In taquerias around town, almost every shop offers a selection of agua frescas, big glass barrels of refreshing house made fruit juices ready to be doled out by the ladleful. I’m partial to horchata (a sweet rice-and-cinnamon delight that would be right at home on a frappuccino menu), but most are even simpler: watermelon, mango, strawberry. If lemonade demands a white-washed porch and rocking chairs for sipping, agua fresca wants a packed-dirt patio painted coral pink, thatched-palm ceiling fans spinning lazily overhead.
I was inspired to make my own after I sampled the limonada fresca, or fresh limeade, at a tropical-fantastic Puerto Rican restaurant in Marin. Puckery-tart, cool, and refreshing, Sol Food’s limonada has a beautiful celadon green cast and just a hint of sweetness to soften the edges of the lime juice’s acidity. (And it’s served in a Mason jar, which inexplicably makes everything taste better.)
I’d also been curious about trying agave syrup, a natural sweetener that can be swapped out for sugar. Agave syrup has been used as a sweetener in Central America and Mexico for thousands of years, and in the States there’s lately been a sharp and steady uptick (natural foodists and vegans have been onto it for awhile) since nutritionists found that agave nectar boasts a very low glycemic index. As with honey or refined sugar, agave is calorie dense, but it won’t shock the system with glucose, leaving blood sugar levels on an even keel. In some applications, agave syrup can even suitable for people with diabetes or insulin sensitivities.
Breakthroughs in nutrition science need to be taken with a big grain of salt, in my opinion, and I’m a firm believer that a common sense approach to eating tends to be the healthiest. That said, if using agave syrup means I can safely drink a full pint glass of limonada without cartwheeling around the living room in a frenzied sugar rush (and crashing into a post-sweets slump half an hour after that), then sign me up. As a natural alternative and with many of the same properties as granulated sugar (heat stability, caramelization, etc.), I’m eager to try agave out in baking recipes, too. (A favorite bakeshop of mine, Babycakes NYC, has a cookbook of homey agave-sweetened and vegan baked goods. And yes, I realize that might sound like a crime against croissants and poundcakes everywhere, but they really are uncommonly good.)
And lest this discussion get too wholesome, I might point out that fresh limeade serves as a tart, summery mixer for cocktails, too. The addition of gin makes for an ersatz and rather serviceable gimlet (a rare 80 degree evening last night offered ideal sipping conditions) and I’d reckon that a splash of Cointreau and a couple glugs of tequila would make a light, patio-ready Margarita.
It’s going to be another gloriously hot day today (thank you, San Francisco!) and I’m awfully glad there’s half a pitcher of limonada fresca left in my fridge. Backyard, you and I have a date.
- 1 1/2 C freshly squeezed lime juice (about 12 limes)
- 3/4 C light agave nectar
- 8 C (1/2 gallon or 64 oz) water
In a large pitcher, mix all ingredients and chill. Adjust sweetener to your taste. Serve over lots of ice. (For a bottomless pitcher, continue to add more water after you’ve poured the first few glasses. Eventually you’ll have lime-spiked water rather than the other way around.)
Note: if you can’t find agave syrup or don’t want to bother, just substitute 1 cup of sugar, dissolved in some of the water portion. Agave nectar is about 25% sweeter than sugar.