Since moving to California, I’ve become intrigued with Mexican cuisine. There’s a simple explanation for this new obsession: The serious dearth of authentic Mexican food in my hometown. (Carlos and Murphy’s anyone?) Even upstate New York blew me away with its variety of south-of-the-border-style fare. It was there I learned the pleasure of the tostada, and tasted what God had in mind when he created burritos.
And then, along came Southern California, taking me gently by the hand and saying, “little Canadian—how much you still do not understand.”
Though my first taste of horchata came in New Mexico, my first time making it happened right here in my new coastal home. I’d subsequently tried the creamy beverage in a few different tacquerias (to different levels of satisfaction), and I wanted to learn how to make the nutty refresher the old-fashioned way.
Consulting a version that included mashed strawberries from The New York Times, I forged ahead, omitting the berries and the crushed almond topping. The chef who created the recipe grew up on Mexico City and had authored a few books on the national cuisine, so I figured my horchata was in good hands.
I blanched and peeled almonds. (Trust me, next time I’ll buy them already blanched!) I soaked rice and cinnamon sticks overnight. I pureed and added sweetened condensed milk, that miracle of the canned dairy world. I waited. And then I strained. And strained and strained and strained, watching as precious drips of delicious horchata fell into the pitcher below. So far, so good.
It turned out as good as I’d hoped, though as with all experiments, yielded some lessons and future adaptations. It was far better than the overly sweet, pre-mixed version found at many taco shops, but not quite as good as the one we’d had in New Mexico with shaved ice. Next time I’d find a way to get shaved or crushed ice into my drink. Also, I found the final product too sweet. (Shockingly, the original article says that if you want it even creamier, to add a second can of S.C.M!! Ummm, no thanks, I’m not training for an Ironman—yet.) To counteract this, I’d add an extra cup of regular or evaporated milk to the finished product to “water” it down just a bit.
My second agua fresca came about in a manner similar to the aforementioned milky nectar. I had ordered my first tamarindo in the very same New Mexico taco shop, and when I arrived in California, the tart drink was available everywhere. When I found a huge bag of fresh tamarind pods at North Park Produce (the place I was so lovingly mocked for my enthusiasm at tamales), I saw visions of icy glasses of tamarindo dancing in my head.
As I cracked open my first sticky-sweet tamarind pod, a substance I’d only ever seen before in jars and packets of paste, I was intrigued. The pod cracks and falls open easily between the pressure of your fingers, like a perfectly boiled egg. Beneath it, five or six hard beans, the color of dark chocolate, lie encased in a sticky, date-like substance. Holding all the beans together is a netting you must pry each pod from, as if it were a precious fish meant to feed 5,000.
Homemade tamarindo, as I’d soon find out, was no quick task. But I’d made it myself, standing over my tiny counter, in my tiny apartment just five blocks from the coast, freeing all that delicious paste from its netting and then cleaning it off each hard pod. I followed a random internet recipe loosely, using all the pods in the bag (instead of the prescribed 1/3 cup), and boiling them with a big pot of water and some sugar. I set it in the fridge to “steep” overnight, just like the horchata, before straining it through a sieve.
The process was therapeutic—I was alone. It was rewarding—the citrusy drink would last a week in my fridge, refreshing, especially mixed with some soda water and ice. The world of Mexican beverages, like the food, was just beginning to open before me.