Bite-size foods in the Spanish tradition are the perfect way to entertain during the holidays
Published: Wednesday, December 6, 2006 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 9:00 p.m.
Spanish tapas - little bites that explode in your mouth with flavor and texture - are the perfect way to entertain during the hectic holiday season.
Whether skewered or stuffed, fried or dipped, these fun nibbles served in Spain's ubiquitous tapas bars embody both elegance and simplicity, all in one bite.
"It's my favorite way to entertain," said cookbook author Joanne Weir of San Francisco. "I always do some things that can be made ahead, some things made at the last minute, and some things that you can buy and don't have to do anything with."
In Spain, tapas bars help stave off hunger while whetting appetites for the country's notoriously late lunches and dinners. But in reality, the ritual of noshing tapas is as much about stimulating conversation as it is about managing hunger.
"Tapas are more than just appetizers," Weir writes in her cookbook, "From Tapas to Meze" (Ten Speed Press, 2004). "They draw people together in one of the most pleasant and convivial customs surrounding food ... you want to be part of that boisterous crowd, arguing happily about sports, politics or the arts."
So it's nowonder that Weir, who has her own cooking show on PBS and takes tour groups to Italy and Spain, enjoys entertaining with tapas. Each holiday season, she throws a party for girlfriends who, like herself, work at home - an "office" party for those who don't happen to have an office.
One of the easiest traditional tapas - the delicious partnership of Manchego cheese with quince paste - doesn't require any cooking at all, unless you insist on making your own membrillo. Most people, including Weir, opt to buy the quince paste.
In planning a tapas party, Weir suggests mixing up the menu with different kinds of dishes: vegetable and meat, seafood and pastry, cheese and olives.
"Olives have to be on the table," she said. "I always do a couple of vegetable things ... then I do a meat and a fish dish, like skewers of pork or pork empanadas, and skewers of salmon with salsa verde or tuna or shellfish."
Once your menu is set, it's all about the timing. You want to whet your guests' appetites at the outset while leaving an element of surprise for later.
"I always have something out there when people arrive," Weir said. "It's usually something that's done at room temperature, like a tortilla espagnol."
Throughout the evening, you want to make sure the tapas table stays refreshed by adding new dishes.
"Every once in a while, you heat up some empanadas or you go saute some shrimp, so there are things that keep coming up," Weir said.
Serving tapas is a forgiving way to entertain, since most of the dishes do not need to be served piping hot. And simple dishes such as cheese and marinated olives only get better with time.
Although many tapas dishes can be eaten with the fingers - especially the banderillas, little bites of chorizo and cheese, peppers and anchovies and olives served on skewers - others require utensils. Weir suggests putting out forks and napkins and tapas plates, which are slightly smaller than a salad plate.
Like most Mediterranean cuisine, tapas are primarily seasonal fare. With the help of a good, canned tomato such as Muir Glen or a canned pepper, however, you can still pull off many of the most popular tapas, even in the dead of winter.
Make sure you have a few Mediterranean sauces and pastes on the table as well for dipping and spreading. The classic Spanish dip is Romesco, made with nuts, bread crumbs, tomato and sweet paprika.
"Have lots of bread on hand," Weir said. "The idea is to use it to mop up the sauces and the juices and the olive oil."
Tapas tend to be briny and appetite-stimulating, so it's crucial to provide lots of beverage choices, including bottled water.
You might consider starting with a festive Spanish cava (sparkling wine), then move on to a refreshing white wine such as an albarino from Galicia, and a food-friendly red, such as a rioja from the eponymous region below the Basque country.
Of course, it's traditional to serve tapas with Spanish sherry, the ultimate aperitif, since that is how it got its name (tapa means to cover).
"The tradition of offering many small dishes or first courses began in the mid-1800s," Weir explained. "Tavern owners would put a slice of ham or a simple plate of salted almonds over the top of a glass of sherry to keep the flies out."
You could also serve a hearty ale, such as the Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale from the Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, to wash down the briny olives and anchovies. "Even in Spain, some people like beer with tapas," Weir said.
You can find more tapas recipes in the following cookbooks: "Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America," by Jose Andres (Clarkson Potter, 2005); "The New Spanish Table" by Anya von Bremzen (Workman Publishing, 2005); and "Cesar: Recipes from a Tapas Bar" by Olivier Said and James Mellgren with Maggie Pond (Ten Speed Press, 2003).
The following four recipes are from Joanne Weir's "From Tapas to Meze."
This roasted potato dish is served all over Spain. "The garlic mayonnaise is optional for some," Weir writes, "but for me it's a must."
Roasted Potatoes with Spicy Tomato Sauce Makes 6 servings
3 pounds red potatoes, unpeeled and cut into æ-inch cubes
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup minced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes, about 1 pound, fresh or canned
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme, or • teaspoon dried thyme
- Pinch of sugar
2 to 3 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- Spanish Garlic Mayonnaise (see recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss the potatoes, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and salt and pepper together in a baking dish. Arrange in a single layer and bake on the top rack of the oven until golden and cooked through, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan and cook the onion and garlic until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, water, red pepper flakes, Tabasco, bay leaf, parsley, thyme, sugar, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and simmer 20 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf and puree in a blender until smooth. Season with salt, pepper and vinegar.
Place the warm potatoes on a serving dish and pour the sauce over the top. Serve with the Spanish Garlic Mayonnaise on the side.
Spanish Garlic Mayonnaise Makes 11/4 cups
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced or mashed with a mortar and pestle
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Place the egg yolk in a bowl and whisk in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Drop by drop, add the remaining oil to the egg yolk, whisking constantly until all of the oil has been emulsified before adding more. Add the garlic and season with salt, pepper and vinegar to taste.
"Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil," Weir writes. "To vary the recipe slightly, reduce the amount of olive oil in the relish and spread it on grilled bread. It will then resemble the tapenade of Provence, France."
Grilled Tuna with Green Olive Relish Makes 6 servings
1 lemon, plus 6 lemon wedges
1 pound fresh tuna, cut into æ-inch chunks
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed, plus 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 anchovy fillets, soaked in cold water 10 minutes and patted dry
1/2 cup pitted and finely chopped green olives
1/2 cup chopped freshly flat-leaf parsley, plus flat-leaf parsley leaves for garnish
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Soak 12 7-inch bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes.
Peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler into long pieces, avoiding the pith. Marinate the tuna with the lemon peel, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the 2 cloves crushed garlic, salt, and pepper for 2 hours or up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Mash the anchovies and place in a small bowl. Add the olives, 1 clove minced garlic, the chopped parsley, vinegar, the juice of half a lemon and the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil. Mix well. Season with salt, pepper and additional lemon juice as needed.
Thread the tuna onto the skewers. Broil or grill over hot coals, turning every 2 minutes, until cooked through but still juicy, 5 to 6 minutes total.
Serve warm or at room temperature garnished with the relish, lemon wedges and parsley leaves.
"Spiced with coriander, nutmeg, cumin, and cayenne, these tiny meatballs are also made in North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece," Weir writes. This recipe can be made up to 2 days in advance and stored covered in the refrigerator. Reheat before serving.
Tiny Spiced Meatballs with Tomatoes Makes 6 servings
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground beal
1 cup dry bread crumbs
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
11/2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- Pinch of cayenne
1/2 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, minced
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups Italian plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, fresh or canned
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine the pork, beef, veal, bread crumbs, three cloves of garlic, parsley, ground coriander, nutmeg, cumin, cayenne, æ teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Form the mixture into 32 one-inch meatballs and place on an oiled baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and the remaining garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 7 minutes. Add the wine and the tomatoes and simmer slowly for 15 minutes. Add the meatballs, salt and pepper to taste and continue to simmer slowly for 10 minutes.
Serve immediately or at room temperature.
This recipe is from "The New Spanish Table" by Anya von Bremzen. "These garlicky shrimp are easy to love, making them one of Spain's most popular tapas," she writes. "The secret to success is very fragrant olive oil that is not too heavy in texture, and a cooking vessel that conducts heat slowly and can be presented at the table so diners can dip their bread. A cazuela is ideal, but you can also use an attractive, deep, cast-enamel skillet."
Sizzling Garlic Shrimp Makes 4 to 5 servings
1 1/4 pounds small shrimp, peeled and deveined
-Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 cup fragrant extra-virgin olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 small dry red chile, such as arbol, crumbled
2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Country bread, for serving
Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels, then sprinkle salt over them.
Place the olive oil and garlic in a 10- to 11-inch earthenware cazuela and heat over medium-low heat until the oil shimmers and the garlic begins to sizzle gently. Cook until the garlic is very fragrant but not colored, 2 to 3 minutes, reducing the heat if necessary. Add the chile and stir for a few seconds. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring until they just begin to turn pink, about 3 minutes.
Season with salt to taste, stir in the parsley, and cook for a few seconds longer. Serve the shrimp in the cazuela with plenty of bread alongside.
Note: This dish can be made with large shrimp, cooked in their shells to preserve their texture.
This recipe comes from Daniel Olivella, chef of B44 in San Francisco, who demonstrated it last month at the 2006 Worlds of Flavor International Conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, St. Helena.
Tortilla de Patatas Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled, diced small
4 yellow onions, medium, peeled and sliced thinly
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat and add half of the oil. When oil is hot, add onions and salt and cook until onions are translucent. Then add the potatoes and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon. (it does not matter if the potatoes break into pieces.)
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the eggs with a fork until well mixed.
When the potato and onion mixture is ready, add the black pepper and check for salt. Pour it into the egg and mix well.
Place pan on heat again. If it is too dry, drizzle lightly again with olive oil. When hot, add the mixture and spread it all over the pan evenly, turn the heat to low and cover with a lid or plate. Shake the pan once in a while.
When the top part is almost cooked through, place a plate upside down over the top, and with both hands turn the pan on top of the plate (I recommend doing this fast). Place the tortilla on the heat again and finish cooking. (Alternately, you could set the tortilla in a hot oven to finish cooking.)
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