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Bowl over your guests with easy, refreshing drinks

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Catherine S. Vodrey

Punch is for a crowd. Punch is for a party. Not everyone wants to stand around the beer keg or wine table on Labor Day, and so friendly, festive punch is a cool alternative for next week's festivities.

Summertime punches are characterized by their use of the summer's bounty of fresh local fruit. Look around you. Late-bearing raspberries looking good? Why not add them to the lemonade? Blueberries looking better? Be our guest.

Perfectly easy and perfectly refreshing, most punches keep for up to a week in the fridge and are a delicious alternative to iced tea.

Watch your guests' eyes light up when you casually offer them a tall iced glass of watermelon punch --you don't get that reaction with pop, that's for sure.

Punch is often thought of as an alcoholic concoction, but it doesn't have to be. But if you want it to be, it's always easy to substitute some vodka, tequila or light rum for some of the liquid in a punch.

Probably stemming from the Hindi word panch, meaning "five," punch has enjoyed a long and robust history. Originally, punches were made with five ingredients, hence the derivation. Those ingredients were always lime, sugar, spices, water and a fermented sap called arrack.

Perhaps embracing it as a supplemental way to ward off scurvy, British sailors enthusiastically took to punch and mentioned it in letters home and diaries as early as the 1600s.

What began as a summery, fruity drink was easily adapted to the cooler climes of the early American Colonies, where it was often served in combination with milk, cream, wine or hot water. Rum was also a favorite addition in the Colonies, as arrack was difficult to come by.

Even in its infancy, punch was a celebratory drink. Seen as a vehicle for conveying wealth and social status, no well-off household was without its punch bowl -- the larger, the better. A long-ago house party in the Caribbean featured a punch bowl "big enough for a goose to swim in," marveled one guest.

Planter's Punch, one of the first offshoots of the original lime and arrack beverage, was the subject of hot debate among those who favored it. So called because it supposedly originated among Jamaican planters, it is like so many other punches -- a blend of sour and sweet, strong and weak.

Sangria, a wine punch still widely enjoyed today, comes originally from the French sangaree, which originally was simply wine with grated nutmeg. The Spanish version is a chilled punch made of red or white wine mixed with brandy, sugar, fruit juice and soda water. Both words are derived from the Latin sanguis for blood, a reference to the deep ruby color of the punch.

Free-lance writer Catherine S. Vodrey enjoys punch on her porch in eastern Ohio.

Raspberry Lemonade Punch

You can substitute any berry that looks good. Blueberries will work, as will blackberries. Use your imagination! The first four ingredients make a concentrate to which you add the club soda for some fizz -- it saves room in your fridge.

1 quart raspberries, picked over
4 cups sugar
5 cups water
4 7 1/2-ounce bottles frozen lemon juice, thawed (we used Minute Maid)
2 quarts chilled club soda

Briefly rinse and pat the raspberries dry. Puree raspberries and strain them in cheesecloth set over a bowl. Reserve berries for another use and set juice aside.

In a large pot, heat together the sugar and the water until clear and syrupy but not actually boiling. Set aside to cool.

To the simple syrup, add the lemon juice and raspberry juice. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Store in the fridge. When it comes time to serve the punch, add the chilled club soda at the last minute. Makes about 4 1/2 quarts.

Agua de Sandia -- Watermelon Punch

From a recent issue of Saveur magazine, this Mexican punch "can be turned into a refreshing cocktail with the addition of cachaca (a Brazilian cane spirit) or white rum to taste."

8- to 10-pound watermelon, preferably yellow
3 to 5 limes, quartered
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
6 to 8 cups water

Seed watermelon, then puree the pulp in a blender or food processor. Strain into a large wide-mouth jar to catch stray seeds.

Squeeze limes into jar, adding the rinds. Add sugar and water and mix well. Adjust flavor with more sugar or limes, if you like. Add plenty of ice, then ladle into tall glasses. Makes 1 gallon.

Fancy Iced Tea

This comes from the new cookbook "Cook & Tell" by Karyl Bannister, the longtime author of the food letter by the same title. If you're going to bypass punch, this is a delicious version of regular iced tea. As Bannister writes, "This is the perfect brew for weddings (my mother served it at my own), lawn parties and assorted special events and warm-weather occasions when lots of people are going to be thirsty."

5 quarts water
10 oranges
7 lemons
1 cup loose orange pekoe tea
1 bunch fresh mint
3 cups sugar

In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Squeeze oranges and lemons into a pitcher. Put orange and lemon rinds, loose tea and mint into the boiling water.

Remove from heat and allow to steep for 1 hour. Strain the tea into a large bowl, squeezing rinds before discarding them. Strain orange and lemon juices, and add juices to the tea with the sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Chill and store in pitchers in the refrigerator. Makes about 5 1/2 quarts.

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