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
*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
*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.
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
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.