Tapas: Entertaining Made Easy
The first time I traveled to Spain I ordered a glass of wine in a bar and along with it came a tiny assortment of bite-size appetizers. I did my best to explain in broken Spanish that I had not ordered anything to accompany my vino tinto. After much back and forth hand gesturing, the server insisted that I keep and eat the small plates. Who was I to resist? When I asked for my tab and went to settle I was only charged for the glass of wine. Again I engaged in a confused back and forth with my kind and tired server – he would not take my money. Here I thought this was a unique kind gesture to a solo traveler but I came to find it was actually an integral and fantastic part of Spanish culture.
The tradition dates back into Spanish history although the tapas origin is up for debate, the most widely accepted theory is that field workers or taverns covered wine with a plate to prevent flies from diving into the wine, but it was rude and unhospitable to have an empty plate sitting in front of someone so they would add a small snack to the plate (a piece of bread and some jamón or cheese). Hence the name tapa, or literally, a lid.
Tapas are traditionally served as a light appetizer to accompany wine or beer. Free of charge, these tasty little plates are served out of gratitude for ordering drinks in a bar, whether you indulge or not (though we highly recommend you do), the price of your drink remains unchanged in some places. When you go for “tapeo”, traditional bars will serve tapas the likes of:
- Tortilla española: thick egg-and-potato omelet served in slivers or cubes.”
- Jamon serrano: cured ham
- Patatas bravas: bite-sized potato chunks, deep-fried, boiled, or sautéed, spiked with chili (the brava element) with or without tomato and garlic.
- Pulpo a la gallega: Octopus with sweet pimentón (paprika)
- Gambas al ajillo: fresh prawns cooked in sizzling olive oil with garlic and chili peppers, packing a flavorful punch.
- Chorizo al vino: smoky chorizo sausage cooked slowly in red wine.
- Calamares a la romana: battered and fried squid rings
Beyond these classics, Spanish tapas have been reinvented in many modern kitchens including restaurants across the US as “small plates”. Tapas also make for a great spread if you’re hosting folks for drinks or dinner. We’ve got a quick and easy pan con tomate recipe below – a traditional snack and tapa from Catalonia (Pan Tumaca in Catalan). Tapas are, by design, mostly uncomplicated to make so should you feel like trying out a few, here’s a link to some additional recipes to get you started.
Pan con tomate is just about as simple as a small “tapa” can get. It hardly requires any cooking and only requires five ingredients—bread, tomato, olive oil, garlic, and salt. It’s precisely this simplicity that make it such a perfect early-fall dish.
- 2 large, ripe tomatoes
- Kosher salt
- 1 loaf of ciabatta bread, split in half horizontally lengthwise, cut crosswise into 2-3 inch slices
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, additional for drizzling
- 2 medium cloves garlic, halved
- Flaky sea salt
- Adjust oven rack to 4 inches below broiler and preheat broiler to high. Drizzle bread, sliced side up, with olive oil. Season with kosher salt. Place bread, sliced side up, on a rack set in a tray or directly on the broiler rack and broil 2 – 3 minutes or until crisp and starting to brown/toast around the edges. A toaster oven can do the same but be careful not to dry out your bread.
- Halve tomatoes, cutting from the top down, not from the middle. From here, you have two options (make a tomato mixture or use tomato halves) :
- With a coarse grater held over a bowl grate the tomatoes down to the skin. Discard the skin and pour off any excess liquid. Add olive oil and salt to taste to the tomato mixture.
- Keep halved tomatoes aside until step 3
- Remove bread from oven and rub with the split garlic cloves.
- If you didn’t make a tomato sauce, and still have two halves of a tomato, rub the tomato half on the bread until it has a nice coating of tomato “sauce” on it.
- OR – Spoon tomato mixture over bread.
- Serve immediately