When I took it to a party, it astounded my friends. This drink just tastes like watermelon in a glass, it’s so pure in flavor. That purity, if you’re so inclined, means it lends itself well to being mixed with more adult beverages.  While the flavor of vodka mostly disappears into the cocktail, a shot of bourbon was the big winner, lending a spicy kick to the sweet refreshingness.

Watermelon Agua Fresca
Adapted from Eating Well
Makes 1 gallon (I increased the recipe)

You will need:
12 cups cubed and seeded watermelon (for me, this was about half of a large melon)
1.5 c. water
1/2 c. sugar
Juice of three limes
1.5 liters club soda
In a very large bowl, combine the watermelon, water, and sugar. Using an immersion blender, blend until smooth. (For this, you can also use your blender to blend in batches, or use the immersion blender in batches. The watermelon is so soft, I suspect you could also use a fork and a little more time.)

Into a large pitcher, strain the pulp in batches using a coarse strainer. Add the lime juice and chill at least 4 hours. When ready to serve, add the club soda and mix well.

The watermelon pulp will settle in the bottom of the pitcher, so stir it before each pour or serve it out of a punch bowl.

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summer drinks: ginger beer margaritas

Brit makes the best margaritas I’ve ever tasted. Her margaritas are also dangerous, because as the night wears on, she gets more and more heavy-handed with the hard stuff. She tends to include finishing splashes of unexpected ingredients. Once, she topped off my glass with pomegranate Italian soda. Another time, it was some sort of prickly pear soda. I think she’s also been known to make a regular margarita with lime soda.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when she showed up to my most recent poolside barbecue with ingredients for her own tequila concoction, but this one stands out. As she tells it, this drink is a lazy man’s version of some fancier drink she had in LA. She’s been recreating the drink at home, steadily leaving out ingredients until she came up with this simple, refreshing cocktail. It’s so easy that it feels like cheating to call this a “recipe.”

Ginger Beer Margaritas
Recipe adapted from my friend Brittany
Note: to make a pitcher for a party, use 3-4 bottles of ginger beer, and 2 shots of tequila per bottle. Add lime juice to taste and serve over ice.
Serves 2

You will need:
1 bottle ginger beer
2 shots tequila blanco
Juice of 1 lime

Pour 1 shot tequila into each of two small tumblers. Add ice and split the ginger beer between the two glasses. Top with lime juice, stir, garnish with a lime, and serve.

summer drinks: spiked (or not) mint lemonade

I remember completely futile and pointless lemonade stands. My childhood best friend, Lindsey, and I would mix a batch of Country Time, pour it into a plastic pitcher, and wait by the road behind a table for cars to stop and taste our wares. Over the course of the five or so years we lived on the same street, I think we got fewer than ten customers, mostly because no one really drives by residential streets. Had we been smart, we would have begged our parents to drive us out to the park or the community pool, where the foot traffic and thirsty children might better help us rake in the dough. Instead, we left ourselves a convenient “out”: after about ten minutes of sitting in the stifling Texas heat, we grew bored, abandoned our posts, and did something more worthwhile with our time. Like play in the sprinklers or torment my little sister.

The booze is entirely optional.

Spiked Mint Lemonade
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Makes 1 pitcher
Note: to make it alcohol-free, just skip the booze!

You will need:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (65 or 6 lemons)
3-4 cups cold water
1 oz. per serving liquor of your choice (I used tequila, but rum and vodka would both be delicious)
Fresh mint sprigs

Combine sugar and 1 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat, and heat until sugar is completely dissolved. This makes simple syrup!

Meanwhile, juice 5 or 6 lemons to get 1 cup lemon juice. I use my hands, but if you have a juicer, go for it.

Combine simple syrup, lemon juice, and water in a pitcher, and add ice. Add lemon slices and mint to the pitcher. Now you have Virgin Lemonade.

To spike the lemonade, either add the booze to the pitcher itself, or (my personal preference), sugar the rim of a tumbler, add ice and an ounce of booze, and fill the glass with lemonade. Garnish with a lemon wedge and a mint sprig.

summer drinks: gin and tonic

When we were 21 (or thereabouts. Ahem.), my college roommate and I discovered the wonders of Hypnotinis. If memory serves, the Hypnotini was a drink made from Hypnotic, that always classy electric blue liqueur, mixed with pineapple juice and vodka. We generally kept the Smurf-like bottle in the house at all times, and were known to mix quick drinks before going out, tote the bottle and the other ingredients to parties, or just wind down with one at the end of a long week.

We were so cool.

One of the local martini bars made their version, as well as a lip-smacking, jolly rancher-esque Appletini. I never was able to get on board with the Chocolatini, which somehow tasted too strong. But the citrus-based ‘tinis did it for me every time. This bar, which opened during our senior year, became the new “the” place to go on a Thursday night to feel sophisticated and special. You sat at the bar, a cute bartender flirted with you, and then you sipped your drink out of a tall, shapely glass while you contemplated your next order, each possibility sounding more adventurous than the next. I think we imagined ourselves as if we were being photographed for a teen magazine, or were playing at what adulthood cocktail hours would be like. At the very least, we pretended to be our very own Sex and the City (or rather, Sex and the Small College Town).

In my old age (ha), I tend to keep things more simple. I’m more likely to have a Hefeweizen than a cocktail, and when I do have a mixed drink, nine times out of ten it’s a margarita. But in the summer, few beverages are more refreshing and invigorating to me than a gin and tonic. Served in a shatterproof glass by the pool, on a wrought-iron patio table while someone grills steaks, or in my scratched, cloudy tumblers, it’s a breeze to make and it cools me down. Put away the Hypnotiq, grab a bottle of good gin and some limes, and try it.

Gin and Tonic
Serves 1

1 oz. gin
Tonic water
Juice of 1 lime, plus a wedge for garnish

Fill a tumbler with ice. Pour in gin, top with tonic water, and squeeze in lime juice. Swizzle, garnish, serve.