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Getting Sauced

Sipping Sherry for Your Health Is a Nice Enough Ritual, but Cooking With the Aperitif Takes Dinner to the Next Dimension

January 20, 2002|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about Nobel Prize winner Rudolph Marcus

My dad spent part of his childhood in a genteel but crumbling brick farmhouse built in the mid-1800s in Kentucky. When I was growing up, two elderly aunts presided over the house. On the sideboard in the parlor glinted a cut-crystal sherry decanter, which was opened for any visitor who arrived after 2 p.m.--an unusual custom for a time and place where alcohol was rarely kept in plain view and certainly never offered before dusk. Neither of my great-aunts were tipplers, but their mother had been English, and I'm fairly sure the ritual was imported.

I always thought there was something enchantingly sacramental about sherry, though elsewhere it was what you drank when you didn't want to admit you were a drinking person. After all, my great-aunt told me, it had medicinal properties. Sherry was thought to be good for the blood, and doctors often recommended it as a tonic for older folks' nerves.

(My maternal grandmother, a lifelong teetotaler, adjusted quite happily to the two glasses she was admonished to drink before bedtime.) But people cooked with it a lot, too, and when I was growing up it seemed that every pantry was stocked with a bottle of "cooking sherry," which is laced with enough salt to render it unsuitable for drinking. In the days before Americans had discovered wine, buying a whole bottle to complete a recipe seemed an unwarranted extravagance. Although its shelf life after opening is overestimated, sherry keeps well for weeks when stored properly, making it a reliable substitute for finishing off sauces, soups and stews.

Sherry has fallen off the map for purposes of both drinking and cooking. I recently asked a respected local French chef if he ever cooked with it. "But this is very old-fashioned!" he exclaimed, almost as if the prospect alarmed him. However, with the resurgence of all things retro in the cooking world, sherry certainly deserves revisiting. As an aperitif, it is soothing to the stomach, calming to the nerves and cleansing to the palate.

In Spain, its country of origin, sherry is hardly reserved for contemplative sipping. It was there about three years ago that I was reintroduced to sherry. Traveling randomly through Andalusia, I got off a bus in Malaga and plunged into Feria, a three-day bacchanal during which the streets are clogged around the clock with sherry-fueled dancers waving their bottles of Tio Pepe. Upon entering any bar or cafe, you're issued a small fino cup fixed with a string necklace so you won't lose it. Let the good times roll! I can only speculate that the Spaniards' tolerance for large quantities of fortified wine (sherry's alcohol content generally ranges from 15% to 23%) under a searing Andalusian sun is acquired over generations. Two glasses in the summer heat and I was ready to crawl under the bar for a nap.

There are several varieties of sherry. The crisp, dry, straw-colored finos and manzanillas are served chilled, and they cut well against olives and salty snacks. The mellow, full-bodied olorosos are reminiscent of walnuts and are fortifying in cooler weather. These rest easier on the stomach than port after a meal. And there are, of course, the sweeter cream sherries, which stand on their own for dessert. Sherry's most ready application is in finishing sauces; a tablespoon of fino can add verve to soups, pale dry sherry works well with chicken and for sauces accompanying meats, and dry olorosos add depth and dimension.

Ah, yes, dimension. Sherry has a way of putting you into another, softer one without radically altering your consciousness the way, say, a martini might. Maybe I'll buy a decanter and start offering a glass to anyone who comes to visit after 2 p.m.

Pollo al Jerez

Serves 4-6

1 chicken, cut into pieces

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup good quality dry sherry, such as amontillado

Heat oil in a deep skillet. Add chicken and brown on all sides over medium heat. Set aside chicken pieces and drain off all but 3 tablespoons of the liquid. Add garlic and saute until golden. Add sherry and bring to a simmer, stirring with a wire whisk. Return chicken to skillet. Cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until chicken is done. Remove fat from sauce and continue cooking about 10 minutes, or until remaining liquid reduces to about one-half cup.

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