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Published: Tuesday, 7/12/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Conversation starters

Tapas: Small, tasty, trendy

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Marinated eggplant. Tapas -- the name comes from "tapar," which means "to cover" -- are an example of small plates, small portions of appetizers that are meant to be lingered over before lunch or dinner. Marinated eggplant. Tapas -- the name comes from "tapar," which means "to cover" -- are an example of small plates, small portions of appetizers that are meant to be lingered over before lunch or dinner.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

The story goes that fruit flies were hovering around the sweet glasses of sherry at taverns throughout Andalusia, in southern Spain. To keep the flies out of the wine, patrons placed slices of bread over their glasses. Eventually, a tavern owner put meat or sausage on top of the bread, and that's how tapas were born.

It's as good an explanation as any, coming as it does from the usually reliable Joy of Cooking. And it goes a long way toward explaining the enduring appeal of tapas, which is as much a philosophy as it is a food.

Tapas -- the name comes from "tapar," which means "to cover" -- are an example of small plates, small portions of appetizers that are meant to be lingered over before lunch or dinner. The concept is popular throughout the Mediterranean region, where it is often called meze or even antipasto, but the idea is the same. The dishes are served several at a time to be shared by everyone at the table, and are nibbled at while accompanying good wine or beer and, more important, good conversation.

The enjoyment of tapas or meze implies conviviality and a leisurely pace. The alcohol is sipped, not quaffed, and the conversation should range from serious matters to gossip. In some regions, the tradition is for everyone at the restaurant or bar to stand while eating them, encouraging conversation with people at other tables and an overall sense of camaraderie.

In America, some restaurants are devoted to serving nothing but these small plates of food, but in their countries of origin they are intended only as appetizers. Even so, as Martha Rose Shulman writes in her book Mediterranean Harvest, "In Spain people do not go out with the intention of dining on tapas (though that in fact is what sometimes happens)."

Perhaps because the plates are small, and diners have just a brief encounter with each one, the cooks of meze and tapas tend to make their flavors count. These are foods that are not shy; they are bold and direct. The diners may be engaged in an animated conversation while enjoying a relaxing drink, but the flavors of the tapas are assertive enough that the people who are eating them always will know what they are eating.

And because they come from the area around the Mediterranean, they are filled with the flavors of the region. Seafood is big, and beans, and eggplant. Look for the food to be spiced with rosemary, thyme, and hot pepper flakes, and practically everything is made with garlic.

If you don't like garlic, tapas are not for you. The same goes for olive oil.

George Bardwell, general manager of Poco Piatti in Levis Commons, said, "The biggest appeal to tapas is not so much the actual cuisine. The big thing is they're smaller portions so you can enjoy a variety. … When you eat tapas, you can have some lamb chops and a shrimp dish and another little thing and you can share it amongst each other. It's more interactive, it's more fun."

Although they can take considerable work and care to create, tapas can be as simple as rubbing a slice of toast with a piece of garlic and then rubbing it again with half of a fresh tomato. Add a drizzle of olive oil or a piece of basil and you have a real treat.

We began with one of the most ubiquitous kinds of meze, common to all countries that make yogurt. Labneh is a creamy cheese made by draining the whey out of yogurt. It's ridiculously easy to make -- all it takes is some yogurt, a bit of salt, and cheesecloth, coffee filters, or even paper towels. Let it sit for a day and you have a low-calorie treat that pairs well with olive oil or herbs, is delicious with honey, and can even be spread on a bagel.

More delicate in flavor, despite being deep fried, are crisp shrimp fritters known in Andalusia as tortillitas de camarones. They're light in texture and irresistible when eaten warm. Although they are fried in olive oil, they have no greasy taste; the secret is to make sure the oil is hot enough that the oil doesn't permeate the batter.

The skillet-fried potatoes known as patatas bravas go french fries one better with a mildly tangy sauce that is a cross between French dressing and one of the sauces they serve with fried potatoes in Belgium. Meanwhile, deep-frying potatoes in olive oil will give you the authentic Spanish flavor in a Spanish omelet, but you can make an American version with pan-fried potatoes and save a few calories.

Marinated mushrooms. Many tapas and meze dishes are marinated, usually in olive oil and quite often with sherry vinegar, herbs, and garlic. Marinated mushrooms. Many tapas and meze dishes are marinated, usually in olive oil and quite often with sherry vinegar, herbs, and garlic.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Many tapas and meze dishes are marinated, invariably in olive oil and often with sherry vinegar, herbs, and garlic, of course. What makes these plates so distinctive is the way the various foods respond to the marinade. Mushrooms bring one dimension to a marinade, carrots bring quite another. Creamy eggplant absorbs the flavors that surround it, while olives have a strong taste that need equally bold flavors to compliment it.

Once you get the basics, you can create your own tapas or meze. Mediterranean ingredients are a good start, but they are by no means necessary. There is really only one rule to determining whether or not a food is tapas: anything that you eat with your fingers will qualify.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

Labneh

1 quart plain yogurt (not Greek)

½ teaspoon salt, or up to 1 teaspoon

Stir the salt into the yogurt. Line a sieve with either a length of cheesecloth folded over several times or an open paper coffee filter (a couple of layers of paper towels may also work). Suspend the sieve over a large bowl and fill the lined sieve with the yogurt. Place the bowl and sieve in the refrigerator and leave it for 24 hours. The liquid whey will slowly drip into the bowl. What is left behind is labneh. Mold the labneh into a ball and store in the refrigerator. Serve with fresh herbs or spread it on crackers, douse with olive oil, serve with fragrant honey or even spread it on bagels.

Yield: about ½ pound

Marinated Carrots

1 pound carrots, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cut into 2- or 3-inch lengths

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt, preferably coarse sea salt

Steam the carrots for 5-6 minutes, until just tender. Refresh with cold water and toss with the vinegar, olive oil, and salt to taste. Cool, then serve at room temperature or cold.

Yield: 1 pound

Source: Mediterranean Harvest, by Martha Rose Shulman

Crisp Shrimp Fritters

½ pound small shrimp, peeled

1½ cups flour, chickpea or regular

1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped

3 scallions, white part and a little of the tender green tops, finely chopped

½ teaspoon sweet pimento

Salt

Olive oil for deep frying

In a saucepan, combine the shrimp with water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water starts to boil, quickly lift out the shrimp with a slotted spoon and set aside. Scoop out 1 cup of the cooking water and let cool. Discard the remaining water. When the shrimp are cool, cover and refrigerate until needed.

To make the batter, stir together the flour, parsley, scallions, and pimento in a bowl. Salt to taste (2-3 pinches) and add the cooled cooking water. Whisk until you get a texture slightly thicker than a pancake batter. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Mince the shrimp finely, about the size of coffee grounds. Add the shrimp to the batter and mix well.

Heat about 1 inch of olive oil over high heat in a heavy sauté pan until it is almost smoking. Add 1 tablespoon of batter for each fritter and, using the back of a different spoon, immediately flatten the batter into a round about 3½ inches in diameter. Do not crowd the pan.

Fry, turning once, about 1 minute on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Keep the cooked fritters in a low oven while making the rest of the batches, always making sure the oil is very hot before frying more fritters. Serve warm.

Yield: 15-20 fritters

Source: spain-recipes.com

Crisp Spiced Potatoes (Patatas Bravas)

1 cup PLUS 3 tablespoons olive oil

4 large Russet potatoes, peeled and diced in 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

1½ tablespoons paprika

¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce

¼ teaspoon ground thyme

½ cup ketchup

½ cup mayonnaise

Salt and pepper

Chopped parsley, to garnish

In a saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is soft. Remove from the heat and add the paprika, Tabasco sauce, and thyme, stirring well. Transfer to a bowl and add the ketchup and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside.

Sprinkle the potatoes lightly with salt and black pepper. Heat 1 cup of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat; the oil will be hot enough when a small piece of potato immediately sizzles in it. Fry the potatoes until cooked through and golden brown, stirring occasionally. Drain the potatoes on paper towels, check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary.

Mix the potatoes with the sauce immediately before serving to ensure they retain their crispness. Garnish with parsley and serve warm

Source: spain-recipes.com

Spanish Omelet

3 medium potatoes, peeled

½ yellow onion

Salt to taste

1 cup PLUS 2 teaspoons olive oil (see cook’s note)

3 large eggs

Baguette, sliced in ½-inch slices

Cook’s note: For a true Spanish taste, pan-fry the potatoes and onions in 1 cup or more of olive oil. For an Americanized, lower-fat version, use 1 tablespoon or less of oil and cover the skillet with a lid.

Cut potatoes into a ?-inch dice. Peel and chop onion into ¼-inch pieces. Mix potatoes and onions in a bowl and salt well.

In a large, heavy, non-stick frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Fry the potato-and-onion mixture in batches (batches are especially important if you are using the full 1 cup of olive oil), spreading them evenly over the surface. You may need to turn down the heat slightly, so the potatoes do not burn. When the potatoes are soft, remove the mixture with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Beat the eggs with a whisk or fork in a large mixing bowl, and stir in the potato-onion mixture.

Pour 1½ teaspoons oil in a small (8-inch) nonstick skillet or 2 teaspoons oil in a larger (10-inch) nonstick skillet e_SEmD the smaller size is preferable. Heat on medium, and when the oil is hot pour in the egg-and-potato mixture. Spread around evenly and heat until the bottom starts to brown e_SEmD check by lifting up one side with a spatula; the egg will still be a bit runny. When the bottom is beginning to brown, place a plate over the pan and flip the pan and plate together so the omelet falls onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat and slide the half-cooked omelet back in; it should be a couple of inches thick. Cook until the egg is done, another 2-3 minutes.

For tapas, cut the omelet into small pieces and place each on a slice of baguette. If desired, top each piece with sofrito e_SEmD sautéed tomato, onion, garlic, and green pepper in olive oil.

Source: Adapted from spanishfood.about.com

Marinated Eggplant

1 large eggplant, 1-1½ pounds, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar OR red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper

? cup extra virgin olive oil

Generously salt a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the eggplant, reduce the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the eggplant is cooked through but still holds its shape. With a slotted spoon or skimmer, transfer to a bowl of cold water, then drain well. Place the eggplant on a few layers of paper towels, and pat dry.

In a bowl, mix together the vinegar, garlic, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cooked eggplant and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Shortly before serving, remove from the refrigerator and toss with the olive oil. Serve at room temperature with toothpicks.

Source: Mediterranean Harvest, by Martha Rose Shulman

Marinated Mushrooms

? cup extra virgin olive oil

½ cup water

? cup fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar

1 bay leaf

2 garlic cloves, crushed

6 whole black peppercorns

½ teaspoon salt

1 pound small mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed

In a large nonreactive skillet or wide saucepan, combine the olive oil, water, lemon juice, vinegar, bay leaf, garlic, peppercorns, and salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain through a sieve set over a bowl, then return the strained marinade to the pan. Bring back to a simmer over medium-low heat and add the mushrooms. Simmer, turning the mushrooms over once or twice, for 5 minutes, until just cooked through. Turn off the heat and allow the mushrooms to cool in the marinade.

Transfer the mushrooms and marinade to a stainless steel bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour or more.

To serve, remove from the marinade with a slotted spoon; serve with toothpicks.

Source: Mediterranean Harvest, by Martha Rose Shulman

Roasted Salted Spicy Almonds

Almonds

Salt

Cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 350e_SDgr. Mix almonds with generous amounts of salt and cayenne pepper. Place them on a baking sheet and roast 5-10 minutes, until they start to crackle. Allow the nuts to cool before serving.

Source: Mediterranean Harvest, by Martha Rose Shulman

Marinated Olives, Spanish Style

½ cup olive oil

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 large clove garlic, very finely minced

1 bay leaf

¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 cup brine-cured green olives

½ cup oil-cured black olives

½ cup small brine-cured black olives

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring oil, rosemary, garlic, bay leaf, and black and red pepper to a bare simmer. Immediately remove from the heat. Stir once or twice and let cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, rinse all the olives under warm water, drain them, and dry them well with paper towels.

Place the olives in a glass or earthenware container and pour the oil over them. Let cool completely, then cover and keep in a cool place for up to one week. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Yield: 2 cups

Source: Adapted from Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker



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