Saturday, September 5, 2015


A few years ago, while gathering recipes for a cookbook, I spent the month of September traveling around La Mancha (central Spain). September is the month of the vendimia, the picking of wine grapes. Driving on secondary roads, everywhere in La Mancha we passed tractors towing wagons heaped with grapes, heading for the many bodegas, wineries, of the region.

Picking grapes in La Mancha
Marqués de Griñon
I picked grapes in the organic vineyards of Bodegas Dionisos  in Valdepeñas (Ciudad Real) and watched the first pressing. In Malpica de Tajo (Toledo) I walked through the vineyards on the first day of the vendimia with Carlos Falcó, the Marqués of Griñón, who makes the extraordinary wines of  Dominio de Valdepusa/, which have Vino de Pago denomination. At Los Hinojos (Cuenca), where the modernistic Finca Antigua bodega is located, I watched huge mechanical harvesters make their way through vineyards.

La Mancha is big wine country. In fact, it is the biggest area of vineyards on earth—about eight percent of all lands worldwide planted in vines and almost half of all the vineyards in Spain are within La Mancha. Miles and miles of vineyards keep the landscape verdant through hot and arid summers.

To celebrate vendimia month, of course I’m drinking wine. And I’ve also pulled a couple recipes from COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA (WilliamMorrow, 2006) that seem appropriate for the season.

Green Bean Salad with Grapes and Anise
Ensalada de Judías Verdes con Uvas

Green beans, grapes and anise--a grape-harvest salad.
Wine is fermented grape juice. If the grape juice (or wine) is distilled, it turns into aguardiente, a clear, strong alcoholic beverage that is usually flavored with aniseed. In La Mancha it is customary to preserve fruits such as grapes and cherries in aguardiente, which becomes subtly infused with the fruit. In bars and restaurants you will see beautiful decanters and flasks of the liqueur with fruit. It is served into tiny glasses as a digestive. The fruit can be drained and served separately.

This salad, incorporating grapes macerated briefly in aguardiente, was inspired by a recipe in a little book, La Cocina Tradicional en la Provincia de Toledo, prepared by a chef at the national parador of Oropesa (Toledo). Paradors are a national network of hotels, often situated in monumental castles, monasteries, and ancestral palaces. In the original recipe, the salad is served alongside sautéed scallops of venison. It’s equally good with chicken breast (see following recipe) or lamb.

Use wine grapes, if available. Otherwise, use red grapes. Add the dressing to the beans immediately before serving, so the vinegar doesn’t leach the bright green from the beans.

Where I live, wild fennel is flowering now. So I decided to finish the salad with a sprinkling of fennel pollen to complement the anise flavor. (More about fennel pollen here.)

½ cup seedless red grapes, halved
2 tablespoons aguardiente de anise or anisette
1 pound green beans, preferably flat romano beans
½ cup thinly sliced celery or fennel
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 hard-cooked egg
1 clove crushed garlic
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Red lettuce to serve
Fennel pollen (optional)

Place the halved grapes in a small bowl and add the aguardiente or anisette. Allow to macerate for 2 hours. Drain the grapes and discard (or drink) the aguardiente.

Slice off edges of beans.
Cut off tops and tails of beans and either sliver them lengthwise or cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Cook the beans in boiling, salted water until crisp-tender (3 minutes from the time the water returns to a boil). Drain and refresh in cold water. Drain.

Place the beans in a bowl and add the celery or fennel, scallions, and grapes.

Cut the egg in half. Remove yolk to a small bowl. Dice the white into the bowl with the beans.

Mash the yolk with the garlic, mustard, vinegar, oil, and salt. Stir the dressing well. Immediately before serving, toss the dressing with the beans. Garnish serving bowl with red lettuce or, alternatively, divide salad between 4 individual serving dishes, garnishing each with a few lettuce leaves. If desired, sprinkle the salad with fennel pollen.

Serve bean and grape salad as a side with chicken breasts.

Manchego Chicken Breast with Anisette
Pechuga de Pollo Manchego con Aguardiente

Chicken breast simmers with wine, spices and anise brandy.
Aguardiente de anís is a clear, anise-flavored grape brandy, sweet or dry, much appreciated throughout Spain. It makes a pleasant digestive after a meal, served neat in a snifter or over ice. Hardy peasants might sip it for breakfast, when it’s said to matar el gusanillo, kill the little “worm” of hunger. For this recipe use dry aguardiente.

I liked the subtle flavor aguardiente gives to this sauce so much, that I’ve since experimented with it in other recipes. It’s really good added to mussels marinera, with tomato, garlic and white wine.

Serves 4.

2 pounds boneless, skin-on chicken breasts
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Pinch of dried thyme
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
Grating of nutmeg
½ teaspoon whole coriander seeds
2 tablespoons dry aguardiente (anisette)
½ cup white wine
¼ cup water

Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and set aside 15 minutes. Heat the oil in a large skillet or sauté pan. Add the chicken breasts and brown them on medium heat, about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken and add the garlic. Sauté until chicken is lightly browned.

Sprinkle the thyme, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and coriander over the chicken. Add the anisette, wine, and water. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces. Cook until chicken is tender, 10 to 15 minutes longer, depending on thickness of pieces.

Slice the chicken breasts.

Remove the chicken breasts to a cutting board and allow to rest 5 minutes. Slice the chicken. Discard the whole spices and serve the sauce remaining in the pan with the sliced chicken.

Bean and grape salad complements the anise-flavored chicken breast.
Tempranillo grapes.

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