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Cool off simply, sweetly with summer drinks

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

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 have yet to come.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

The base

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 like 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 zippered-top 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, 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.

The sweet

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 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 11/2 teaspoon flavored extract such as 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 a few ounces 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 below.) 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.

Ingredients to flavor simple syrup

1/2 cup packed herbs such as any variety of basil, mint, thyme, verbena, lemongrass, lemon balm, sage or even cilantro

1 Tbsp. lemon, grapefruit, orange or lime zest

3 Tbsp. lavender, sliced ginger or rosemary

1 cup fresh or frozen sliced fruit or vegetable such as sweet corn or cucumber

1 pinch saffron threads

2 3-inch cinnamon sticks

2 Tbsp. whole cardamom pods, star anise, cloves or allspice (a teaspoon or two of ground spices will also work, but they won't dissolve in the liquid, so your final syrup will contain spice flecks)

1 cup dried fruits such as figs, cranberries, currants or pineapple

1 whole dried pepper or 1 sliced fresh pepper such as ancho, chipotle, jalapeño or serrano

1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped from pod into syrup

Blueberry Shrub

4 cups fresh blueberries

2 cups cider vinegar

2 cups sugar

Place blueberries in a nonmetallic container. Add the vinegar. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least three days. Pour the vinegar-marinated blueberries into a sieve over a bowl; press the berries to release all their juice. Discard the solids.

Pour the blueberry liquid into a medium saucepan. Add the sugar and boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour the sweetened blueberry liquid into a small container and chill.

To make each drink, add 1/4 cup blueberry concentrate into a medium cocktail glass filled with ice and add 1 cup cold water. To make a pitcher, combine a cup of the shrub with about six cups of water. Add additional simple syrup to taste.

Makes about a dozen servings.

- From 'Porch Parties' by Denise Gee (Chronicle Books, $16.95)

Agua Fresca Honeydew

10 cups peeled honeydew melon chunks (from about two melons, or equal amount cantaloupe or watermelon)

1 cup fresh lime juice

1 cup simple syrup

8 cups water

Add the melon in batches to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides. Add the lime juice and process again.

Pour the melon mixture into a large serving container and add simple syrup. Add the water, mix well and serve over ice. Makes about a dozen servings.

- Adapted from 'Porch Parties' by Denise Gee (Chronicle Books, $16.95)

Lemon-Thyme Iced Tea

6 oz. unsweetened iced black tea

2 oz. lemon-thyme simple syrup

1 oz. vodka

1 oz. limoncello

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 sprig fresh thyme

In a cocktail shaker, combine the tea, syrup, vodka, limoncello and lemon juice. Add ice, then shake. Strain into a tall ice-filled glass. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme. Makes 1 serving.

- The Associated Press

Purple Basil Lemonade with Balsamic Vinegar

4 cups water

1/2 cup lemon juice

3 Tbsp. purple basil simple syrup

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Combine ingredients and serve over ice. Add more syrup and vinegar to taste. Makes 4 servings.

- Adapted from a recipe from Gabriel Valley Farms, an organic nursery in Georgetown that specializes in hard-to-find herb varieties

Hibiscus Ancho Mint Tea

2 quarts water

1 cup dried hibiscus flower pods (alternatively, you could use a large bag of Nile Valley hibiscus or hibiscus mint tea, which is available at Austin farmers' markets)

1 cup flavored simple syrup such as ancho mint or ginger

In a large pot, combine the water and dried hibiscus pods. Cover and let stand at least 30 minutes.

Uncover the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let simmer for six to eight minutes. (If using the Nile Valley tea bags, you don't have to heat the water at all . Just add syrup.) Strain through a sieve, discarding the solids. Add syrup and refrigerate. Serve over ice. Makes 8 servings.

- Addie Broyles