I have to find ways to keep cool in the height of Summer here in Haiti. I honestly feel that every year the summer is hotter than the previous one. Yes, I was born in a country which is 10 degrees north of the Equator, but sometimes I feel like I can barely tolerate the heat! Guyana has two seasons: wet and dry. This is due to the fact that it is part of the Amazon area and is one of the most pristine rainforest areas still in existence in the world. The heat can be oppressive as the humidity factor is high. When it rains, it can for last for days on end. The resulting weather gives life to a lush rich country with a multitude of flora and fauna. Summers are hot, sticky, and long.
In Haiti, the heat is different. It is drier type with an occasional breeze. Hurricane season in this part of the world begins June 1 and goes through December 1. It's a precarious time here, as we are sometimes hit by major storms, more often in the Southern peninsula of Jeremie than the center where Port at Prince is located. If a hurricane comes en route from the east, passing over Puerto Rico and neighboring Dominican Republic; we can experience heavy rains but less of the strong gale force winds. Our high mountains work in our favor and dissipate the hurricane force winds. But, in the rare event that a hurricane strikes from the west and gets into the bay of Port of Prince, we pray and hunker down, as we know that there will be devastation.
These days, it is exceedingly hot. The temperature is regularly in the 90's and it is hot, hot, hot!! Often in the afternoon, there are looming dark clouds and thunder and everyone here anxiously awaits relief from the heat. Recently winds blow the rain clouds away leaving us disappointed and drenched in disbelief. Unlike Guyana which is a country with abundance of rivers and waterways, Haiti has limited water sources and many dry river beds. Water is a valuable and a prized commodity. When it rains here, we are thankful. The crops will grow and be nourished, and the cisterns will fill and be a reserve water supply. Nature will flourish and the reforestation can progress. When there is a drought, we feel the deprivation deeply. Life becomes harder and more expensive as fruit and vegetables are subject to the nature of the rainy season.
In Haiti, believe it or not; we actually enjoy a change of seasons. The best months temperature wise are from November thru March. The days are cooler and even though there is sun and warmth 365 days of the year, the days are more agreeable during these "winter months". This has a great deal to do with the altitude here. Haiti is the Amerindian name for "Land of many Hills". The coastal and low lying areas are warmer and the areas which are hilly and have more vegetation boast a cooler climate. I am sure that many would be surprised to learn that homes in the mountains often have fireplaces or need some type of heat for the winter months. The temperature dips to the 40's and if you live in these areas, you truly enjoy a change of season. It's lovely!
Back to my story about the summer and the months of heat. These days, even people who live in the mountains complain that the summer months are no longer as cool in these altitudes. I guess global warming is really taking a toll everywhere. Higher temperatures and rising sea levels are becoming a reality. We all have to dress in lighter clothes, eat foods which are less starchy and easier to digest. The most important thing of all is to remain hydrated during the long, warm days of July and August. With this in mind, I decided to make this the subject for this blog. I thought about a cool summer drink, using some ingredients which are synonymous with summer, et voila…the watermelon and cucumbers were the perfect match.
For as far back as I can remember, watermelons have been grown and enjoyed in both Haiti and Guyana. They are abundant in the hot months when we really crave something juicy and cool. As a child, I really don't think that I ever had watermelons in any other form besides being sliced or served in a fruit salad. Watermelons are also used in fruit punches at times, and are well known to be great thirst quenchers. Today, we are a little more sophisticated with ingredients and are always trying to take them to the next level. I have heard about grilled watermelon (never tried it), and now watermelons are also being used in savory salads, which I actually had at lunch today in my chef salad. The chunks of fruit were a lovely addition and gave a delightful burst of slightly cool, sweet juice. I served my chef salad with a homemade balsamic, garlic and honey vinaigrette. I found it a great way to accompany the greens and the watermelon.
My family and I went to the beach for the weekend. It was a glorious little escape from the city to the coast for 2 days. It's amazing how a little change in environment can be such a "pick-me-up". We swam in the magnificent Caribbean turquoise waters and went boating to a group of small islands called the arcadins, just off of the mainland of Haiti. It was beautiful and deserted. In a word…awesome. In the background the majestic mountains of the big island. Such amazing beauty which most of you can not imagine exists in this country. A far cry from the mainstream media's images of Haiti.
On the way back home, we bought watermelons, grenadines and limes from the street vendors along the route. I decided to make a cocktail with the watermelon and limes. The result was so delicious that it was worthy of sharing. So here is a great recipe for a summer drink which you can make and share with those you love. Here's to the Summer of 2017, may it be a happy and memorable one for you and yours.
Watermelon Cucumber Mojito
Makes 4 glasses
5-6 cups chopped watermelon, or half of a round watermelon 1 large slice for making garnish
1 cucumber 3/4 chopped into pieces or grated, 1/4 for garnish
5 limes (key limes) or 3 Persian limes, halved
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup water
1 star anise * optional, but highly recommended
8 sprigs of fresh mint
1/2 – 3/4 cup white rum, or more if you prefer
Lots of ice
You will need a pitcher with a wide opening or a container to muddle your fruit
Juicer or lime squeezer
A muddler (or a blender), sieve, and a spoon with a long handle for stirring.
In a small pot, put the sugar, water and star anise. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Heat through but turn off heat just as it comes to a boil. Set aside to cool.
Cube the watermelon; you can leave the seeds as you will have to strain the mixture. Reserve some small pieces for adding to the drink
Grate or cut the cucumber. Reserve a part for presentation: a slice for the rim and small cubes for the glass
Cut the limes in half and then into quarters. Press with a citrus press and then put the skins into the pitcher to be muddled along with the mint leaves and stems.
Garnish : Reserve a piece of cucumber and a cube of water melon as a garnish. Reserve a mint sprig as a garnish as well as a few leaves to be finely shredded and added to drink before serving.
I am giving instructions for two methods, choose the method appropriate to your kitchen/ bar equipment.
In a large pitcher or bowl, add the melon, cucumber, and mint. Squeeze the limes and then add the lime juice and the pieces to the fruit mix. With a muddler ( wooden stick) press hard on the fruit, crushing them. You may also try a potato masher to do this part. Muddling the fruit allows the natural oils and essences of the limes to be released. The fruit also maintain some of their intergrity in this method. Remove the star anise and pour the cooled sugar syrup into the mixture. Strain the juice into a clean pitcher to remove all crushed pieces and fibers, expressing all of the liquid. Add the 1/2 cup white rum and stir well. Use a half of the sugar syrup and add to sweeten as desired. You can adjust the quantity of rum now if you prefer a stronger drink.
If you do not have muddler, blend the fruit together just in pulses. Add half of the mint leaves and stalks, reserve the rest for serving the drink. Do not blend the limes as this will make the drink bitter. If using this method, press or juice the limes separately and then add the juice to the mixture. Remove the whole star anise form the simple syrup and add to the fruit juice. Strain, pressing all of the juice from the fruit into a clean pitcher. Cut or shred the remaining mint leaves and add the quantity of rum desired.
For a lovely presentation, use a pretty glass and rub a piece of lime around the rim to moisten. Put a tablespoon of white sugar into a small plate and place the rim of the glass in the sugar. The sugar will adhere to the glass. Using a tooth pick, make a skewer of a slice of cucumber and a cube of watermelon. You can hinge this into the edge of the glass to serve. Add small chunks of cut fruit to the base of the glass and lots of ice .Pour cocktail into the glass and place the skewered fruit along the rim. Put a fresh piece of mint on the top and serve.
Note: It's always better to use less of the sugar syrup and alcohol when making the drink. You can increase the sugar and intensify the alcohol level afterwards as desired.