I have to admit that the first time I had horchata was not in Texas. Nope, I had it at here in my New York City neighborhood, at a local Mexican-food cart I frequent on Sundays. Now, this cart doesn’t sell it year round—when it’s cold they have champurrado instead. But recently, when the sun was shining and you didn’t need more than a light jacket to keep the breezes at bay, my vendor beckoned to me and said in Spanish, “At last, I have horchata!”
Horchata is one of those drinks I never really thought about making at home. For me, it’s always been a street treat—a refreshment I’ll grab on warm days when I’m shopping for chiles in Queens or the perfect cool chaser to a fiery taco.
But last week I received an email from a reader who had fallen in love with it when they lived in Texas, but were unable to find it where the now lived. They asked if I had a recipe and so I decided to see what I could find.
Have you ever had horchata? It’s what’s known as an aqua fresca, which is a Mexican beverage that is a blend of sweetened water with fruits, seeds, nuts or grains. On the streets in Mexico City every corner has carts selling these refreshing drinks, but you can also find them in restaurants as well. Take the lunch place I ate at a couple of times. When you sat down, the server greeted you with their agua fresca of the day and this glass was never empty as the server was vigilant in keeping it filled. The presentation and ritual reminded me of how Texans drink their iced tea—a bottomless glass of cool, invigorating liquid that goes with everything, especially spicy dishes.
Horchata is very creamy and the first time I drank it I thought it was made with milk. But instead it’s a dairy-free combination of rice, almonds, sugar and water. Most will throw in some cinnamon, vanilla and lime for added depth and flavor as well. When researching recipes, I found that there was little variation in method—you just soak pulverized rice with blanched almonds overnight, blend it with water, strain it and enjoy. Sure, you have to be a little patient, but horchata is well worth the wait.
In the warmer months you’ll always find a pitcher of iced tea in my refrigerator. But I’ll need to make room as I now plan on keeping a pitcher of horchata in there as well. Sure, I won’t stop drinking horchata on the street—I’ll need something to wash down the tacos and tamales—but now that I know how simple it is to make at home there’s no reason why I can’t enjoy it at any time.
Horchata (Adapted from Rick Bayless)
2/3 cup of uncooked rice
1 1/4 cups of blanched almonds
1 teaspoon of lime juice
Zest from one lime
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup of sugar or brown sugar, depending on how dark you want the drink
In a blender or spice grinder, grind the rice until it’s powdery. Place ground rice, almonds, lime juice, lime zest and the cinnamon stick in a pot and cover with two cups of warm water. Let stand overnight or for eight hours.
After the mixture has soaked, take out the cinnamon stick and pour contents into a blender with two cups of water and blend until smooth. Take a mesh colander that has been double lined with cheesecloth, and over a bowl or pitcher slowly pour the mixture, wringing the cheesecloth to get every last drop out. You should have a milky, smooth liquid at this point. If there are still rice and almond bits floating around, strain it again.
In a pot, heat up one cup of sugar and one cup of water on medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Stir this sugar water into the horchata, along with the vanilla. Add one more cup of water and serve over ice or chilled.
Keeps for several days in the refrigerator, but I bet it won't last that long! And you might notice some separation after a day, but just stir it and it'll be right again.