Quick Recipes and Easy

Tapas – They’re Not Just For Spaniards Anymore

Fantastic thoughts are universal. China brings us dim sum, the Middle East has mezze, and Spain gives us the increasingly well loved tapas. Small dishes served in bite sized parts are a concept that works in any language.

Tapas can be nearly anything you want them to be, as simple as a bowl of olives, as complex as an empanada. The only rules, and we use that term loosely, are that the dish be savory, require only one hand to eat, and (by tradition) be eaten standing up while talking with friends.

The origins of tapas, as with many things Spanish, are clouded in mystery. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but there are a few theories on the subject. What’s known is that tapas means “cover” in Spanish. From there, you can go in one of several directions:

The first, and most well loved, theory is that bars and cafes in Andalusia would place a card or a slice of bread over glasses of wine to keep the flies out and that this evolved into serving small plates of food with drinks.A second theory is that 16th century bars in La Mancha would serve strong cheese to “cover” the taste of inferior quality wines.Some believe that tapas originated when King Alfonso the 10th suffered an illness and was instructed to take small bites of food with wine between meals. Upon his recovery he declared that no tavern in Castile would serve wine unaccompanied by food, to ensure that no one would have to choose between eating and having a glass of wine – preventing his subjects from drinking on an empty stomach. While the use of the word cover is a small loose here, it would certainly clarify why Alfonso was also called The Wise.The last, and perhaps least fascinating, theory is that tapas were invented by farmers (or maybe more correctly, farmers wives) as a way to sustain themselves between meals while working in the fields. But it started, tapas have become firmly ingrained in Spanish culture, particularly well suited to (and perhaps even partly responsible for) a lifestyle where it is common to leave work at 7 and not have dinner until 10 or 11. Next time you are having friends over, serve them a selection of tapas instead of a traditional sit down meal – everyone will be asking when they can come back. Here are some thoughts to get you started.

Olive Plate

About as simple as you can get. Fill a bowl with an assortment of your favorite olives. Drizzle with some excellent Spanish olive oil. Delight in.

Serrano Ham, Chorizo, and Manchego Cheese

Slice 2 loaves of fresh, crusty bread (French baguettes work well) into slices about as thick as a typical white bread.

Slice a half pound of Manchego cheese roughly a quarter inch thick. You want pieces that will cover the bread.

You will need about a quarter pound of Serrano, sliced paper thin. You can buy packages of pre-sliced ham that are perfect for this application for less than $10. Cut the ham so it will fit the bread.

Slice a pound of Spanish chorizo into quarter inch slices. Heat a heavy bottom pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, cover the bottom (barely) with excellent quality Spanish olive oil. You will know the chorizo is ready when not eating it right out of the pan becomes a struggle, or when the edges become a crispy golden brown. Remember, Spanish chorizo is fully cured so you’re not trying to cook it through. Keep an eye out – Spanish chorizo contains a lot of paprika, which burns easily. Drain on paper towels when done.

Slice a pound of Spanish chorizo into quarter inch slices. Heat a heavy bottom pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, cover the bottom (barely) with excellent quality Spanish olive oil. You’ll know the chorizo is ready when not eating it right out of the pan becomes a struggle, or when the edges become a crispy golden brown. Remember, Spanish chorizo is fully cured so you aren’t trying to cook it through. Keep an eye out – Spanish chorizo contains a lot of paprika, which burns easily. Drain on paper towels when done.

Now just lay out your slices of bread on a platter, and cover each slice with cheese. Place some ham on every other slice, and chorizo on the rest. Optionally, you can sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley for garnish. Food always looks more appetizing when there is a small green on the plate.

Anchovies and Piquillo Peppers

Piquillos are an extremely flavorful type of pepper grown only in the Ebro Valley in Navarra, Spain. They are always roasted over a beechwood fire before packing, so cooking them is not necessary.

Slice one jar of piquillo peppers into quarter inch strips, reserving any liquid in a bowl. Add a tablespoon of Spanish sherry vinegar and a teaspoon of sugar to the reserved liquid, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the strips and let marinate at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for at least 2 hours.

Spoon the peppers and the marinade into a bowl, and arrange anchovy fillets on top in a decorative manner. Serve with toasted bread.

Manchego and Membrillo

Membrillo is quince paste, a fruity, sweet treat similar to preserves but thick enough to be sliced. Simply slice Manchego cheese into quarter inch slices, arrange on a plate, and top each piece of cheese with an 1/8 thick slice of membrillo. Stand back and watch as your guests experience a new treat.

Sautéed Mushroom Tapas

Slice a couple of baguettes on the diagonal, about white bread thick. Brush with olive oil and bake at 450 degrees for about 10 minutes, until the bread is toasted and the edges are starting to brown.

Meanwhile, slice and sauté your favorite mushroom varieties with olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan. White mushrooms are traditional in Spain, but you can use portabellas, shitakes, criminis – whatever type you like. For a small added flavor, you can add some minced garlic while you sauté. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste towards the end.

Spoon the mushrooms into a shallow bowl, and place in the center of a platter. Sprinkle chopped parsley on top if desired. Arrange the toast around the bowl for an attractive presentation.

Savory Nuts

Nuts are always a favorite snack, and are a perfect something extra for your tapas. You can simply fill a bowl with almonds and hazelnuts, or take things to the next level. Mix 6 tablespoons of brown sugar, ½ teaspoon of cumin, ½ teaspoon of cayenne, 1 teaspoon of salt, and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon together and set aside. Toast 4 cups of your favorite nuts in a dry skillet until they start to toast and release their oils, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add 4 tablespoons of butter and sauté until the nuts start to darken, or around another minute. Add the seasonings and 1 teaspoon of water to the pan and stir until the nuts are glazed. Place the nuts on a baking sheet and separate them, and let them cool for about 10 minutes. Pour into a bowl and serve.

These are just a few thoughts – tapas are limited only by your imagination. Your guests get to serve themselves as much or as small as they like, and delight in many different tastes. Simpler for you than a traditional sit-down dinner and more fun as well, tapas also make a terrific dinner for two. Once you try them, they are sure to become a regular item on your menu.

Copyright 2007 Matt Wasserman. All rights reserved.

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