I love tapas. They’re like appetizers for a meal that never comes. – Marge Simpson
Spain left me aching to recreate Basque and Catalan dishes at home, but tapas were far from my mind. I don’t think we had any tapas in Spain, and if we did, they were probably just called “snacks”. In Spain, tapas are for the most part, bar food, sometimes served free with drinks. They aren’t really the stuff of meals. According to at least one history, “La Tapa so as to be meaningful has to be eaten between main meals as food that allows the body to survive until lunch or dinnertime.” While there are plenty of tapas cookbooks, most of them seemed to rely heavily on imported ingredients like Ventresca tuna rather than on preparation. That to me seems more like creative shopping than cooking. Tapas are also social food. They involve multiple dishes served to guests simultaneously. I don’t have milling guests. I have Ann and two cats. And it’s hard to get the energy to make several complicated little dishes just for second breakfasts, elevenses, or a pre-dinner snack.
After the doctors told me that I needed to focus on smaller and more frequent meals, however, I started giving Tapas serious consideration. I also tried to revive the Anglo-Australian tradition of Afternoon Tea, but I was afraid people might think I was starting a political movement and camp out on our lawn. So Tapas it was. Turns out, tapas may well have started as a curative in its own right. As one history suggests:
Some authors assert that the tapa was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, the Wise, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castile, unless accompanied by something to eat. This was a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on those people who, through lack of money to buy a nourishing meal, drank alcohol on an empty stomach.
True, other accounts suggest that Alphonse El Sabio was just looking to keep sand or flies out of his drink, including Gerald Hirigoyen’s: “Tapa means ‘lid’ and is derived from the word tapar, ‘to cover,’ so the commonsense theory is that tavern owners would drape a slice of ham or cheese or place a small plate of olives or almonds on top of a glass to create a barrier against bugs.” But I prefer the first story, because in addition to being a good buffer against alcohol, it turns out that smaller more frequent meals makes good dietary sense. So I gave tapas a second look.
The book I was first attracted to was Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos (The first 40 pages are available on google books). Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas. Tapas have always seemed a bit too trendy to me. The romance has been thoroughly washed away by the fern and wine-bar set. But calling these little dishes “pintxos” returns some of the mystery, if only because they’re harder to pronounce. It has to be spelled pintxos rather than pinchos, too. All the duende is in the X. Perhaps though, we should all resign ourselves to the fact that tapas in the U.S. have pretty much become what they are in Spain. Snacks served with wine. Not an expression of emotion and authenticity. Not a romantic evening full of flamenco and tener duende. Bar food.
Although Hirigoyen lives in California, runs two restaurants in San Francisco, and has written his cookbook for American audiences, he uses more uniquely Spanish ingredients in his 168 recipes than in all of Simon and Inez Ortega’s 1080 Recipes combined. I haven’t managed to find a Spanish specialty store in Philadelphia that makes one stop shopping for Spain possible. Even the new Jose Garces Trading Co. mostly focuses on cheese, charcuterie and wine—not raw ingredients for cooking. But I have managed to cobble together some ingredients from different locations.
Trader Joe’s: Piquillo Peppers, Guindilla Peppers, and Saffron. Not great quality, but about a third or even a quarter of the price of ingredients at La Tienda.com. Harvested from the stigma of crocus flowers, Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight available on the market–so any little bit helps. Tapas are casual food, so they shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Delis: Spanish cheeses, olives and Boquerones. Boquerones are white anchovies, usually available in a tub. True, anchovies remind me of the days I spent working at Round Table Pizza. They were oily, sticky things that people only ordered on the side so that they could take them into the parking lot and throw at cars. But Ann is crazy for anchovies, and these critters are far more palatable. Our farmer’s market deli also has a discount on Manchego when bought by the pound, and it has become a regular fridge staple. Makes great grilled cheese sandwiches.
H-mart: Really? Yes, H-mart is a Korean chain that carries all things Chinese, Japanese, South-East Asian, but they also carry Hispanic produce and ingredients, too. Someone will have to tell me how H-Mart managed to corner this market.
Web-sites: If you absolutely must, you can resort to La Tienda.com or The Spanish Table. I’ve only seen choricero peppers and ventresca tuna there, but the cost soon undermines the possibility of making tapas regular, casual fare.
Pintxos means “spike,” but Hirigoyen only offers a handful of recipes with toothpicks or skewers. The rest are fairly elaborate tapas, or even raciones–larger dishes that you actually can serve as a meal for two. Like Jose Garces, Hirigoyen seems to approach cooking with the attitude that Spanish food is about colonial conquest. Unsurprisingly, his time living abroad has informed his dishes. His training in France is evident in “Duck Breast with Oranges and Green Olives” and his work in the U.S. shows up bluntly in “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calarmari”. The former is pretty much just duck l’orange with a few sliced olives thrown in. I used Catalan, jalapeno-marinated olives to spice things up a little, but it still tasted far more of France than Spain. The black-eyed peas were a more welcome inspiration, and Hirigoyen’s thirty second boil and ice cooking method does a remarkably good job of keeping the calamari rings from turning into plumber’s gaskets. It should be clear though that this book is even less “authentic” than the Ortegas’ 1080 Recipes reviewed in my last post. But unless you consider serving a bowl of olives “cooking,” you’re probably better off with a cookbook that emphasizes modern tapas in their all their cultural promiscuity. I just recommend drawing the line at “Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho“. I had never worked with fresh lychees before, which are colorful and fun to shuck, but about as appropriate in a gazpacho as orange marmalade.
My favorite section of the Pintxos book specializes on beans, and the ingredients there tend to be cheaper and more readily available. I do recommend cooking dried beans rather than using canned, but some recipes lend themselves to shortcuts. “White Bean Salad with Manchego, Avacado, Apple and Meyer Lemon” involves no cooking other than the beans. It’s just beans, avocado and a granny smith apple reduced to corner inch dice, so throw in a can of beans and make a lemon vinaigrette and you’re good to go. It’s definitely worth going the extra mile though on the “Lentil Gratin with Braised Serrano Ham” though and using lentils du puy. They don’t take much time to cook. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to use a whole half pound of serrano ham in a lentils dish, so I used a little ham from our local farm.
These were simple dishes, but they were good enough to make me try most of the rest of the section. Pipérade Braised Beans with Baked Eggs. gave me the chance to finally break in those single-serving cast iron skillets that Ann’s sister and brother-in-law gave me for Christmas. Along with the “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calamari,” Hirigoyen throws in a little southern flavor with his beans and eggs dish. Or maybe it was just the skillets that gives it the tex-mex/campfire feel. The “Gigante Beans with Boquerones” may be offputting for some. But as long as you can get good boquerones (see above), Trader Joe’s actually sells precooked gigante beans with a light tomato sauce and pequillo peppers. So that’s another salad that can be thrown together without actual any prep work.
If you’re too squeamish for calamari or anchovies, you can get over it with “Monkfish in Olive Oil, Tomato, and Saffron”. Monkfish is quite possibly the ugliest fish available. It’s called “poor man’s lobster,” probably because of its texture and the lumpy, tail-like shape of its filets. But that’s where the similarities end. If you look at the Morimoto video below, you’ll see how monkfish earned its reputation as a junk fish. Who wouldn’t want to throw that thing back? And the ugly isn’t just skin deep, it goes all the way through. The white filets in the store look ordinary enough, but when cooked, the flesh tends to develop purple veins. Now that people have discovered that looks aren’t everything, the price of monkfish has gone up. It’s a good deal cheaper than sea bass or halibut, but if you want to find a good under-priced oddity, I recommend looking for skate.
I’ve tried recipes from most other sections in the book except for the chapter on organs. The “Watermelon and Tomato Salad” is now part of my usual rotation (I often forgo the tomato and the vinaigrette and just serve watermelon with a little feta as a side salad for sandwiches). The “Griddled Ham and Cheese Bocadillos,” are really just ham and cheese sandwiches with a little tomato thrown in–but they taste better because they’re called “bocadillos”. I’m not that fond of tomato on ham and cheese, but I do like the idea of adding something a little sweet into the mix like spiced pears (ala ‘Wichcraft) or fig jam (ala Tria). The seared tuna with onion marmalade, chicken thighs with Spicy basque “ketchup,” and chicken skewers with yoghurt dipping sauce were all good if not particularly Spanish. In the end though, whatever small reservations I may have had about the book, I have to recommend it–particularly those who are looking to make a diet of small meals. The fact that I keep inviting Hirigoyen back to my kitchen for one dish after another, speaks well of the book, its inventiveness and its flavors.