Dust off the notion that this sexy Spanish wonder is not your Auntie’s afternoon stickie
By Annie B. Copps
To talk about sherry, especially for you naysayers, I think it’s important to remember that sherry is really the birth mother of tapas and deserves a little respect and understanding—the reward for some patience is big. And you do like tapas, right? Well, the tapas tradition, no culture, was born from the tradition of Spaniards leaving the house for a little tipple of, you guessed it: sherry. Because in Andalucía, sherry was what they had to drink. A bar guest would be served a small glass of sherry and a few things happened. One they enjoyed it. Two the bartenders got smart and realized that their guests could and would drink more if they had a little something in their bellies and if it was something a little salty, their guests would be thirstier still. They created little plates of pre-made, easy-to-slice-and-plate dishes. The customers used those little plates to cover their glasses of sherry because of the flies and dust. Thus, quite likely, the birth of tapas, from the Spanish verb “tapar,” to cover. So even after reading this you are not keen on exploring the wonderful world of sherry, I hope at the least, you are grateful to the makers of sherry for bringing you tapas.
Sherry, as mentioned before, originates from Jerez (“sherry” is a bastardization of Jerez or Xeres) in the Spanish region of Andalucía, the Southwest coast. This is an area close to Africa (you can see Morocco from the coastline) and one that Arabs ruled for centuries. The coastline is a stunning playground of long , sandy beaches, and golf courses and the interior, equally beautiful but very hot and dry. Many of the iconic Spanish traditions come from this area—the testosterone dripping matadors in their intricately embroidered costumes, flamenco dancing and the guitar music that goes with it, Arabic tiles and architecture and white-washed buildings with tile roofs.
Sherry is a fortified wine crafted in the solera system and is from three varietals of white grapes: palamino fino is used the most, followed by moscatel and Pedro Ximenez; and it is made in seven styles: fino, amontillado, manzanilla, oloroso, cream, palo cortado, and Pedro Ximenez.
Perhaps a lot of new words for you.
First, fortified wines. A bit of neutral alcohol, usually brandy, is added to some wines, such as Port, Marsala, Madiera, and sherry, during or after fermentation. Port wine is fortified at the beginning of fermentation to keep it sweet. Sherry is fortified at the end of the fermentation process to stabilize the wine against bacteria and oxidation—for years it was shipped in sailboats sloshing along for months at sea and it didn’t always arrive as delicious as when it started.
Now, about that solera system--it was invented by sherry makers. Several rows of small wooden barrels with sherry are stacked on top of each other according to vintage (oldest on the bottom) and style. About one quarter of the sherry from a barrel in the row above is used to fill the barrel below and so on, top to bottom. No oak barrel is ever completely emptied, there is less and less over time, but there is always a bit from its older sibling or grandparent (some sherries will have traces of wine more than 100 years old). When the wine reaches the bottom row of barrels, it is bottled.
Don’t worry too much about the grape varietals. In short, palamino fino, or just palomino, is the most popular and the work horse of sherry – 90% of sherry uses palomino. It’s fairly acidic and frankly boring on it’s own, so it needs the help of moscatel and Pedro Ximenez, which are sweeter, to balance it out and give it some character. If you are new to sherry and do not want a sweet wine this is a good segue into types or styles of sherry.
Sherry is definitely a “food” wine meant to be served with savory dishes. Do be careful though, because of its high alcohol, it’s content meant to be sipped, so while it’s nice to serve it in a proper wine glass, chilled, pour one quarter the amount. Of the seven styles of sherry, fino, manzanilla, and amontillado are lighter, crisp, and dry wines perfect with tapas, of course, particularly jamon and olives, but as a New Englander I think they pair really well with most shellfish—particularly oysters, scallops, and clams. I love a drizzle on top of lobster bisque.
Moving on to oloroso and palo cortado, these sherries can dry and sweet or somewhere in the middle, depending on how much muscatel or Pedro Ximenez has been added. They often spend many years in the pig pile of wine barrels and this lends to some deep richness and all sorts of varieties in flavor (all those generations of juice blending together in the hot sun). They go well with many foods, but to be honest, I like a sip of palo cortado on its own—they can be so expressive.
Now for the sweet sherries. So called “stickies” or PX (for Pedro Ximenez). These are delicious gems, as well and made with more muscatel and Pedro Ximenez. The grapes are often sun-dried before crushing to concentrate the sugars. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so a little of these wines go a long way for me. I think they are terrific with ginger-laced desserts to balance them out
There is gobs more to know about sherry and I’m happy to blather on about this special wine—feel free to tell me what you think about sherry and ask any questions by clicking the contact button.
Being neither clairvoyant nor omnipotent, despite what I might tell should we ever meet in person, I don’t know where you are whilst you read these carefully chosen words from my very first ever personal blog post. So, where I am, it is the first day of summer and the weather is warming up. So yeah, I am super-psyched to get outside--for any number of reasons. Mostly I want to get outside and get the grill going. We prefer to cook over a live wood or charcoal fire, but if you have a propane gas grill (I’m squeezing my heinie so as not to judge), that’s cool. A lot of you want to get steak, chicken, fish, and/or vegetables onto those grill grates, but me, I’m itching to make paella, the rice and saffron-laced ambassador of Spanish cuisine.
You can make paella inside in the winter and it’s great, but, wow, if you can do it outside it’s all the better.
Paella, as mentioned, is a Spanish dish, most likely from Valencia which like all the great iconic dishes of the world is wrought with controversy about ingredients: who made it first and where it originated. Some Spaniards will tell you must have rabbit in it. Or chorizo. Or chicken. Or beans. You can put what you like in it. I think the most important bits are the rice; a special chubby, starchy, short-grain rice that goes by the name of Bomba or Calasparra. It’s similar to the Arborio rice used in Italian risotto, but that will be in another post and I’ll being using words like amylose and amylopectin (I’m trying not to be science-y this first run). So rice. Special rice. And the second important ingredient for me to make paella is saffron. The queen of spices. The single stamen from a special crocus flower, plucked by hand, in season. Super expensive, but you won’t need too much. Buy the real deal. Never by ground—you’re being ripped off. Always buy the whole stamens. It’s important to soak the saffron in a bit of water (add the water to the pan), because if you just add it to the pan (it will make more sense if you make it to the recipe), it is not oil soluble, so it won’t release it saffron-y love and it will just get stuck in your teeth. You’ll wonder why you spent $11 on the f**king saffron. If used correctly, it will a stunning orange-y red hue to the dish and a light sorta floral aroma (remember the crocuses, but I think it tastes like, well, saffron).
So the recipe. It’s important to cook this in stages and develop strong flavors from each addition of vegetables, aka the sofrito. When you add the rice, some refer to it as toasting or parching the rice. That means the rice absorbs the liquid from vegetables and chorizo in the pan. Be careful not to brown the rice (that will make it hard for the rice to absorb the liquid and it will be unpleasantly undercooked). Also there is something special called the soccarat. The soccarat is the super yummy, crunchy rice that gets stuck to the bottom of the pan. After everything is cooked, you can turn up the volume on the heat and toast the rice on the bottom of the pan – be careful. The rice goes from no soccarat to burnt quickly.
Lastly, the name paella has some interesting stories attached to it. I heard for years, that it comes from the Spanish words “para” (for) and “ella” (her). The story goes that the men and the women switched domestic responsibilities and the men stayed home and tended the kids, garden, and did the many household chores, while the women went out and did the job of hunting and gathering. When the women came home with the bounty of the field and sea, the men cooked and presented to their spouse a lovely dish paella, “for her.” Romantic. I have also heard that paella comes from the Arabic word, “baqiyah” or leftovers. The Arabs were in charge of Southern Spain for a long time. Likely when paella came to be. You decide.
I have about 20 more paragraphs of paella love and lore to share, but maybe you might want to just make some. Here’s a great way to make it. Substitute as you wish.
If you’re having trouble locating ingredients, you can buy all the ingredients (except the fresh vegetbales), plus paella pans in all sizes from an AMAZING online Spanish grocer, latienda.com
Have fun and buen provecho.
ABC’S of Paella
10 to 20 threads saffron
about ¼ cup Spanish olive oil
10 ounces Spanish chorizo, diced, room temperature
6 boneless chicken thighs, skin on, cut in half, room temperature
2 small onions, diced
4 bay leaves, break in half just before you put in the pan
2 red bell peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Spanish pimento (smoked sweet or spicy dried pepper, similar to paprika)
1 cup white wine
2 cups small dice Roma tomatoes (about 6)
6 piquillo peppers, diced
2 cups Bomba or Calasparra rice
2 cups fish stock or clam juice (keep warm)
1 cup chicken stock (keep warm)
24 medium shrimp (24 count), shelled and deveined, room temperature
24 scallops, room temperature
36 mussels, room temperature
6 whole lobster tails, split lengthwise, room temperature
2 cups fresh peas, blanched
12 lemon wedges
If using an outdoor grill, prepare the fire to reach a temperature of 400°F.
In a small bowl, steep the saffron threads in ¼ cup of warm water for 1 hour.
In a 14-inch paella pan over medium-high, add the oil and sear the chorizo (be careful not to burn), rendering its fat, until browned, but not too crispy. Push the chorizo to the rim or cool spot of the pan (if it’s cooking too quickly remove with a slotted spoon). Add the chicken, skin side down, until it is deeply browned; about 6 minutes.
Adjust the heat to medium and add the onions until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the bell peppers and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic, and piquillo peppers; when the garlic becomes fragrant (1 to 2 minutes), add the wine and bay leaves. Increase the heat to medium-high and allow the wine to cook down and evaporate; until about 2 tablespoons of liquid remains. Stir in the rice and mix thoroughly, allowing the rice to absorb all the sofrito-y love. When MOST of the liqud is absorbed, moving quickly, but carefully (take the pan off the heat if need be), stir the chorizo back to the pan. Shake the pan so that the ingredients are in an even layer. Nestle the chicken into the rice. Pour in the stocks--enough to cover the rice by 1/4-inch (you can always add more).
Do not stir the paella.
Cook 8 to 10 minutes. Arrange the lobster, shrimp, scallops, and mussels on top, being careful to nestle the seafood but not to disturb or heaven forbid, do not stir the paella. Add more stock if the rice has absorbed all the liquid. Once the seafood has cooked through (you can close the lid or place aluminum foil on top of the pan for more control.
Increase the grill heat (or lower the pan directly onto the coals) and continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes to toast the rice on the bottom of the pan – be careful not to burn.
Remove the paella from the grill and sprinkle with the peas. Serve family-style in the paella pan, giving diners a fork and napkin. Serve with aioli.
Annie B. Copps is a Boston-based chef, cooking instructor, international culinary tour guide, journalist, and food activist with more than 30 years of experience in the local and international food, travel, and public health arenas.