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July, 2008

Authentic Watermelon Agua Fresca

By Heidi Allison

Fruity Aguas Frescas are beverages sold by street vendors and take-out restaurants throughout Mexico. More complex than simple fruit juices, these refreshing drinks are light, balanced and not too sweet – the perfect antidote to those sweltering summer days.

Watermelon Agua Fresca
Fruity Aguas Frescas are beverages sold by street vendors and take-out restaurants throughout Mexico. More complex than simple fruit juices, these refreshing drinks are light, balanced and not too sweet – the perfect antidote to those sweltering summer days. These “fruit waters” are served with meals to balance the bold flavors of spicy fare, and function like a sorbet to cleanse the palate. They also make a great mid-afternoon snack.

A much healthier alternative to sugar-laden sodas, these drinks are made with fresh, ripe fruit, just enough water (either flat mineral water or chilled water) to liquefy the fruit, and a touch of sweetener. Although sugar is the traditional sweetener, I find that a small amount of honey mixed with warm water creates a more rounded, sweet flavor to the finished drink. To balance its flavor, these fruit drinks are often finished with a splash of acid – either fresh lime or lemon juice – and a pinch of salt.

Limes
While current recipes call for the fruit to be placed in a blender with lots of water, this modern technique has its drawbacks – it dilutes flavor and creates a pitcher of foam. Moreover, the “mouth feel” just isn’t the same as in a classic Agua Fresca. You’ll get better results if you prepare these drinks in the traditional way – by mashing the fruit with a fork or your hands before mixing it with the water and sweetener to produce a consistency similar to water.

There are several other “tricks” to ensure you get that authentic Mexican taste. If you like your drinks cold, do not add ice. Put the finished juice in the fridge for at least 3 hours before serving, or add ice made with leftover juice (rather than water) to ensure the delicate flavor isn’t diluted. Another secret is to use Key limes, or “Mexican limes”. This cultivar has a more acidic, sour/bitter taste compared to the larger Persian limes commonly found in U.S. markets. Its flavor can’t be duplicated and it’s crucial to use it in this recipe to get just the right balance of sweet and sour required for this drink.

Watermelon
On the nutritional front, watermelon is packed with nutrients. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, and a very good source of vitamin A and vitamin B6. It is also rich in 6 carotenoids. Lycopene, which makes up the majority of carotenoids, protects against a variety of cancers: prostate, breast, endometrial, lung, and colorectal. This potent phytochemical is also linked to lowering inflammation that may cause hypertension and heart disease. Last week, researchers announced that this amazing fruit contains a chemical, citrulline, that acts in the same way as Viagra and relaxes blood vessels. When consumed, this chemical is converted to L-arginine, an amino acid that relaxes blood vessels by boosting nitric oxide. Better for your libido than a cerveza!

Watermelon Agua Fresca

Serves: 4-6

1 seedless watermelon (about 5 pounds), chilled
½ cup chilled water
Juice of 5 Key limes
½ Tbsp. honey, mixed with 1 Tbsp. hot water
Pinch of salt (about ¼ tsp.)
Ice cubes made with fruit juice (optional)
Mint sprigs for garnish, as needed

Preparation:
Cut the watermelon into quarters and run a knife blade under the flesh next to the rind, cutting off this outer rind. Cut the watermelon into 2-inch chunks and place into a large bowl. Pour the water into the bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Place a large wire mesh sieve over a large bowl and transfer a quarter of the melon mixture into it. Gently squeeze the chunks with your hands to extract the melon juice. Toss out the flesh and seeds that settle to the bottom of the mesh sieve. Repeat this process with the remainder of the melon. Cut the Key limes in half and squeeze their juice into the watermelon juice. Stir in the honey and salt.

Pour juice mixture into a heavy glass pitcher, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours or until cold. Serve in chilled glasses with a sprig of fresh mint. Notes from the Author: Will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator. Mixing the honey with warm water helps it to dissolve more evenly in the drink.