Blame it on an insatiable desire for sunshine, a penicillin-resistant strain of the California fever, or the 80-plus degree temperatures inside my un-air conditioned house, but I spend most of the summer gardening, grilling and lazing on the patio. I also have lots of company thirsty company and they aren't shy. When it's too hot for something heavy, I hit them with a pitcher of refreshing, whistle-whetting sangria.
Sangria traces its origins to Spain, at least 2,000 years ago, when fruited and fortified red wine took on the color and texture of blood, or sangre in Spanish. It traveled with the conquistadors to the New World, became popular in Mexico and throughout South and Central America, and was featured at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.
Increasingly popular today, there are nearly as many recipes for sangria as there are people who like to make it. But most of this diversity is in the details; the same basic ingredients wine, fruit, sweetener, liquor and something fizzy are almost always present in one form or another. Getting these together will ensure a tasty result, regardless of the particulars.
Fruity red wines that cost less than $10 a bottle are a good place to start. To it, add chunks of sturdy fresh fruit (apples, oranges, grapes, etc.), some honey or simple syrup, and bubbly water or a natural fruit soda. Port, brandy, cachaca, schnapps or fruited rum fortify the sangria, both as it lives in the fridge and works its way through your bloodstream.
Otherwise, you need only a large vessel and some space in the fridge, so the ingredients can mingle and chill. While it can be unnerving to create a drink without sticking to any set rules, it can be a lot of fun for the same reason. Once you get a feel for it, the sky's the limit. Better still, it's an invigorating way to take the many edges off a hot summer day. In fact, I'm slurping down my second cup right now for, err, inspiration. Want my recipe? It's good. Salud!
2 bottles fruity red wine, preferably Chilean
3 cups water
1 cup jamaica leaves*
1 orange, sliced into thin rounds, then quartered
cup orange juice
2 cans natural fruit soda, such as Hansen's or R.W. Knudsen
cup Bacardi Grand Melon or other liquor (optional)
Empty both bottles of wine into a large (one-gallon) pitcher.
Set water to boil. Add sugar while it heats. When water boils, add jamaica leaves, remove from heat and cover. Let leaves steep 5 to 7 minutes, then strain. Allow the liquid to cool a few minutes, then add to the pitcher.
Add orange slices, orange juice, sodas, port and liquor to pitcher. Stir to combine. Sample for flavor balance. It should be a little tart and a little fruity, easy to drink and fairly sprightly. (I find a small glass with ice is best for sampling.) Adjust as necessary. Set pitcher to chill in fridge a few hours. Check flavor and add ice just before serving.
*Available at any Mexican grocery, jamaica (ha-MY-kah) is dried hibiscus flowers. Steeped here to form a tea, they are the "special" ingredient in my sangria, adding floral aromas and a nice tartness.