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Seasonal Pantry: Refreshing sips for the summer

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It is quite possible that it is going to be a long, hot summer, with the county receiving its first Red Flag warning of the season a few days into June. Some of us have been rubbing our eyes as we look to the sky to try to determine where the smoke is from (Yolo County).

This will mean a lot of things when it comes to our gardens, farms, vineyards, and ranches. When will there be no more pasture for grazing? How many days over 90 degrees before tomato plants and grapevines shut down?

Hot weather is nearly as tricky a time as a freeze or rains that come at the wrong time.

Combine these considerations with the likelihood of power outages when it’s windy and the ever-present fear of fire, and it seems that summer could be a tricky time, rather than a season of leisurely barbecues, swimming parties, and afternoons spent sipping beer and wine.

Paying attention to your diet and making a few seasonal adjustments can help you navigate whatever Mother Nature has in store for us until fall or winter rains finally come.

If you regularly drink soda, including diet soda, now would be a great time to reconsider that indulgence. Unless you are drinking a boutique soda from a small producer, you are either taking in a lot of sugar or the metabolic destabilizers in diet soda. Both have a negative impact on health and, in hot weather, we tend to drink more of whatever our beverage of choice is.

The same is true with alcohol. A glass of cold white wine, sparkling wine, or beer feels refreshing when we drink it, but the alcohol has the opposite effect on our bodies. When temperatures soar and you really want a drink, it is best to go with something lower in alcohol than something that weighs in at 14, 15, and even 16 percent. I prefer Vinho Verde, an effervescent white wine from Portugal that is usually about 9% alcohol, when there’s a heat wave.

There are, of course, many options that involve neither sugar and chemicals nor alcohol. Flavored waters, which were promoted by the state’s 2012 “Rethink Your Drink” campaign, are your best bets, with shrubs and agua fresca the second and third best options, along with ice tea, ice coffee and lemonade.

Today’s recipes are those that are best right now. As different crops ripen, it will be time to move on to other ingredients.

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Water flavored with a wide range of herbs, spices, fruits, and even vegetables have become so popular that there is now a big retail market for them. But, honestly, it’s rather foolish to buy something so simple that you can easily make at home. And homemade will be better than what you buy, too. Certainly, if you need to snag something when you’re out and about, a commercial flavored water is probably your best choice. But keeping a jug in the fridge, rather than a bunch of bottles and cans, is a good idea, too.

Flavored Water

Makes 2 quarts

— Flavoring agents (see list below)

— High-quality tap water or spring water

Put the flavoring agents into a 2-quart glass jar or similar vessel. Fill water and let macerate in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours before drinking. Strain into glasses, with or without ice, and top up the jar with fresh water. Most flavored waters will stay bright and flavorful for up to a week, depending on how many times you top them off, of course. You’ll be able to taste when the flavorings are exhausted.

Suggested flavors:

1 thinly sliced medium cucumber, 4 or 5 sliced radishes, 2 or 3 lemon slices, sprig of lemon verbena (optional).

1 whole lemon, thinly sliced; several large basil leaves.

1½ cup thinly sliced strawberries, several turns of black pepper

Several fresh lavender flowers, 1 or 2 orange slices

3 celery stalks, thinly sliced; 1 sprig Italian parsley

4 apricots, pitted and quartered; 3 cardamom pods, crushed; 1 or 2 fresh ginger slices

¼ sliced small pineapple, two cilantro sprigs, several turns of black pepper

2 or 3 Cara Cara Orange slices, 1 tablespoon rose water

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Of the 20 or so shrubs that I make throughout the year, this is one of my favorites. If you want to make it, do it right away, as apricot season does not last more than a few weeks. If you have trouble finding dead-ripe apricots, check your farmers market or visit Imwalle Gardens (685 West Third St., Santa Rosa).

Apricot Shrub

Makes about 2 quarts

3-4 pounds dead-ripe apricots, pitted and sliced

¼-½ cup granulated sugar, if needed

5-6 cardamom pods, cracked open

½ vanilla bean

4 cups, plus more as needed, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar

Put the apricots in a large stainless steel, glass, or porcelain bowl. Taste a slice or two. If they are very ripe, they should be quite sweet. If they are too tart for you, add ¼ cup of the sugar, stir, and taste again. Add the remaining ¼ cup sugar as needed.

Add the cardamom pods and vanilla bean, stir in the vinegar, cover, and refrigerate for at least 3 days and as long as 6 days.

Line a large strainer with cheesecloth, set it over a deep bowl and decant the fruit and vinegar mixture. Stir it now and then and let it drain for 20 to 30 minutes, until the fruit seems to have given up most of its moisture.

Discard the solids, pour the shrub into a clean pitcher or jar and enjoy over ice, with or without sparkling water.

If the shrub seems too thick, feel free to thin it with more vinegar. The shrub will keep for several weeks.

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Aqua Fresca is typically served in taquerias and casual Mexican cafes and restaurants. Most are delicious, but sometimes they can be too sweet for my palate and so, during summer months, I typically make them at home.

You can use almost any summer fruit but apricots are best right now. Soon, it will be time for berry, peach, and, finally, watermelon and muskmelon. Hibiscus flavors (“jamaica” in Latin stores) makes a wonderful year-round version.

Apricot Agua Fresca

Makes about 4 to 6 quarts

12 cups pitted sliced ripe apricots

3-4 slices fresh ginger, lightly pounded

½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice

— Simple syrup, if needed (see Note below)

— Ice water

Set a food mill fitted with its smallest blade over a large, deep glass, ceramic or porcelain bowl. Pass the fruit through it. Add the ginger and lime juice and taste the mixture.

If it is too tart, add simple syrup, ¼ cup at a time, stirring and tasting after each addition, until it suits you.

Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours or overnight.

Use tongs to remove and discard the ginger.

Pour the apricot mixture into a large pitcher or other beverage container; it should fill the container by no more than about two-thirds. Top off with water, stir, and enjoy over ice.

For reasons I cannot explain, I do not feel a caffeine rush or get jittery when I drink New Orleans coffee. I can drink a 12-ounce glass of it and then take a nap.

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Espresso from just coffee beans, on the other hand, can keep me awake all night. I also find New Orleans coffee has very little acid.

The best way to make iced coffee is this way, by cold brewing; it has a smooth, gentle, rich flavor.

My Iced Coffee

Makes 2 quarts

2½-3 ounces French Market coffee, ground (see note below)

1 2-quart glass jar

— Ice

Put the coffee into the glass jar. Fill the jar half full with water, stir well, and top off the jar with more water. Put into the refrigerator for 18 hours.

Set a strainer (lined with cheesecloth, if needed) over a large pitcher and decant the coffee. (Compost the coffee grounds or use them around your roses or hydrangeas.)

Enjoy over ice, with a bit of simple syrup and a splash of whole milk if you prefer it that way. The coffee will stay bright and delicious for 5 to 6 days.

Note: French Market brand coffee comes in a red can and is widely available in local markets, including Oliver’s, Pacific, and Fircrest. It is from New Orleans and contains both roasted coffee beans and roasted chicory root.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com

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