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Tapas: Little Bite, Big Flavor

By Chef Judi Gallagher.

In advance of my up-coming culinary trip to Spain where I will be cooking with local chefs and doing demonstrations in Barcelona and San Sebastian, I’ve been eating and learning all I can about tapas.

Tapas originated in Spain many years ago in open-air wine bars as a little plate set atop the wine glass to keep the flies away. Over time, the barkeep would put a small treat on the plate. It could be three olives or a morsel of ham and bread. Customers savored the idea of nibbling food while sipping wine and the trend became a tradition. Later restaurateurs realized they could charge for these tapas or small plates by coming up with original presentations and recipes.

Today small plates are globally popular. Small plates are perfect for sharing and are great when you want to try a variety of wines with different kinds of tapas – cheeses, breads, cured meats, fish or dried fruits or nuts.

Jose Andres, one of the great chefs of Spain, explains it this way: “Tapas are Spain’s gift to the world as great cooking, a fresh and fun way to eat with friends and family and easy to make at home.” I agree. My favorite home cocktail parties start and end with tapas.

My strategy is to have two dozen tapas plates, not necessarily matching, that I find on sale in places like Pier One and Pottery Barn. I also collect small cloth napkins in vivid colors to go with the plates. Similarly the tapas food should be bright and colorful looking.

Think of your tapas presentation as an artist’s palette. Tastes should vary from salty to tart, earthy (mushrooms) and sometimes mild for balance. When serving tapas at home, have a minimum of six different kinds. Roasted red and yellow peppers seasoned with garlic oil make a perfect tapas because the presentation is colorful and the peppers are so flavorful. A restrained splash of balsamic glaze adds sweetness to tapas when you’re preparing something like herb-roasted chicken wings or sautéed wild mushrooms.

Every tapas party must include manchego cheese (a nutty Spanish hard cheese), which is widely available in supermarkets. Manchego is Spain’s most famous cheese and originally it was made only with the milk of the famous manchego sheep that grazed on the plains of La Mancha.

Marcona almonds, which you’ll find at gourmet food stores, are pricey. But here’s my insider tip, you can get a generous can at a really good price at Costco. Marcona almonds, called the queen of almonds, are Spanish. They are large, flat almonds with a high fat content and a rich delicious flavor.

September is National Mushroom Month so here’s a recipe combining two of my favorite things, tapas and mushrooms. Enjoy!

Wild Mushroom Crostini
• 36 1/3-inch-thick baguette slices (Fresh Market sells garlic toasted
French rounds ready to go)
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1/3 cup chopped shallots
• 2 1/4 cups chopped oyster mushrooms
• 2 1/4 cups chopped stemmed shiitake mushrooms (about 6 ounces)
• 1 1/4 cups chopped chanterelle mushrooms (about 4 ounces)
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 1/4 cup whipping cream
• 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
• 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
• 1 cup grated Fontina cheese
• 1/2 cup freshly grated Manchego cheese (about 1 3/4 ounces)
• 1 cup micro baby arugula (find at gourmet stores- you can ask them
to order it in for this recipe)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Arrange baguette slices on rimmed baking sheet.
Toast in oven until golden, about 9 minutes. Cool.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots; sauté 1 minute. Add all mushrooms; sauté until beginning to brown, about 6 minutes. Stir in garlic; sauté 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in cream, rosemary, and lemon peel. Season with kosher salt and pepper. Let rest to room temperature.

Mix in both cheeses. Preheat broiler. Top each toast with about 1 tablespoon mushroom topping. Place on 2 rimmed baking sheets. Working in batches, broil until the cheeses are melted and begins to brown, watching closely to prevent burning, about 3 minutes. Transfer to serving platter. Garnish with micro arugula. Serve warm.

Flavors and More Magazine – September 2009

One Response to “Tapas: Little Bite, Big Flavor”

  1. megan says:

    judi, i can’t wait to hear more about this trip! i met someone who took a cruise where you were presenting cooking demos and wine dinners, and they thought it was the experience of a lifetime! wish i could accompany you on this one!

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