Small plates are a big trend right now — it’s just as common to see them on menus in Paris as in Fort Worth — but this way of eating been a way of life in Spain for ages.
As the story goes, tapas’ history is rooted in 19th-century Andalusia, where they began as simple bar snacks to put on top of the mouth of wineglasses to keep the flies out of the sherry.
Now, of course, tapas are eaten all over the country, with sherry, beer or wine.
It’s one of the reasons why I love Spain so much. I’ve been twice in the last couple of years, and visited the south and the north, and everywhere I went, I sampled tapas, from marinated octopus salads in Malaga to tortillas and fried blood sausage in Madrid.
The great thing about tapas, besides their round-the-clock availability, is that trying something new doesn’t require a big commitment. At the Mercado San Miguel in downtown Madrid one Sunday, I sampled one small bite after another as I wandered through the stands selling everything from bacalao (salt cod) to salmon on toast, and paid not more than 1 euro per tapa.
While tapas traditionally have been something to snack on with a drink between meals in Spain, they have transitioned into a way to eat smaller plates for lunch or dinner (and by that, lunch or dinner can be anytime you want, as long as it’s not, say, between 4 and 8-ish, when lots of places close for siesta).
Because tapas are basically bar food, the recipes are easy to make, and most work as well at room temperature as they do warm or cold. Plus they’re shareable and meant to be eaten among friends. Which all meals should be, really — and in this case, with a chilled glass of Tio Pepe sherry nearby.
Bringing the idea home
I hosted a tapas party for my birthday in Dallas a few years ago and it was one of the best — and most hassle-free — parties I’ve ever pulled off.
Here’s how I did it: The morning of, I made two tortillas and romesco sauce. Someone brought cold, cooked shrimp, and another friend brought a wedge of Manchego, a must for any Spanish-themed party (make it go further by cutting thin slices before your guests arrive). I also put out baguette slices with thinly sliced pieces of serrano ham.
I set up a sangria station in the kitchen, where I mixed up Bottino’s sangria, a recipe I found in The New York Times more than a decade ago and still consider the best sangria I’ve ever tasted.
Since then, I’ve tasted and fallen in love with Spain’s other cold tomato soup, salmorejo, made with tomatoes, bread and olive oil. Surprisingly creamy and light, salmorejo is a great alternative to gazpacho, and one that’s even simpler to make.
Makes 2 cups
▪ 2 Roma tomatoes
▪ 1 clove garlic, peeled but left whole
▪ 1 jalapeño or serrano
▪ 1 large red bell pepper, from a jar
▪ 1/2 cup water
▪ 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
▪ 1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds
▪ 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
▪ Salt to taste
1. Toast tomatoes, garlic and chile in a skillet over medium heat. Remove the stem from the chile and put into blender along with tomatoes and garlic.
2. Add remaining ingredients and puree until blended. Taste for seasonings.
This sauce is great on just about anything — shrimp, fish, grilled chicken, steak. I even sometimes put it on my Spanish tortilla.
Nutritional analysis per 1/4-cup serving: 114 calories, 10 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, no cholesterol, 20 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 79 percent of calories from fat.
Makes 8 servings
▪ 1 cup olive oil
▪ 1 pound potatoes, thinly sliced
▪ 1 small yellow onion, sliced into half-moons
▪ 4 eggs
▪ Salt and pepper
1. Put oil in a large nonstick skillet and heat to medium-high. Add half of the potatoes, then onions, then the other half of the potatoes. The oil should be bubbling, and the potato-onion mixture cooking slowly. After about 10 minutes, the potatoes should be semi-translucent and mostly cooked. Remove skillet from heat and gently remove potatoes and onions onto a paper towel-lined cookie sheet to drain. Pour oil into a heatproof bowl or Pyrex measuring cup.
2. Beat eggs in a large bowl and add potato-onion mixture, tenderly squishing it down so it’s submerged. Let rest for 15 minutes.
3. Turn heat to medium. Put 2 tablespoons reserved oil back into the skillet and gently pour egg-potato-onion mixture in. Let cook for 10 minutes or until the bottom is brown and firm.
4. Remove skillet from heat for 2 minutes. Then put the skillet over a large plate and flip the tortilla so you can cook the other side for 10 minutes, or until browned. Serve warm or at room temperature, in thick wedges.
Cowgirl tip: Keep the onion-flavored oil to use for vinaigrettes or for drizzling on toast later.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 206 calories, 16 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 39 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 70 percent of calories from fat.
Makes 4 servings
The potatoes are usually fried, but here I’ve roasted them instead. I’ve had this before in bars in Madrid with a fried egg on top — it’s not light, but it’s definitely delicious, and very Spanish.
▪ 1 pound potatoes, cut into thick wedges
▪ 3 tablespoons olive oil
▪ Sea salt and pepper
▪ Onion, chopped into wedges
▪ 2 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
▪ 1 serrano chile
▪ 1 (14.5-ounce) can of tomatoes
▪ 1 teaspoon Spanish paprika
▪ Fresh chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Toss potatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Place on a cookie sheet and put in the oven; cook until browned, about 30 to 40 minutes, making sure to turn them to the other side about halfway through baking.
2. Meanwhile, make the brava sauce (or you can make this in advance): Put 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic and chile and toast until slightly charred, then put into blender, making sure to remove the chile stem first. Add tomatoes and paprika and blend. Taste for seasonings.
3. To serve, heap potatoes onto a serving plate and either add the salsa brava directly to the potatoes (this is how it’s traditionally done) or serve on the side. Garnish with parsley.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 221 calories, 11 grams fat, 30 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, no cholesterol, 261 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 45 percent of calories from fat.
Makes 2 dinner-size or 4 first-course servings
▪ 1 pound tomatoes
▪ 1 small clove garlic, minced
▪ 1 to 2 cups stale bread, crust removed
▪ 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
▪ 1/2 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
▪ 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1. Gently make an X on the bottoms of the tomatoes (scoring the skin, not the flesh); put them in a large pot of water and bring to a boil. After 30 seconds, remove tomatoes, peel the skins and let cool.
2. When cool, put in blender along with garlic and puree. Add bread and let sit in the puree for 15 minutes to soften. Blend. Add sherry vinegar and blend.
3. Turn on the blender and add olive oil in a stream until you have a smooth, silky, creamy-looking soup. Taste for seasonings. Chill thoroughly. Serve with chopped egg and a swirl of olive oil.
Nutritional analysis per 2 dinner-size servings: 657 calories, 60 grams fat, 22 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 212 milligrams cholesterol, 218 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 82 percent of calories from fat.