I used to be a travel writer, and one of the pieces of advice I gave and followed the most was to pay attention to shoulder season. London in early April? Cape Cod in October? Yes and yes.
How does this relate to cooking, you ask? (You mean you don't just want my random anecdotes?) It can be just as helpful to think about the shoulder seasons of food, too. You know, light soups in late summer or very early fall, roasted asparagus at the cusp of spring.
My new favorite example is horchata. The rice-and-milk beverage from Mexico will quench anyone's thirst on a hot day, but right now for me, it's ideal for that blurred area between summer and fall. Kind of like a short-sleeve sweater, as one of my tasters said. Cold and sweet is perfect for those toasty September afternoons we're still having, while the more substantial texture created when rice is ground into milk with cinnamon and vanilla hints at the headily spiced fall and winter days to come.
Pati Jinich, one of my go-to recipe sources, calls the drink "super refreshing and sweet." The chef, cookbook author and TV personality (the new season of her public television series, "Pati's Mexican Table," debuts nationwide the week of Oct. 4) says it's definitely something you can play around with. In Mexico, variations include the addition of almonds and sweetened condensed or evaporated milk. To make it vegan, use your choice of nondairy milk, or try coconut water. If you stick with dairy, whole or low-fat milk is best for creaminess. I halved the amount of water in Jinich's original recipe, but you can add more (up to 3 cups total), depending on how thin you want the drink. Keep in mind you'll probably be serving it over ice. The amounts of sugar and vanilla are up for interpretation, as well.
The recipe is a cinch to make, as long as you plan ahead. The dried rice needs to soak for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. The ultimate goal is to grind the rice as finely as possible, ideally to the texture of rice flour, Jinich says. A high-powered blender such as a Vitamix can easily dispatch the whole batch at once and give you just the right texture. With a more traditional blender, you will need to blend in batches and return the strained granules of rice to the blender a few times to ensure it is fine enough. The batches I made this way were still very good.
If you've never had horchata, know that the graininess you get, regardless of your blender, is supposed to be there. "Some people may not be used to it," Jinich says. "It is supposed to be sandy, and hopefully they find the charm in that."
Consider us charmed.
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HORCHATA WITH CINNAMON AND VANILLA
Active: 15 minutes | Total: 2 hours 15 minutes, plus more soaking time as desired
6 to 8 servings (makes 6 cups)
Recipe notes: If you can't find Ceylon ("true") cinnamon sticks, which are thinner and less assertive than cassia cinnamon, Jinich suggests substituting a teaspoon or two of ground cinnamon to taste.
The horchata can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. Stir well before serving. Storing it in glass jars makes it easy to redistribute the ground rice with a few shakes.
2 cups long-grain or extra-long-grain white rice
1 cinnamon stick, preferably Ceylon ("true cinnamon"; see headnote)
1 1/2 cups hot water
4 cups whole or low-fat milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Ice, for serving
Ground cinnamon, for serving (optional)
Place the rice in a medium bowl and cover with the hot water. Crumble the cinnamon stick over the top. Let it rest, covered, at room temperature for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Place half of the rice mixture in the blender with half of the milk, sugar and vanilla, and blend until the rice is mostly broken down. Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain into a pitcher or container. If there is a lot of ground rice in the strainer, return it to the blender with some of the liquid and blend again until smooth. (You should still feel the graininess of the rice, but it should be about as fine as rice flour.) Strain again, making sure almost all the ground rice has gone through the strainer and into the pitcher. Repeat with the remaining rice mixture, milk, sugar and vanilla.
Stir well and serve over ice, or refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Sprinkle some ground cinnamon on top, if desired.
Nutrition (based on 8 servings, using low-fat milk)| Calories: 310; Total Fat: 3 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 15 mg; Sodium: 75 mg; Carbohydrates: 62 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 25 g; Protein: 8 g.
(Adapted from a recipe by chef, cookbook author and TV personality Pati Jinich.)