Deborah Neyens is an attorney, avid gardener, and cook who believes food should be sustainably grown, lovingly prepared, and joyfully eaten.
If you love to entertain with food and wine but don't have the time to plan and execute a formal sit-down meal, look to the casual dining of Spanish tabernas for inspiration for your next dinner party. In bars across Spain, friends meet over glasses of wine or sherry and nibble on small plates of simple, yet delicious food. These little plates, called tapas, are ideal for an interesting and informal meal.
With just a few simple tapas recipes supplemented by items you purchase, this is an easy dinner party to pull off. You'll serve your selection of Spanish tapas buffet style, so there's no need to set a table. Pair your tapas menu with Spanish wines (there are many good buys available). Light a bunch of votive candles—as many as you can find—and turn on some soft Spanish guitar music to set the mood. The wonderful food and relaxed ambiance will make for a memorable party.
What Are Tapas?
Tapas are said to have originated in the bars of Seville, in Spain's Andalusia region, where they remain a nightly tradition. The word tapa translates to "cover" or "lid" and the earliest tapas were slices of ham, cheese or bread laid across patrons' sherry glasses to keep the insects out. If the tapa was a bit salty, all the better; it would stimulate thirst so the customer would drink more.
Tapas now encompass any hot or cold dish that can be served in small portions. Tapas can be as simple as a few nibbles like almonds, olives or bite-sized morsels served on cocktail sticks, or more substantial dishes made with seafood, meats and vegetables. Small rounds of toasted bread with a variety of toppings also are typical of tapas menus.
Planning Your Tapas Menu
To keeps things interesting, you'll want to have a variety of different dishes. Plan some hot, some cold, some nibbles and skewers, and some with a little more heft. To keep things easy on you, plan to make a few dishes yourself, including a few that can be made a day or two ahead of time, and pick up the rest at the market.
Many supermarkets across the country like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's now stock a good selection of authentic Spanish cheeses, sausages, cured meats, and other products. Also check smaller gourmet and specialty stores in your area. If you can't find what you need locally, there are many on-line resources from which to order.
Serving the Meal
Lay out your spread buffet style for optimal grazing. Arrange small plates in stacks so guests can serve themselves. Also supply cocktail sticks for spearing food and cloth or paper napkins.
Don't forget the libations. A chilled dry Fino sherry is traditionally paired with tapas in Spain, but any sort of Spanish wine would be fitting for your tapas party. Spain is best known for its robust red wines, Rioja and the longer-aged and more pricey Rioja Reservas and Gran Reservas. These are particularly well-suited to meat dishes. Also look for Spanish reds from the Ribera del Duero and Navarra regions. For brisk, dry whites that pair well with shellfish, try wines made with the Verdejo grape. For something a bit sweeter, look for Chardonnay-based wines from the Catalonia region.
Another beverage option for your party is a pitcher of sangria, a sparkling wine and fruit punch with origins in Spain. Sangria is especially good when the weather is warm and pairs well with spicy food. There are as many variations of sangria as there are of wine itself, and any ingredient is optional.
On-Line Sources for Spanish Foods
The Spanish Table: Offers a variety of Spanish products from meats and cheeses to olives and tinned fish.
La Tienda: Offering authentic Spanish food from small family producers, including ham, chorizo and sausages, cured beef, and cheeses.
Despaña Brand Foods: Despaña makes its own chorizo and morcilla sausages, but also imports a variety of authentic Spanish food, including artisan cheeses and dry-cured seafood specialties.
La Española Meats: Offering a variety of imported Spanish products but most famous for their meats.
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Select items from each category to give your guests plenty of variety and a generous selection of tapas to make a complete meal.
Tapas to Make
Choose two or more items from this list. The shrimp can be prepped in advance and finished quickly as guests arrive. The others can be made ahead and served at room temperature. Recipes are found below.
- Sizzling shrimp
- Tortilla española
- Mushrooms with garlic
- Tomato salad with capers
Tapas to Purchase
Round out your menu with as many items from this list as it will take to feed your guests. A good rule of thumb is to have 2-3 dishes for every 4 guests. Make sure your menu includes at least one fish or shellfish, one cheese or meat, and one vegetable dish, and a huge basket of crusty bread slices.
- Charcuterie platter: Choose 2 or more of the following Spanish cured meats or sausages: jamón serrano (cured ham), lomo embuchado (dried cured pork loin), chorizo, salami, cecina (salt cured beef). Bring to room temperature 20 minutes before eating. Add thinly sliced cantaloupe.
- Cheese platter: Choose 3 or more of the following Spanish cheeses: manchego (classic Spanish sheep's milk cheese), cabrales (blue cheese), mahon (a sweet, creamy cow's milk cheese from Menorca), roncal (sheep's milk), garrotxa (goat's milk cheese). Add thin slices of quince preserve (found in specialty stores).
- Mixed marinated olives
- Smoked almonds
- Dried cherries
- Platter of oil-packed fish like anchovies, sardines or tuna. Add chopped chives and pickled peppers.
- Mixed pickled vegetables
- Roasted red peppers
- Olive tapenade
Wow your friends with these beautifully simple dishes that taste as good as they look.
Do the prep work ahead of time and finish the dish as your guests arrive. Make sure to have plenty of crusty bread on hand to mop up the delicious juices.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 3/4 pound raw shrimp, peeled
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- Kosher salt
- Lemon wedges
Heat oil in a skillet over high heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute, stirring. Add shrimp and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until shrimp is cooked through. Stir in white wine and cook until alcohol is evaporated, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley and salt to taste. Serve with lemon wedges.
This Spanish take on an omelet can be made ahead and served at room temperature. You can make it using just potato, onion and egg, or add colorful vegetables for a mosaic look.
- 1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup chopped broccoli florets and stems
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped orange bell pepper
- 6 eggs, beaten
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Steam the potato and broccoli until crisp-tender, about 5-10 minutes. Set aside.
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a 10- or 12-inch ovenproof nonstick skillet. Sauté onion and pepper until tender. Stir in potatoes and broccoli.
Pour beaten eggs into the skillet, stir and tilt pan to spread eggs evenly over the surface. Turn heat to low, cover and cook until eggs are set, about 12 minutes. In the mean time, preheat the broiler.
Uncover the pan and finish for 2-3 minutes under the broiler until top begins to brown. Turn out onto wooden cutting board and allow to cool to room temperature. Use a pizza cutter to cut into wedges to serve on a plate or small cubes to serve on a cocktail stick.
Mushrooms with Garlic
This dish may be served warm, but if you allow it to cool to room temperature, the flavors will intensify.
- 2 pounds fresh mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and cut in half (or quarters if very large)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon fresh minced thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Hear oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté until tender, 5-10 minutes. Turn heat to medium-high, add garlic and stir for one minute. Add mushrooms and cook until they start to release some of their liquid. Add wine, thyme, half the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Turn heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until mushrooms are tender and some wine remains in the pan, about 15-20 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in remaining parsley. Transfer to serving dish. Serve with crusty bread or toothpicks.
Tomato Salad with Capers
Serve this as a topping for toasted bread rounds (crostini). Top with paper-thin slices of manchego cheese.
- 1 pound ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 1/2 cup finely diced red onion
- 1/4 cup capers, drained
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss gently. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste. Can be made up to two hours in advance and kept at room temperature until serving.