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     Tapas, the little dishes of spain
       by Penelope Casas, Author of La Cocina de Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain

    On my first visit to Spain so many years ago, I lost my heart in Madrid—to Luis, whom I later married, and to tapas. The two events really went hand in hand, beginning that first night when I joined Luis and his friends in making the rounds of the tapas bars and taverns that line the evocative dimly lit streets of Old Madrid. Such tapas as Serrano ham and potato omelet (tortilla española) were an integral part of the long, fun-filled evenings I spent in Spain that first summer, and my love for tapas has never diminished. They are what I crave the minute I touch down on Spanish soil.

    Tapas to me are a vivid symbol of Spanish spontaneity and the carefree life that so captivated me long ago. In tapas bars (it is said that Spain has more bars than the rest of the European Community combined) food and drink help to create an atmosphere of instant camaraderie. It is always a thrill for me to enter a lively tapas bar and let my eyes take in the spectacular array of tapas on display in earthenware casseroles and on platters along the length of the bar. Just as important as eating the food is becoming engulfed in the warmth and gaiety of a tapas bar, be it in the company of friends or the people you meet while standing at a crowded bar.

    Although many a time I have made a meal of tapas, Spaniards generally regard them as appetizer food, and once the midday tapas hour has passed, bars fall into a cheerless silence. Clients return home for lunch—the main meal of the day—or head to restaurants to continue socializing. Bars come to life again around 7:00 p.m. then empty oncemore as the 10:00 p.m. dinner hour approaches.

    Tapas have an uncertain origin, although it is generally thought that they began at least a century ago in western Andalucía's sherry country. Since sherry is a fortified wine, served as an aperitif, it cries out for an accompanying nibble. The custom developed of serving a slice of ham, some olives, or other tidbits on a little plate that covered the mouth of the sherry glass. A cover or lid in Spanish is called a tapa, and thus the word became associated with appetizer food.

    From this humble beginning, an enormous variety of tapas emerged, and each region of Spain has its specialties. In Galicia, empanadas (pizza-size savory pies), tiny fried green peppers, and octopus bathed in olive oil and sprinkled with paprika appear time and time again in tapas bars. In the Basque Country, pintxos—complex and beautifully crafted little bites—are labor-intensive wonders. As the capital of Spain, Madrid unites tapas from every region, and they coexist with local favorites like spicy patatas bravas and batter-fried cod (soldaditos de Pavía), and in Sevilla—tapas heaven to be sure—exquisite little fish fried to crunchy perfection and foods bathed in cooling vinaigrettes reign supreme. You can serve tapas with any kind of wine or beer. Nevertheless, there is nothing better with tapas than dry fino sherry, the drink that started it all.

    Tapas were at first slow to catch on in America. Certainly they were not the boom that was predicted in 1985, the year my book Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain was published. Rather, acceptance was a gradual process that took place over decades. Today tapas have finally become a significant food trend, and tapas bars are sprouting across the nation.

    Many of the tapas recipes in this chapter do not, in fact, come from mamá but from tapas bars around Spain. Tapas are street food, easy to find anywhere and not likely to be served at home. But tapas are really about portion size—just about any food in small amounts becomes a tapa—so many tapas can become first courses or even main courses. The possibilities are endless. Make several tapas and you have a lively tapas party (a good selection might include one tapa that is marinated, one fried, another in a sauce, and yet another with bread or pastry). Perhaps supplement them with a few instant tapas like those described on the following page. Select one tapa and serve it as a first course, like Clams with Ham and Artichoke Hearts (page 35) or Breaded Mushrooms with Alioli (page 42). Or increase the portions of Old-Fashioned Spanish Potato and Tuna Omelet (page 39) or Mini Meatballs in Saffron Garlic Sauce (page 55), and you've got a meal. The beauty of tapas is their enormous flexibility.

    Instant Tapas from the Spanish Pantry

    Tapas can be as easy as opening a can or a jar. In fact, there are tapas bars in Spain that do nothing more than that, placing the contents on a plate or spearing a variety of these first-rate conservas on toothpicks. Although professed gourmets may scoff at anything from a can, in Spain these products are top notch and treated as delicacies. Here are some suggestions to effortlessly supplement any tapas menu.

    *Fry blanched almonds, preferably marcona almonds from Spain, in olive oil. Drain and sprinkle with salt. Or purchase marcona almonds already fried. Watch them disappear in the blink of an eye.

    *Top wedges of Manchego cheese with slices of quince preserves (membrillo).

    *Make banderillas (so called because of their resemblance to their counterparts in the bullring) by spearing on toothpicks or small skewers such jarred products as pitted olives, cocktail onions, pickles, anchovies, pimiento or marinated hot red pepper, and chunks of tuna.

    *Slice piquillo peppers into strips, combine with minced garlic and extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with parsley.

    *Open a can of cockles in brine and add a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

    *Serve pickled mussels from the can, just as they are.

    *Spread green or black Spanish olive pâté on rounds of garlic toast and top with strips of piquillo peppers or anchovy fillets.

    *Lightly saute slices of chorizo and spear with a toothpick onto pieces of bread.

    *Place a Spanish sardine on a slice of garlic toast (cut from a French-style loaf), top with strips of bottled hot red peppers, and sprinkle with parsley.

    *Bring out anchovy-stuffed olives—always a big hit.

    *Present a plate of delicious caperberries.


    La Cocina de Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain

    Long overshadowed by France and Italy, Spain has finally taken its rightful place as one of Europe's great culinary meccas. Consider the reborn cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao, the new respect afforded Spanish wines, the popularity of tapas bars in the United Sates, and Spain's widely influential Michelin three-star chefs, Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arzak. Despite the worldwide acclaim for these chefs, arguably the greatest Spanish food is found not in the nation's restaurants but in private homes off-limits to tourists, where women still cook the recipes their mothers and grandmothers cooked before them. Now, Penelope Casas takes us into those homes to uncover the secrets of this simple, easily reproduced, and altogether marvelous cuisine.

    For La Cocina de Mama, Penelope Casas has collected recipes from great chefs and traditional home cooks in every region of Spain, all of whom have shared with her the dishes they grew up loving and still cook for themselves today. There are recipes for tapas like Clams in Garlic Sauce; elegant soups and hearty one-pot meals like Stewed Potatoes with Pork Ribs; many wonderful seafood dishes like Fish Steaks with Peas in Saffron Sauce; meat and poultry dishes such as Pork Tenderloin in Orange Sauce, Rack of Lamb Stuffed with Mushrooms and Scallions, and Lemon Chicken with Ginger and Pine Nuts; paella and other rice dishes-and even a few pasta dishes; unusual vegetable preparations including Sauteed Spinach with Quince and Toasted Sesame Seeds; and desserts like Basque Apple Custard Tart. Whether of Roman, Moorish, or peasant origin, all of the dishes appeal to today's tastes and exemplify the virtues of the Mediterranean diet-lots of olive oil, lean meats and fish, and vegetables. Sidebars throughout discuss ingredients, areas of Spain unfamiliar to most Americans, travel vignettes, and more. At last, Americans can discover the unique and irresistible flavors of authentic Spanish home cooking in La Cocina de Mama.


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