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Everything you need to know to make your own drinks this summer, so you can be the all-natural hero in your family.
Lemons get a very bad rap. We're taught from a young age that when life hands us lemons, our only possible recourse from this terrible fate is to hunker down and make some lemonade. (Strangely, we are left without advice when life hands us limes.)
And then, there are the lyrics to that old song that's been playing in my head all this week:
Lemon tree, very pretty
And the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat.
Oh, really? Lemons as terrible as unrequited love? I beg to differ.
Lemons are a pantry staple, of course. Just this week, I finished off a pan-full of pork chops with a squeeze of lemon to brighten up the sauce. Lemon juice is the perfect ingredient in the dressing on this kale salad, and I defy you to make a decent hummus without it.
Citrus is not local here in the northeast. But like olive oil, avocados and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, lemons and limes fall into that category of things I'm just going to keep on hand anyway.
My mom was disabled and didn't do a lot of cooking from scratch when I was a kid. So until I was an adult, squeezing lemons seemed like one of those things that must surely be so ridiculously complicated, it would be better left to a factory. Apparently, given the ever-present lemon-shaped plastic squeeze bottle in refrigerators all across the land, this impression is shared by many others.
The truth is, it takes just about one minute to squeeze a lemon. One minute. Or maybe even less, depending on the type of squeezer you have. (I'll include links to two types.)
And in return for squeezing it yourself, you get every drop of healthy, nutrient-rich goodness that nature intended for you. Nothing lost in the concentrate-making process, and not a sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite or sodium sulfite in sight. (Yes, all three preservatives are in the squeeze bottle.) Also, real lemons and limes will last in your vegetable drawer for at least a week or two. And, should you squeeze more than you need, you can freeze the extra for future lemonade-making endeavors.
WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU...
Life actually gives us all kinds of things that can make for a great drink! Strawberries in the spring, stone fruit in summer, apples in the fall, more apples in the winter.... And depending on where you live, you may have access to local lemons and limes or, if you're like me, you can find them in the produce aisle pretty much year round.
Whatever life gives you in your neck of the woods, you can follow this basic formula to make a drink out of it:
Lemon/Lime Juice + Simple Syrup + Flavors + Water = Delish.
I first learned about simple syrup during a brief stint as a bartender at a restaurant called AJ Spurs in Buellton, California around 1990. (Interesting side note to feminist history: I was the first female bartender they'd ever had, and the first one they or I had ever heard of.)
Simple syrup is just equal parts granulated sugar and water, melted together into a syrup in a warm saucepan. It provides a dash of sweetness to a lot of cocktail recipes. The genius thing about simple syrup is that it provides a way of adding sweetness to a cold beverage, without those annoying granules of sugar in the bottom of your glass.
Simple syrup is the key to lemonade. Just combine lemon juice and simple syrup, add water and voila - you've got lemonade. Ditto for limeade.
Once you have simple syrup in your repertoire, you can make sweet drinks out of all kinds of things. It couldn't be simpler to make, and if you make a large batch, you can freeze the extra for future drink-making projects.
Simple syrup also gives you an avenue to introduce other flavors into your drink. A hint of mint? Just drop a few sprigs into the saucepan to steep as you warm the syrup (as in this week's Fizzy Mint Limeade recipe). The longer you leave it in, the stronger the flavor.
In this week's recipe for Extra Lemony Lemonade, I used this technique to boost the lemon flavor. Homemade lemonade traditionally has a hint of lemony sweetness, rather than an intense lemon flavor. Conversely, store-bought lemonade usually includes natural or artificial "lemon flavor" as an ingredient to give the drink a more powerful lemon punch. Many of us are so used to drinking store-bought lemonade that we are surprised (disappointed?) when homemade lemonade is more subtly flavored. We might be tempted to add extra lemon juice to amp up the flavor, but this doesn't work because lemon juice adds sourness as well, which then needs to be balanced with more sugar, which ends you up with a way-too-sweet drink that still doesn't taste any more like lemons (I've been there).
So for this recipe I figured out a better solution: steep lemon zest in the simple syrup. This makes for a lemony sweet syrup, to add extra lemon flavor to your drink without adding any more sourness.
Another way to add flavor - and color - to a drink is to add another fruit. In the recipe for Summer-Thyme Lemonade, you'll see we start with mashed-up ("muddled" in bartending-speak) ripe peaches in the bottom of the pitcher. I also steeped thyme in the simple syrup. Add the lemon juice, thyme syrup and water to the peaches, and you've got a beautifully peach-colored and -flavored drink. The mashed-up fruit also adds natural sweetness to the drink, which means you need less sugar (I call for less simple syrup in that recipe).
DRINKS FOR A CROWD
Yes, you can make lemonade for your next party! No need to buy bottles of the stuff. Depending on the price of lemons where you live, you may or may not save a lot of money making your own, but it's totally doable (and of course, since you made it yourself it's all-natural). It takes about 5 lemons for a large pitcher, which if you do the math from my comment above, should take about 5 minutes to squeeze. Here's how I make lemonade for a crowd:
Squeeze the lemons and make a batch of simple syrup ahead of time. Then combine 1 cup lemon juice + 1 cup simple syrup in a 2-cup container (or vary the proportions to your liking). This is your homemade "lemonade mix." Freeze it or keep it in the fridge. At party time, just pour a batch of this premade mix into each pitcher and fill the pitcher with cold water.
In this week's lemonade recipes, I suggest pouring the drink over ice in each glass, rather than adding ice to the pitcher, because of course ice will dilute the lemonade as it melts. If you want to add ice to the pitcher instead, you can add it along with the water as long as the total volume of ice + water is the amount the recipe calls for. So for example, if the recipe calls for 2 quarts of water, put ice in your measuring container, then pour water over it to the 2 quart mark, and add the ice water all at once to the pitcher. If you've used a lot of ice, the lemonade will be too strong at the beginning, so do this before you want to serve it so it has time to dilute to the proper flavor. Or, if you only use a little ice, you can serve it right away.
For the Fizzy Mint Limeade, it's best not to add ice to the pitcher at all because the ice will reduce the bubbles from the seltzer. Instead, just keep the seltzer and the limeade "mix" in the fridge until you're ready to use them, so that you're making a cold drink from the outset.
One more note about homemade lemonade for a party: it generally won't work to serve it from a drink dispenser because the pulp clogs up the spout so nothing comes out. You could strain every last bit of pulp from your juice but a) this is more work and b) leaving all that rustic pulpiness in lets everyone know it's homemade. So, I just serve it in large pitchers instead.