Sunday, July 25, 2010


Tapas was one of the highlights of a trip I made to Spain more than a decade ago. Spain hadn't become the culinary mecca it is today, in fact, much of the food I sampled in Madrid and Barcelona was disappointing. Yet tapas, those enticing little plates of food found in Spain's local bars and taverns was the exception. I remember a street full of tapas bars not far from the Prado Museum in Madrid. Each bar had its own unique personality from rustic to sleek and offered it's own delicious plates which you ordered with a glass of wine or beer or sherry. Hot or cold, tapas can be as simple as a slice of bread with oil-packed tuna, or a slice of Serrano ham, or tiny mild green olives. Tapas can be more elaborate, such as salad, or a plate of white beans with tomatoes, the wildly popular patatas bravas, fried potatoes with a spicy tomato-based sauce, or famous Spanish Tortilla (filled with potatoes and eaten warm of room temperature). Empanadas, a terrine of seafood, meat or vegetables, stuffed eggs--nearly anything that can take the edge off of your hunger without ruining your dinner, can be classified as tapas.

Simone & Ines Ortega, two of Spain's most admired cookbook writers, have created THE BOOK OF TAPAS (Phaidon; $35.99; ISBN: 978-0-71485613-1). Simone Ortega earned the gratitude of Spanish cooks by producing her bestseller 1080 Recipes, which is considered that country's Joy of Cooking, and has sold more than two million copies. Along with her daughter, Ines, the book also includes the collaboration of Jose Andres, the popular TV chef and restaurant owner credited with bringing tapas to America. The book offers a wide variety of tapas from the traditional to the most modern with contributions from famous chefs such from Spain, New York, London, Paris and Washington, D.C., as Jose Andres, Albert Adria, Albert Raurich, Jose Pizarro, Sam and Sam Clark, and Seamus Mullen.

Simple Tapas: Melon and Ham

Once past the fascinating chapters on tapas and their history in Spain, as well as a useful tapas glossary and an A-Z guide to Spanish ingredients, the authors get down to business with chapters devoted to hot and cold versions of vegetable, egg and cheese, fish and meat tapas. The sheer variety of tapas is arresting: Prunes with Roquefort, Raisins and Pine Nuts, an Olive Caviar spread, Leek Flan, Soft Cheese Sandwiches, Cheese Fritters with Tomato Sauce, Salt Cod, Orange, Onion and Olive Salad, Mussel Brochettes with Sauce, Salmon Terrine, Salt Cod and Potato Croquettes, Serrano Ham with Melon Mousse, Rice with Bacon, Sausages and Bonito, Chicken Livers with Grapes, and Chicken and Bell Pepper Empanada. Even simple tapas such as Salami and Cheese, or Melon Balls with Ham are memorable because of the fine quality of the ingredients. The chapter from guests chefs offering their own tapas is equally memorable, and include some surprisingly simple ideas with big flavors, including Anchovies in Vinegar, Endive with Oranges, Goat Cheese and Almonds, spicy Pork Skewers and Brussels Sprouts with Chorizo.

Leek Flan

The look of THE BOOKS OF TAPAS was one of the reasons I bought this strikingly handsome cookbook. From pile of books laying on a large table at Costco in Seattle, this book with its bright yellow jacket with bold red type and no illustration stood out. Phaidon kept the design consistently throughout the book with the same bright yellow pages for each recipe with red type for the recipe titles, and black type for ingredients and instructions. And there are five big photo inserts of stunningly photographed finished dishes. This may be one of the most beautiful cookbooks I've ever seen.

The 250 recipes here are just a starting point and underline how these tasty small dishes are perfect for home entertaining. This is simple, unfussy cooking that does honor to good ingredients. The cook is free to construct their own tapas party, but THE BOOK OF TAPAS is is ideal introduction to the basic concepts while adding a few more recipes to your basic repertoire.

A personal favorite: Prunes with Roquefort, Raisins and Pine Nuts