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The history and allure of small-plate tapas

Small Plates for Your Table

En español | José Andrés, one of America's most successful and noted chefs, owes his fame to something small—small plates, that is, also known as tapas. He co-owns and operates seven restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, where he serves his innovative and creative Spanish tapas. AARP caught up with Andrés, who was shooting his wildly popular food program in Spain, to talk about tapas and what makes them so special.

Chef Andrés, who was voted Bon Appétit's Chef of the Year in 2004, released a book full of tapas recipes—Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

Q: What exactly are tapas? Are they unique to Spain? How did you decide to focus on them?

A: Tapas are the traditional small dishes of Spain, the small plates of this and that served at bars and cafés across the country. We know that the tradition of the tapas probably began in southern Spain, in Andalusia, but beyond that its origins begin to get a little murky. The word tapa translates to lid in English. And there is an often-told story that tapas originated in the taverns, where people would go to enjoy a glass of wine or sherry. To keep pesky flies from landing in a customer's drink, the tavern keepers began to place a slice of bread—sometimes it is also said to have been a plate—on top of the glass. Eventually, the tavern keepers began to top the customer's drink with a treat, things like a few almonds or olives, slices of chorizo, maybe a chunk of tortilla, or perhaps a wedge of cheese.

Maybe the story is true, maybe not, no one knows. It could be nonsense but it's a nice story. What is clear is that the Andalusian custom of eating tapas, and the custom of the tapéo, moving from bar to bar, allowing the diner to sample the specialty of the house at each, has spread to all of Spain. And now Americans have adopted it.

The story of how I found myself cooking tapas in America is funny. I was cooking at fine dining restaurants. I had worked at very high-end restaurants, at Michelin-starred restaurants, when Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez, my partners, approached me about moving to Washington to help them open a tapas bar. I love tapas but honestly, I thought they were crazy. A tapas bar in Washington? I thought, "what?" To me, tapas were something very casual, a cheap way of eating; you stood at the bar and for a small amount of money you ate well. But to build a restaurant in Washington around the idea of tapas? I admit I was a nonbeliever. Thank goodness [for my partners].

Q: What are some fun combinations—ingredients that work well—for tapas? And some typical ones?

A: I love the combination of watermelon and tomato. It is unusual but it works so well. The crisp, refreshing sweetness of the watermelon paired with ripe and acid tomato. A little olive oil and salt, and it is perfect. Also, soft-shell crab is not something we cook with in Spain. However, a good soft-shell fried the Spanish way in an excellent olive oil and served with some allioli makes an unbeatable tapa. A super traditional choice would be a classic tortilla de patatas, potato omelette.

Q: What do you serve to drink with tapas? Are there traditional drinks?

A: Sangria, wines, beer, hard cider, and of course, sherry are all very traditional. It is hard to say. So much depends on the ingredients in the tapa. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. And no real rules! I make specific recommendations for each recipe in my book.

Q: Any other advice for readers who want to prepare tapas at home—serving suggestions, how to estimate how much will be needed, et cetera?

A: Think about balance when planning. Serve something hot, something cold, something acid, something crisp, something meaty, something featuring seafood, some cheese, some sausages, some olives, good bread to sop up the sauces. The joy of tapas is to be able to try a little bit of everything, so give your guests some variety!

In the restaurant, people typically order two to three tapas per person for a meal, more if you are very hungry.

Q: Can you share three recipes from your book for AARP readers? The recipes have to be easy to prepare, healthy, and have a simple ingredient list.

A: Tapas can be a very healthy way to eat! The portions are small. Because there is no conventional structure to the meal, there is no heavy entrée.

From the book, I would recommend tapas that are lighter, like espinacas a la Catalana, spinach with raisins and pine nuts; pinchitos de tomate con sandia, skewers of tomato and watermelon; and of course, gazpacho.

Try this recipe from Chef Andrés:

Tomato and Watermelon Skewer "Ferran Adria"

From Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America (Clarkson Potter, 2005) by José Andrés

(Serves 4)

8 plum tomatoes, with the seeds prepared as "fillets"

1/4 seedless watermelon, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Sea salt to taste

Fresh herbs or herb flowers (such as lavender or borage), optional, for the garnish

 

1. Take a bamboo skewer and place a tomato-seed fillet on it. Then place a watermelon cube onto the skewer. Repeat with the remaining seven skewers.

2. In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, half the lemon zest, the oil, and the vinegar to make the dressing.

3. Place the skewers on a serving plate and pour the dressing on top. Sprinkle with sea salt, the remaining lemon zest, and the herb flowers. Serve immediately.

TIP: To make filets of tomato seeds: Using a sharp knife, slice off the top and bottom of each tomato. Locate the fleshy dividing wall of one segment inside the tomato. Slice alongside the dividing wall and open up the flesh of the tomato to expose the seeds. Remove the seeds and their pulp by slicing around the core of the tomato. Set the seeds aside. Your aim is to keep the pulp of the seeds together to create tomato-seed "fillets" that are separate from the firmer tomato flesh. Repeat with each segment of the tomato. *If you want to save time, you can use cherry tomatoes instead of the tomato seeds. For the lemon zest, ideally you should use a Microplane grater for removing the zest of the lemon. If you don't have a Microplane, try a very fine grater.

 

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