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Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain

 Tapas:  the delicious little dishes of Spain, consumed with great gusto at bars and taverns before lunch and again before dinner, have been a tradition in Spain for more than a century.  While Spaniards have been enjoying hundreds of varieties of exquisite tapas, in America we have for the most part been enduring endless cocktail hours of salty pretzels, peanuts, potato chips and soggy canapés.

But in Spain indulging in tapas is a favorite pastime. The pleasurable and congenial Spanish tradition of offering many small dishes began in the mid-1800s when tavern owners would put a slice of ham or a simple plate of almonds over the top of a sherry glass to keep the flies out.  Tapa means ``cover" or ``top" and those early tapas were free of charge.  Tapas were meant to promote thirst and increase drink sales.  Over the next hundred years, tapas evolved to the point where they have become part of everyday life, not only as a covering for the glass of sherry, but also as the main event of a visit to the tavern.

A glance at almost any cookbook will give you an idea of the sorry state of pre-dinner foods before tapas arrived on the scene.  Chances are you will find little more than a few cheese balls and several cracker spreads.  Americans are obviously just as fond of  ``little bites" as Spaniards and tapas take appetizers into a whole new world, placing them squarely at center stage and creating an entirely new style of eating and entertaining.

The tapas spirit is spreading throughout America as more and more people discover the wonderful variety of food that can be served as tapas and realize as well the benefits of the tapas eating style.

What exactly are tapas?  It is difficult to say, for tapas are not necessarily a particular kind of food; rather, they represent a style of eating and a way of life that are so very Spanish and yet so adaptable to America. Tapas are as varied as the cooks who create them and in Spain range from the simplest fare, like grilled chorizo sausage, tangy Manchego cheese and simple canapés (almost anything atop apiece of bread becomes an instant canapé in Spain) to surprisingly sophisticated dishes like frog legs and baby eels.  They can be foods we traditionally view as appetizers, but more often than not cross the line into what we might think of as first-course or main-course dishes.

 All tapas do, however, have several things in common.  They are generally served in small portions (there are actually two sizes:  the tapa and the racion, which is about double the size), and they are meant for immediate gratification.  In Spanish bars and taverns, tapas like char-grilled artichokes are served quickly and consumed just as quickly; any delay in service diminishes the tapa's deliciousness.

Tapas in Spain, of course, are closely related to Spanish cuisine.  For those of you still unfamiliar with the joys of Spanish cooking, let me say that the cooking of Spain is not like the hot and spicy cooking of Mexico.  It is as fine and exciting as the other great cuisines of Europe and has tremendous variety, partly as a result of centuries of Moorish occupation, which lent Arab overtones and partly because Spain is a country of such great cultural and geographical diversity.

  Great foods need great products.

 Certainly the foods brought back from the New World (potatoes, peppers and tomatoes, for example) enriched the cuisine of Spain, but Spain utilized these products in its own distinctive style–quite different from the way they were used in America.

 The Tapas Life-Style

 Conviviality and tapas go hand in hand.  This congenial custom draws people together to discuss the day's events passionately; to talk philosophy, theater and the arts; to exchange views on film, poetry, maybe even food, all the while drinking and savoring the variety of flavors of the various tapas amid a lively, animated crowd.  Each tasca, as tapas bars are known, has its own specialty reflecting the season's offerings and local cooking styles. ``Tasca-hopping" is a common pastime.

The tapas way of life is completely in tune with the Spanish character.  To eat tapas-style is to eat by whim, free from rules and schedules.  It is meant for those who wish to enjoy life to the fullest and who love to while away the time with friends.  Since home entertaining is not common in Spain, the thousands of bars and taverns in the country become logical meeting places.

Even business meetings may be combined with tapas (Spaniards have great difficulty separating work from pleasure), and although it can be argued that business that functions thusly cannot be very efficient, so be it.  It is only what might be expected from a country that lives by the tapas tradition!

Tapas, besides serving as important social functions in Spain, are also a means to fill the long hungry hours between meals. Today, tapas are served all day in Spain but are most popular before meals.  In a country where lunch is rarely eaten before 2 or 3 p.m. and dinner is typically served at 10 p.m., tapas are meant to stave off hunger, whet the appetite and bring immediate gratification.

  Tapas are not something to be lingered over but instead consumed in haste before moving on to the next flavorful morsel.  They are washed down with a cool glass of sherry, beer or wine.  The tapas bar usually has a few glass cases filled with various tapas and a blackboard of daily specials ranging from simple to complex–from a plate of perfectly salted and roasted almonds, bright red radishes, or meaty green olives to golden deep-fried anchovies, a salad of salt cod, olives and oranges or even a chick-pea and roasted garlic soup.  Choices are made and within seconds the plates appear.  The bartender runs back and forth, taking care of everyone at the same time.  He also has the difficult task of keeping a running tally in his head of what everyone has eaten and in the end presenting the patron with a grand total.  It makes for an enjoyable evening in a country where the people know how to live.

 Andalusia is the home of horses, dancing, flamenco guitar and merrymaking.  The Andalusian has a real zest for life.  Food is not generally the cerebral art that it is in other parts of Spain like Catalonia, but Andalusians take their tapas seriously, especially in Seville.  The most popular tapa over all of Spain is a simple plate of paper-thin slices of Serrano ham from Andalusia, Jabugo being the finest.  The pigs are fattened for a year on acorns and then slaughtered.  The haunches and shoulders of the pig are cured by salting, washing and drying and then matured in underground cellars for one to three years where they acquire a distinctive aroma and flavor.  But Andalusian tapas don't end with the ham.  Andalusia is renowned for its perfectly deep-fried fish.

The rich historical legacy of many classical Mediterranean countries is seen both in Spain's culture and in its food.  It is not a peppery or hot cuisine; instead, it is colored with the subtlety of saffron and paprika and the perfume of olive oil, the mild sweetness of pimiento, almonds, tomatoes and caramelized onions, the earthiness of wild asparagus, mushrooms and herbs and the zest of lots of sherry vinegar and garlic.  The authentic ingredients of Spain, like Spanish olive oil ,really make a difference in flavor.  Pork products like Serrano ham and chorizo sausages, game, fish, shellfish and salt cod are mainstays, while citrus and other fruits make their way into both sweet and savory dishes.  Spain's is an uncomplicated cuisine, composed of the best ingredients and the simplest techniques, virtues that are heroically evident in tapas, like gambas al ajillo.

 Whether the tapas tradition developed because of the eating hours or the eating hours merely evolved around the wonderfully pleasurably tapas hours is beside the point.  For a Spaniard, a tapa is just an appetite teaser–as light or as hearty as it may be–to be followed by a three-course lunch and in the evening by a complete dinner. However, light eaters could make a complete meal from tapas alone.  Consider making tortilla de patatas or other fun tapa.

 Of course, tapas are obtainable in every city, town and village in Spain.  Some are very simple (tapas naturales) and consist of a few olives, toasted almonds, etc.; other may produce especialidades de la casa, house specialties, such as empanditas (small savory patties containing meat, fish or vegetables and served hot) or perhaps deep-fried squares of marinated fish.

These snack dishes were originally served only on top of the counter, nowadays they are presented in small oval or kidney-shaped dishes.  The skill in their choice and presentation is to include as much color and variety of shape and texture as possible.  Both cold and hot items should be included.  Some of the easiest tapas are the instant tapas. The cold are eaten first, then the hot tapas are brought to the table.

 What to drink with tapas

Just about anything you would ordinarily serve at a party or with dinner, like red and/or white wine, mixed drinks or beer goes well with tapas.  If you are not already familiar with Spain's exceptional yet quite inexpensive wine, now is the right time to learn.  But for a truly elegant Spanish flair, try the quintessentially Spanish drink, chilled dry fino sherry, which accompanies tapas as not other drink can.

 Sherry, in fact, is probably responsible for the development of the tapas tradition in Spain.  Tapas as a way of life, most generally agree, go back to the 19th century and began in Andalusia, where all Spanish sherry is made.  Sherry is not considered appropriate as a dinner accompaniment because of its strength (more than 18% alcohol).  It is therefore usually sipped as an aperitif (I am of course talking about the dry fino sherry and the moderately dry amontillado–sweet sherries are meant as dessert wines) and as such cries out for a tapa of some kind.

 Tapas naturales

Lettuce hearts are served with an oil and lemon dressing

Artichoke hearts are prepared with a garlic dressing

Blanched pimiento in vinaigrette

Canned sardines, in oil,is garnished with rings of raw,sweet onion

Shrimp are grilled and seasoned with salt and lemon juice

Oysters are on half-shell

Mussels are on half-shell with garlic and lemon dressing

Tunafish is in olive oil

Pickled cucumbers are sliced and served with diced ham

Black or green olives served plain or stuffed with garlic

  Especialidades  de la casa

Empanditas are dainty patties stuffed with a variety of savory fillings.   The practice in Spain is to cut the pastry into various shapes–round, triangular, square, oblong–to indicate the different fillings.  These fillings are usually made from whatever is left over in the kitchen, plus a little imagination.

 Tartaletas are open-faced tartlets.  These are even more versatile than the savory patties.  The tarts may be made beforehand and cold filling added when required.

 Palitos are toothpicks upon which various cold foods are stuck and maybe comprised of almost any colorful and tasty morsels.  Anything that can be threaded on a cocktail stick and used as an appetizer may be included such as ham, cheese, chorizo, pickled vegetables, mushrooms, seafood, etc.

 One of my favorite tapas is:

 Mushrooms in Garlic Sauce

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 lb. cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed, brushed clean, whole if


4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

2 Tbsp. dry Spanish sherry

1/4 C chicken stock

1/2 tsp. paprika

1/4 tsp. red chili flakes


freshly ground pepper

1 Tbsp. Italian parsley, minced

 Heat the oil in a pan until very hot and stir fry the mushrooms and garlic over high heat for about 2 minutes.  Turn the heat down and stir in the lemon juice, sherry, chicken stock, paprika, red chile flakes, salt and pepper.  Simmer a minute or two, sprinkle in the parsley and serve.

Makes 6 servings



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