Spain’s social eats

Finger food tapas come to Columbia’s social scene
Wednesday, March 2, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:28 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

When cabin fever begins to terrorize even the most cheerful Midwesterner, tapas are the perfect excuse to socialize. This Spanish tradition is a great way to enjoy the last stretch of winter without too much planning or stress.

In recent years, tapas have exploded onto the American food scene. These small snacks, eaten between meals with wine, date back to a 13th-century Spanish king, Alfonso the Wise.

Tapas don’t have to be intimidating or pretentious to be enjoyed. And many recipes are simple to prepare, even at a moment’s notice.

After living in Spain for six months and experiencing the endless varieties of Spanish food, Jane Di Leo of Columbia came to understand the essence of tapas.

“Tapas are a good way to get a party started,” Di Leo said. “In Spain, eating food is a social thing, and tapas are the center of that.”

Want to make your own tapas? Below are some recipes to get you started:

Tortilla Española (Spanish Tortilla)

1 1/2 pounds potatoes (Aramburu insists they be a firm and starchy variety such as Yukon)

Olive oil

1 white onion, finely chopped

12 eggs, beaten

Peel and slice the potatoes. Fry them submersed in olive oil until they are three-quarters cooked. Add the onion to the potatoes. Allow the onion to cook slightly. When the oil is still hot, drain potatoes and onion well. Add to eggs and mix with a fork, slightly mashing the potatoes. Coat a large, non-stick pan with olive oil; spread egg and potato mixture into the pan, as if you are cooking a large pancake or frittata. Cook on low heat until it becomes golden brown. Flip over and brown the other side. Be sure to cook the center all the way through. Remove from heat and slide the tortilla onto a plate. Slice like a pizza and garnish with parsley. Serve immediately. Yield: 8 servings.

—Peio Aramburu, executive chef at Dali’s

Tapas aren’t meant to be eaten as a meal. A tapeo, a gathering for eating tapas, is mostly about the mingling.

Local restaurateur Miguel Martinez, co-owner of Dali’s Spanish Restaurant in Columbia, shared his secrets for a fulfilling tapeo in your own home.

“When I have people at my house, I put 15 to 20 tapas on the table. The people are there to enjoy the food, but mostly, they are there to socialize,” Martinez said.

Originally from Barcelona, Martinez explains the distinctiveness of tapas. “Each tapa has a different flavor, from the patatas bravas to the calamari. Our tasting of each tapa is so different. Everybody comes in to enjoy the food but really to celebrate … themselves.”

Gambas al Ajillo (Shrimp with Garlic and Olive Oil)

2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 cup Olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 to 1 cup dry white wine, depending on your taste

Chopped parsley

Lemon wedges

Saute the shrimp in shimmering olive oil until they are 80 percent cooked.

Add the garlic and cook until it is golden brown.

Add the white wine and reduce for one minute.

Remove from heat and place shrimp on a plate.

Sprinkle a little fresh parsley on top and add a few lemon wedges to garnish.

Yield: About 8 servings

—Peio Aramburu, executive chef at Dali’s

Even if there is little time to cook, a small gathering can turn into a tapeo with just a few items. Spanish food consists of a few main staples, such as olive oil, green olives, crusty bread, serrano ham or prosciutto, a semi-hard, semi-sweet Spanish cheese like manchego, and mahón, a gouda-like cheese from Majorca best served with sherry.

Arrange the food on serving platters, then slice some baguettes and let guests serve themselves.

If you have more time for planning and preparation, Martinez suggests preparing some traditional favorites such as the

Spanish tortilla, shrimp with garlic and olive oil and sangria for your get-together. And for something sweet to top off the evening, try toasted bread and bittersweet chocolate. Martinez also suggests finishing the evening with a liqueur such as Gran Marnier as a digestive aid.

Toasted Bread and Bittersweet Chocolate

32 thin baguette slices

One 8-ounce bar of bittersweet chocolate, cut into 32 pieces

Extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt for sprinkling

Preheat the broiler and position a rack 8 inches from the heat.

Spread the baguette slices on a baking sheet. Broil until toasted, about 30 seconds.

Turn the slices over and set a square of chocolate on each one.

Broil just until the bread is golden and the chocolate is beginning to melt (about 30 seconds).

Transfer the chocolate toasts to plates and drizzle with the olive oil. Lightly sprinkle sea salt on the chocolate and serve right away.

—(Recipe by Ferran Adria and taken from

For the authentic tapeo, follow the lead of Spanish bars. Just set out small plates and allow the quests to serve themselves with toothpicks. Make sure you have enough food for about four to five tapas per guest. There is no need to worry about seating, as tapas are generally meant to be eaten while standing and mingling.

Serve red and white wines from the Rioja region of Spain. It is the highest-rated wine region of the country. Martinez strongly suggests sangria, a traditional beverage made with wine and citrus fruits.

Martinez has his own theory about why Spanish food has become so common in the United States.

“Spain began to export more serrano ham, Spanish wine and cheeses. This led to people being more excited about the Spanish gastronomy. And tapas have become popular due to places like Columbia. People travel around Europe and Spain and they try foods. And they want those foods again when they come back,” he said.

Excited by his own memory, Martinez explains what it means to eat tapas in Spain.

“Bars in Spain are a place to have espresso, beer, wine and to socialize. At a table, you order a ración (a plate of tapas) from a menu. And you share them with everybody at your table. …All the tapas are out on the bar. It’s more like, ‘Hey! Give me another croquette!’ It’s more intimate,” he said.


(There are varieties of sangria, but for this variation, Aramburu uses his mother’s recipe. A quick Internet search should help you find one to suit your taste.)

1 bottle dry red wine

2 oranges

1 lemon

1 lime

1 liter lemon-lime soda

1 tablespoons sugar

Cut the lemon, lime and one orange into slices. Mix with wine and sugar in a large pitcher. Slice the remaining orange in half and use a fork to squeeze the juice into the mixture. Stir well.

If you have time, refrigerate this mixture overnight and add the soda just before serving.

If not, just add in the soda and stir well. Serve in clear glasses over ice with slices of the fruit.

—Kelly Kulaitis

Due to food regulations in the United States, tapas are ordered off the menu and served for everyone at a table to share.

The Spanish seem to be more relaxed about the tapeo.

“In Spain, you can show the food on top of the bar and you pick up everything you want, hot or cold. In the south (of Spain), when you order a chato (a glass of wine) you get a pinxto (a small tapa), a tortilla or even a croquette,” Martinez said.

Even when you are not in Spain, do as the Spanish do — tranquile — relax and have a tapas get-together. Or as Martinez said, “Vamos a tapeo! (Let them enjoy and eat the tapas!)”

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