Speedy Tapas from the Spanish Larder

TAPAS EXPRESS

T E X T: VICKY HAYWARD

STILL LIFES: MENCU ARTIME

PHOTOS: A. DE BENITO/ ICEX

GRAPHIC DESIGN: DISTINCTLY GRAPHIX

 Today's tapas have come a long way from theirsimple Andalusian origins in a mouthful of ham or sausage on a saucer usedas a lid over a glass of wine. These days the selection of dishes in atapa bar often stretches the length of the bar top. And not only in Spain:in the last decade, tapas bars have not only mushroomed around Europe andacross America but also reached Australia and Japan. One reason they canoffer authentic Spanish flavors is that many tapas are based on Mediterraneanpreserves such as olives, cured ham and anchovies or tuna in olive oil,all of which originated as foods intended to travel and keep well. Hereis how to make the best of Spanish preserves in easy traditional and newtapas.

 Walk into a Spanish tapas bar worthy of itsname and the first thing that hits you is the variety: pickles on cocktailsticks, cheeses and hams, homely omelets, baby earthenware casseroles withsizzling hot dishes and elegant mayonnaise-topped mouthfuls. It's the chanceto dip into so many tastes, as well as the visual spread of tapas thatmake them universally appealing. But behind the apparently bewilderingvariety are certain clear principles. Originally a mouthful of food includedin the bar-price of a fino, wine or beer, a tapa is designed to accompanydrink and good conversation. Or as journalist Pedro Soleras put it in thenewspaper El Pafs last year, 'The tapa, invented in an age less obsessedwith productivity, is a trick for spinning out your drinks without gettingdrunk.' And whether thirst provoking or absorbent, they should be easyto eat so they don't interrupt the flow of conversation. Another pointis clear too. Even though they are now to be found in homes and smart restaurants,tapas have kept an informal spirit through their popular origins as street-food.So don't hold back. There's always room for improvisation around the ingredientsthat come to hand and the cook's personality. Treat the recipes below simplyas a springboard for your own ideas.

Quickest of All: Quality in a Can

 Some of the most traditional tapas are alsothe speediest fast food, taking only as long to prepare, as you need toopen a tin. The most obvious example are the wide variety of canned olives:whole or pitted, stuffed with almonds or anchovies, cracked and cannedin marinades. But in many an old-fashioned Spanish bodega bar, tapas fromcans, or latas as they are called, cover a much broader range. Listed onchalked-up menus under that heading, they might include clams, cocklesand razorfish in their juices; anchovies, sardines and tuna fillet in oliveoil; mussels or tuna in escabeche (marinade).These will usually be on display in large drumlike tins behind the counterso customers can check their quality. All are considered delicacies tobe savored in their own right, fished out onto a dish and served with bread.In recent years the range has grown, too, with the arrival of new gourmetpreserves such as elvers, crawfish, sea-urchin coral and baby octopus inolive oil. Such instant tapas can be made a little more solid by spearingthem with bread on a stick or laying them on toast dribbled with oliveoil and rubbed with garlic. Or they can be made more elaborate, if stillfoolproof, by combining them -say tuna with roasted red pepperto hit yourtastebuds with a satisfying combination of flavors.

Ham, Charcuterie and Cheese

 The Spanish hams sausagesand cheeses that are becoming available abroad in an ever-widening rangemake equally easy tapas. A raci6n, or sliced plateful, could be of fineor coarsecut cborizo, salcbich6n, cured loin or ham. All can now be boughthandily vacuum-packed in counted slices as well as loose by weight fromdelicatessens. Remember that if you are cutting your own Iberian curedham made from native black-footed pigs, it needs to be sliced along thegrain into wafer-thin, translucent slices to bring out its full aroma andflavor. Likewise, it is now possible to make up a varied tabla de quesos,or cheeseboard, of the Spanish cheeses being newly exported. One unusualaddition you can make easily for yourself is deliciously nutty Manchegocheese preserved in olive oil. The cheese is cut into cubes or trianglesand small holes pricked in it so the oil soaks in well. This keeps forup to a year, with the flavor maturing all the time, but you can dip intoit after a month.

Instant Hot Tapes

 Another good trick for adding variety totapas if you're either pressed for time or if you're a reluctant cook isto open a jar or can of a preserved cooked dish with a strong whiff ofSpain. Again the range has not only widened but also improved enormouslyin quality. Squid cooked in its ink, braised Mediterranean vegetable pastfrom La Mancha, braised partridge, quail in escabecbe and tuna fish withgreen peppers are only few examples of high-quality preserved dishes thatyou can serve as they are, use to fill pastry cases or serve on toastedrolls.

Goto Recipies for Hot Tapas.
Goto Recipes for Cold Tapas.

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Vicky Hayward:is a freelance features journalist, travel writer and editor wbo livesin Madrid. Sbe bas written two guidebooks and published numerous articleson Spanish food, culture and society in newspapers and magazines.

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