Pass the Sangria

Sangria, the drink that has come to be synonymous with Spanish wine, has long been misunderstood. To associate sangria with Spanish wine drinking is comparable to saying the Greeks only drink ouzo or the French pastis. The most common drink beloved by the Spaniards is a cana, or a four ounce beer, served in a small glass, ice cold from the keg, and consumed rapidly, almost like a shot. It is a little known fact that most Spaniards consume sangria during the summer and only in certain parts of Spain. Otherwise, the drink of choice is a red wine, whatever the region has to offer.

The quality of such Spanish winemaking has evolved exponentially, especially in the last twenty years, with otherwise unknown regions such as Jumilla, Montsant, Navarra, Penedes, Yecla, Toro and Bierzo emerging as fine examples of Spanish craftsmanship.

Sangria exhibits versatility, because it is a red wine that acts like a cold white, satisfying both desires. But no comparison can be made to a wine of real craft and value. Sangria is made with jug wine, sugar and soda. It is often too sweet a match for good food, and is the source of many a hangover with its deliberate sweetness. As the winter months approach it is time to sample what Spain has to offer. Have a conversation with the wine director or chef about what is available according to your palate. You will be justly rewarded and perhaps pleasantly surprised.

If you are looking for world class wines with dinner, vintage charts are important. For example, 1994 was an excellent year for Rioja, 2001 for Navarra etc. Spanish wines can age like red burgundies, great aromas, light-bodied, but intensely flavored. Just try a 1994 Miguel Merino Reserva if you need proof, for example.

For those of you who are still holding on to Sangria flavors, check out my recipe that I have developed over the years, having stayed in Spain and consulted with many an unofficial aficionado. Otherwise drink Spanish wine! Viva Espana! Ole!


By Chef Mateo

1.5 litre tempranillo
128 oz. pitcher
juice of 3 oranges
½ bottle cava
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup Spanish brandy
Juice of 2 limes
4 cups of ice
1 sliced apple
20 oz. club soda
1 sliced pear
½ cup sugar
1 sliced peach
pinch of nutmeg
3 cinnamon sticks

Add ingredients to pitcher.
Then add ice. Stir well.
Cover and let rest in fridge for 8 hours.
Serve chilled.

Waco my Taco

One of the hidden pearls of any city is its street food. In an ethnically diverse city such as New York, we should be exposed to many more culinary treats. And while the trend for successful chefs now is to open burger joints and street stands, there simply aren’t that many unless you travel to Queens.

I’m partial to the Dominican trucks which can be found in Washington Heights and Inwood, offering late-nite fried foods from my childhood, such as tostones (fried green plantains) and a chimichurri (flat, burger-like steak) sandwich. One good alternative to hot dog and kebab stands are the taco trucks, which offer real street food at real value. Most items are under four dollars. Take the Tacos El Idolo II truck that occupies the northeast corner of 14th street and 8th avenue. Party-goers from the nearby meatpacking district line up at night for a satisfying $2 taco. Even the B & T crowd knows what’s up.

The foundation of the tacos are two lightly heated corn tortillas with your choice of filling, from steak, chorizo, chicken, and pork, to pig’s ears, cow’s tongue and goat. The meat is ground up and grilled with onions and other toppings like radish and pickled veggies. The picante is there as the condiment. The tacos are toothsome and addicting, and are a post-drinking session’s antidote. This particular truck offers quesadillas and gorditas too, all to be washed down with a flavored Jarrito, Mexican soda pop at its best.

If you are concerned about the health issues which do exist from eating from street vendors, just add hot sauce and drink a beer. This will counteract some of the bacteria present. In this day and age even our spinach isn’t safe. Having eaten from these trucks for many years, you will figure out who to trust, and which operations practice cleaner cooking habits. Have a taco, a mandarin Jarrito, and a puffy cheeks smile.

Miguel Merino

Just before vendimia 2006, I had the luxurious fortune to spend time with a great neophyte winemaker from the Rioja Alta, Miguel Merino. Solera was the host restaurant, and the guest list was put together by my feisty colleague from Frontier Imports, Mickey Vail.

The occasion was festive, what with everyone jockeying for position next to such a humble, successful winemaker. With Pedro Romero Aurora Manzanilla in hand, we chatted about wine and New York City and Spanish gastronomy. Mr. Merino looked refined, but with his ear to the ground, was immensely gracious and soft-spoken. I learned that he took over the winery on a dream and a whim, perhaps with some help from being an attorney for so many years prior. His first vintage was the glorious 1994, and he freely admits that even he could not screw that up.

Nervous energy transformed into delirious chatter, as talking with Miguel Merrino the man brought out more appreciation for the wines themselves. Mr. Merino’s opening words were aided by a few glasses of that delightful manzanilla, as he commented about his boys back home and the upcoming harvest, more importantly about how he felt about wine and the people who love it.

The 1998 Reserva was paired with a piquillo pepper stuffed with morcilla and lentils, a tapa that was fantastically crafted and a joy with the wine. Mr. Merino said that the ’98 was a bit feminine. We all agreed, partly in expectation of it to reach full maturity, and partly because we were so happy. Then came the 2000 Reserva, a fabulous poached egg atop a potato and chorizo stew, a hearty man’s appreciation for all things good in Spain. The 2000 needed more time, prompting another few words from Mr. Merino, thus far emanating a tremendous warmth in his explanation of the vintage.

Before we could make further comparisons, a plate of sea bass with pimiento chorizero was matched by the superlative 1995 Reserva, an introduction into one of the finest wines of Spain if there ever was one. Light-bodied, but full flavored, well integrated tannins and complex fruit, the 1995 was a stunner. Things were really humming now.

Exquisite lamb chops sided by potatoes Riojas and Roncal crisp proved to be an ideal pairing to the imperial 1994 reserva, a wine that had everyone swooning. A collective but unspoken “Wow!” was felt throughout the room, and everyone looked around as if searching for witnesses. The 2001 was also served as Mr. Merino felt the two vintages had tremendous similarity. Assorted Spanish cheeses and cookies were then offered with a barrel sample of the 2004 vintage. At this point I was looking for any leftover 2004 to polish off.

Mr. Merino remained affable and generous. I felt like I had a new friend in la Rioja, and anxiously accepted an invitation to visit in the future. Many good memories linger from that evening, and I scrambled home to see if I was smart enough to put away any of the ’94 or 95’ bottles. Chef Danilo Paulino put on a superb show, and the service and course of events were masterfully orchestrated by Maitre d’ Ron Miller. Solera is an excellent choice for fine Spanish dining, and I will be looking forward to reviewing it in the future.

Dirty Dirty

Many chefs look towards franchising to make their mint, attaching their household names to everything from pots and pans to knives and cooking appliances. The recent trend is for chefs to open basic food joints such as Zip Burger and the Shake Shack. Award winning chefs Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband Slade give free-range chicken a whirl at this cozy 14th Street take-out spot two blocks removed from the meat-packing district.

A respite from the day to day operations at their restaurant in Abita, LA, they’ve partnered up with Joseph Ciriello who used to sell Italian wines to the couple at the oyster bar. The result is southern-inspired fast food, with an emphasis on soulful comfort.

The up to date kitchen yields a simple, yet satisfying menu of chicken, either fried or slow-roasted. The chefs use organic chickens, which they brine, soak in buttermilk and fry in a double batter. Sides include dirty rice, for which the store is named, light macaroni and cheese, napa cabbage cole slaw, slow-roasted potatoes or vegetables.

You can get Ali’s chopped salad too, with a list of great ingredients like piquillo peppers, tomatillos and maytag blue cheese. The cornbread is served flat with the welcome added surprise of shallots. In addition there are chicken fingers which are quite addicting.

More and more of these gourmet stops need to be opened and supported, if we are to finally rid ourselves from the terrible fast food options we have become accustomed to in our fair city.