The first time I ate spicy, red chorizo sausage was at a Cuban friend’s house many years ago.
His paella was remarkable because of the many thrilling and flavorful ingredients that were new to me. I loved the small, crisp slices of chorizo nestled among the shrimp, chicken and rice.
I couldn’t wait to duplicate this dish, but when I shopped for ingredients I was faced with so many choices of chorizo, I didn’t know what to buy. Dried or fresh? Spanish or Mexican?
My introduction to chorizo via paella made me think incorrectly that this spicy sausage was Spanish. Not necessarily. In fact, it is a sausage found in the cuisines of many countries: Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Puerto Rico and throughout South America.
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You might be familiar with the dry-cured chorizo we know from paella and other rice dishes, but it also can be fresh. (Proper Sausages in Miami makes a fresh version.)
What all chorizos have in common is that they’re seasoned with garlic, chiles or smoked paprika — seasonings that add not only flavor but also a red tint. Most are made with pork but some are made with venison or beef (kosher chorizo is made with beef) and you can even find vegan chorizo.
Although there are many international varieties, most chorizo can usually be placed into one of two categories, Spanish or Mexican. In Spain, the sausage is often cured and smoked and can be sliced and eaten without cooking, while in Mexico chorizo is usually a fresh sausage that must be cooked before eating.
Fresh Mexican chorizo is highly seasoned with garlic, chili powder and ancho chiles. It comes in either red or green versions depending on what type of chiles the cook uses.
Also made from pork, dried Spanish chorizo is milder in flavor than its Mexican cousin and comes in both sweet and spicy varieties. Spanish chorizo typically features smoked paprika that gives it a red color and smoky flavor.
Chorizo is packed with so much flavor (from spices like cumin and paprika) that just a little bit of it can lift a dish from ordinary to exceptional.
▪ Mexican or fresh chorizo is sold in fat links using hog casings and should be cooked within 4 or 5 days of purchase, although it can be frozen for up to two months.
It can be cooked either in its casing or removed from the casing and cooked like ground meat. It’s good grilled but can also stand in for ground meat in tacos, burritos, chili, burgers or even egg dishes.
▪ Dry-cured chorizo, often referred to as Spanish chorizo, is usually sold either smoked or un-smoked in hard long or short thin links and sold unrefrigerated. It can be kept in its package at room temperature until you’re ready to use it. You can enjoy thin slices right out of the package with crusty bread and mustard as you would Italian cured sausages like salami and pepperoni.
If you want to crisp it up (as in paella) fry it only for a brief time since it’s fully cured. It adds background flavor to soups, stews, or rice dishes. Ground Spanish chorizo gives frita Cubana (Cuban hamburger) its unique taste.
Steamed Clams and Chorizo with Tomato Broth
Recipe adapted from “Great Food at Home” by Mark McEwan. Surprisingly, chorizo is perhaps best with fish and shellfish. McEwan, of One Restaurant in the Hazelton Hotel in Toronto, likes to steam clams open with wine, garlic and Spanish chorizo. A crusty piece of bread is the perfect vessel for sopping up all of the smoky, rich broth between mouthfuls of the sweet clams. The zesty acidity and crisp flavors of citrus in a 2014 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley ($25) complement the spicy sausage and the rich tomato sauce. This recipe can easily be doubled.
1 1/2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup roughly chopped cured chorizo
1/4 cup canned whole Roma tomatoes, crushed
2 tablespoons Spanish sofrito (either homemade or bottled)
1 teaspoon chopped, oil-preserved red chile
3 pounds clams, scrubbed
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoon chopped mixed parsley, oregano and cilantro
1 whole scallion, sliced
Salt and pepper
In a large sauté pan, sweat the onions in olive oil over medium heat for about a minute, and then add the chorizo. When the sausage is heated through and its paprika-tinted fat is beginning to liquefy and escape, add the tomatoes, sofrito and chile. Sauté a minute longer. Add the clams and immediately deglaze the pan with wine. Once that has reduced by about a third, add the fish stock. Bring to a simmer and then cover the pot. When after 5 to 7 minutes the clams have popped open, stir the pot to check for any that have not done so and discard them. Now add butter, lemon juice, half the chopped herbs and half the scallion, and season lightly. Stir again. Taste and correct seasonings if necessary. Transfer the clams to a large, warm serving bowl, pour the sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the remaining chopped herbs and scallion.
Yield: 2 servings