Perk up new and improved sangrias with fruit, brandy

Sweet sangria is a natural for fiery foods.

Whether you're serving chips and salsa for a crowd, or an entire Mexican menu, consider washing the food down with the bottled variety. It's less demanding -- and cheaper -- than making sangria or margaritas from scratch.

The sangria is flowing at Pappasito's Cantina these days, but bartenders aren't mixing pitchers of the fruity drink -- they're pouring it from a screw-top bottle.

Drew Hendricks -- a master sommelier and director of beverage education for Pappas Restaurants -- and winemaker Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars in Lubbock teamed up to make the private-label sangria for Pappasito's. Created with Mexican food pairings in mind, it's a bull's-eye hit.

Spanish and California brands have long dominated the bottled sangria market; among the most popular are Real (by Cruz Garcia), Madria and Carlo Rossi -- all less than $7. The field of competitors keeps growing, and even includes a Texas label.

Given the statewide passion for Tex-Mex food, it's only fitting that a Texas-made sangria gain a boot-hold in the market. La Diosa Sangria ($9.99) debuted in 2008 as an atypical drier style. It's also made by McPherson, whose wife, Sylvia, owns La Diosa Cellars in Lubbock. United Market Street will release its own McPherson-made sangria this year. And Whole Foods Market sells Peñasol sangria from Spain under its "365" label ($6.99). As for Pappasito's sangria, plans are in the works to retail it in the next year or so.

Some may be leery of bottled sangria. But if a master sommelier can cozy up to the concept, surely skeptics can loosen up and try it. After all, sangria isn't supposed to be fancy. It originated as a makeover for sub-prime wine; you wouldn't dare add fruit or juice to a pricey bottle.

With that in mind, you could tweak bottled sangria to suit your taste. Since it's already blended and sweetened, it doesn't call for much. Just add fruit (no need for muddling) -- and maybe a splash of inexpensive brandy -- for a party-ready pitcher in a flash.

If you're itching to make sangria from scratch, have at it. But if you're hosting a large gathering, mixing pitcher after pitcher is one tall order. The bottle frees you up for meatier matters -- such as the food. Our sangria party menu is easy, thanks to some excellent convenience products. It can be adapted for either a dinner or an appetizer party.

Read on for recipes as well as tips for doctoring up bottled sangria to suit your taste.

Rescuing bottled sangria

Bottled sangria doesn't get you completely off the hook from bartending; all sangria needs a touch of fresh fruit, at the very least for garnish.

Pour a 750-milliliter bottle into a pitcher with about 11/2 cups of sliced or cut fruit. The fruit that you choose and the amount of time it sits in the wine will influence the flavor, so taste the sangria first to determine its needs.

Here are two very different styles of bottled sangrias and tips on making them party-perfect.

Sweet-style sangria

Whole Foods Market's 365 label by Peñasol is a light-bodied, sweet and fruity sangria typical of the Spanish sangrias on the market. With just 7 percent alcohol, it's easy to sip by the pool. Without any additions, some may find it too sweet; others will find the sweetness a plus, especially with fiery foods. However, in less than two minutes, we turned it into an excellent pitcher of sangria.

Doctor it: Like most sweet bottled sangrias, this one benefits from a squeeze of lime because the tartness and acidity balance the sweetness.

There's no need for sweet fruit, but you can add it if you want. We prefer tart additions: slices of lemon and lime and a few chunks of green apple. Adding a cup of brandy makes it a stronger cocktail, so move away from the pool and serve it over ice in smaller glasses.

Not-so-sweet sangria

La Diosa Sangria, Lubbock. This is by far the least sweet of the bottled sangrias on the market. It's a drier style with lots of body, warm baking-spice notes and tart citrus and cherry flavors. It's more winelike in structure, and can stand up to beef, as well as orange-flavored dark chocolate. The wine was formulated for serving over ice. Served straight-up, without any additions, it comes off as a tad dry.

Doctor it: It can handle chopped pineapple, peaches, apples and oranges -- fruits that complement the spices. Let the fruit macerate in the wine for 30 minutes before serving, for a sweeter sangria. At 12.5 percent alcohol, this sangria doesn't need an alcohol boost, but you could add a splash of brandy to taste.

Classic sangria

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 lemon, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

1 lime, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

2 oranges, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

1/2 cup sugar

8 ounces triple sec, chilled

8 ounces brandy, chilled

8 ounces fresh orange juice (from 2 to 3 oranges), chilled

1 (750-milliliter) bottle of inexpensive, medium-bodied, dry red wine (do not use a tannic or oaky wine)

1. Place the fruit in a large pitcher or punch bowl. Sprinkle the sugar on top and muddle the fruit to extract some of the juice. Add the triple sec and brandy, and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Add the orange juice and wine.

2. Let stand at least 5 minutes before serving.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 8: 301 calories, trace fat, 31 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 62 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 1 percent of calories from fat.

Sangria party menu

Carne asada with roasted poblano peppers and green onions; serve as steak cutlets or sliced for tacos

Sliced avocados, or guacamole (purchased)

Chorizo and refried beans; serve as a dip or a side dish

Bottled tomatillo or roasted chipotle salsa (purchased)

Spicy sweet potato fries with chipotle seasoning (purchased); or home fries sprinkled with chipotle chile powder

Cream cheese-stuffed fried jalapeño peppers with a spicy peanut dipping sauce (both purchased)

Blue Bell rainbow sherbet for dessert

Carne asada

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 to 2 1/2 pounds skirt steak, cut crosswise into 6-inch-wide pieces

2 garlic cloves, halved (optional)

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

4 to 6 poblano chiles

12 green onions, dark green tops trimmed

Coarse kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 cups purchased guacamole (or 2 avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced)

Lime wedges (or bottled tomatillo salsa or roasted chipotle salsa)

1. Rub steaks all over with cut sides of garlic cloves, if desired. Lay steaks in a noncorrosive dish and sprinkle both sides with lime juice. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 4 hours.

2. Prepare a hot fire in the barbecue grill. Grill chiles and onions until charred all over, about 3 minutes for onions and 5 minutes for chiles. Transfer onions to plate; tent with foil. Transfer chiles to large bowl; cover with plastic and let stand 15 minutes. Peel and seed; cut into 1-inch-wide strips. Transfer to plate; tent with foil.

3. Sprinkle steak with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Grill steaks on a clean, oiled grill grate for about 3 minutes per side (for medium), or until cooked to desired doneness. Serve steaks with your choice of side dishes, accompanied by roasted chiles, onions, guacamole (or avocados), and lime wedges or salsa; or you can slice the steaks into thin strips and serve in warm tortillas along with the accompaniments.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 4: 624 calories, 41 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 48 grams protein, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 320 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber, 58 percent of calories from fat.

Nutritional analysis per serving, without guacamole or avocado: 444 calories, 24 grams fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 46 grams protein, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 170 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 49 percent of calories from fat.

Chorizo and refried bean dip or side dish

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 1/2 pounds Mexican chorizo

3 (14 1/2-ounce) cans refried pinto beans

3/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste

Chipotle crema (recipe follows) or crumbled cotija cheese, to taste

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet set over medium heat. Remove chorizo from casing and place in skillet. Cook chorizo, breaking up clumps with a wooden spoon and stirring occasionally. When chorizo is in fine crumbles and browned, remove from skillet with a slotted spoon. Set aside.

2. In a bowl, combine refried beans with Tabasco sauce until blended. Spread a thin layer of the refried beans into the bottom of a 1 1/2-quart casserole (round, square or rectangular). Sprinkle half the chorizo over the beans, followed by half of the remaining beans. Repeat layers with remaining chorizo and beans.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, or until heated through. Drizzle with chipotle crema if serving as a dip with chips. If serving as a side dish, top with crumbled cotija cheese.

Chipotle crema: Blend 1/2 cup sour cream with 2 teaspoons adobo sauce (from a can of chipotle chiles), or to taste. May also be used as a dip for home fries.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 8: 577 calories, 37 grams fat, 30 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams protein, 75 milligrams cholesterol, 1,714 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber, 58 percent of calories from fat.

Fast improvements on frozen foods

Fried stuffed jalapeños with habañero peanut sauce: Buy frozen cream cheese-stuffed fried jalapeños (available at Costco, SuperTarget and Central Market). Bake according to package directions. Serve with a dipping sauce made by mixing 3/4 to 1 teaspoon habañero hot sauce (such as Matouk's) with 3/4 cup Thai Kitchen brand peanut satay sauce (sold at most supermarkets). Taste and adjust seasonings. If too spicy, add more peanut sauce.

Chipotle fries: Buy frozen Alexia brand Spicy Sweet Potato Julienne Fries with Chipotle Seasoning (available at Whole Foods Market and Central Market) and prepare according to package directions. Not sweet on sweet potatoes? Buy your favorite brand of frozen oven home fries, bake as directed and dust them with chipotle chile powder or regular red chile powder and salt to taste. If desired, serve with chipotle crema as a dipping sauce.