Trouble-Free Tapas

These simple Spanish-style dishes make summer gatherings a snap.

When I called author Joyce Goldstein to discuss her charming book, Tapas: Sensational Small Plates from Spain (Chronicle Books, 2009), we instantly fell to trading stories of our Spanish travels.

On my first trip to Seville, for instance, my first stop was one of the most traditional tapas bars in the city. Housed in a medieval-looking room held together with beams the size of telephone poles and spanned by ghostly whitewashed plaster, it had no tables or chairs, and food was served on either the bar or one of the giant, ancient sherry casks that filled the space. The bartender — who looked like actor Harry Dean Stanton, but even more sun-weathered and nicotine-stained — was busy arguing with his customers (obvious lifelong friends) and stopped just long enough to take our order.

There were no cooks visible, and as we waited, my husband and I watched in awe as the bartender reached into various jars on his counter — keeping up with the banter the entire time. He seized olives the size of chicken eggs and mushrooms marinated in garlicky oil; he sliced cheese from a big wheel and ham from a full leg clamped into a holder on one end of the bar. In moments, we had a feast fit for kings.

I had more-complicated and creative meals on that trip, but no experience better captured Spain’s spirit of simple, everyday entertaining than that tapas bar.

“That’s the essence of the Mediterranean lifestyle,” agreed Goldstein. “While they spend time talking to each other, we spend time alone with our machines: our computers, televisions and phones. I feel bad for a lot of people because they’re often so scattered and time-pressed that they have less time for real face-to-face communication and celebration.

“I think a lot of that has come about because the art of sitting at the table has simply been lost,” she continued. “Today, if you invite someone over for supper, they’re typically so grateful and flattered that you could feed them cornflakes and they would be touched.”

In Tapas, Goldstein ­reassuringly proves that entertaining friends really doesn’t have to be any harder than serving cereal: A simple spread of Spanish tapas, for instance, includes classics like olives, ham, cheese, almonds and bread, and requires nothing more from the host than placing them on plates.

Goldstein offers dozens of great ideas for dishes that require only the quickest assembly. For instance, the section on montaditos — or things to be served as spreads or ­toppings for bread toasts — suggests simple plates like egg salad with anchovies, black olives and capers, and store-bought black-olive tapenade spread on bread and topped with thin slices of smoked whitefish such as cod or trout.

My personal favorites are the banderillas, or foods speared on toothpicks. A piece of dried Spanish chorizo can be cut into cubes and stacked with cubes of melon or apple for tasty little one-bite appetizers. Another delicious (and ridiculously simple) option: A cube of watermelon sprinkled with hot paprika, wrapped in a strip of serrano ham and speared on a toothpick with a bit of fresh goat cheese. The whole thing is then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped mint.

There are more-elaborate recipes, too, many of which can be made well in advance to take pressure off the cook. “It’s not hard to entertain,” Goldstein maintains. “Just get some wine, wineglasses, plates, and hit a good grocery store. If you’re not a confident cook, maybe the only dish you’ll make is a bean salad in advance. If you feel like a dinner party needs a meaty entrée, you can do something as simple as throwing some lamb chops on the grill.

“But the most important thing is to just make the time to see people in real life — it’s good to have stimulating conversation and to feel the temperature of family and friends. There’s no need to worry that people are going to be sitting there like restaurant critics evaluating your food. I’ve written 26 cookbooks, and I can tell you for a fact that the sociability is more important than the food.”

But if you like the idea of doing some easy entertaining and offering an impressive culinary spread, tapas are a simple and delicious way to go.

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Fish in Pine Nut Sauce

Serves eight

  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 4 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1 tbs. finely minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • Pinch of saffron threads, warmed and crushed (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup fish stock or dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds firm white fish fillet, cut into eight pieces
  • 1 cup English peas, cooked until tender-crisp (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or mint

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and golden, about eight minutes. Pour onto a plate to cool. Transfer 1/4 cup of the toasted nuts to a nut grinder or small food processor and grind or pulse until finely ground.

In a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about eight minutes. Add the paprika, garlic, ground pine nuts, bread crumbs and saffron, if using, and cook, stirring often, for three minutes. Add the tomatoes and stock and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, five to eight minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat.

In a large frying pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper, add to the pan, and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides, about three minutes on each side. Pour the sauce over the fish, add the peas, if using, and simmer until the fish is opaque throughout, about five minutes longer. Transfer to a serving dish or individual dishes, and garnish with the remaining pine nuts and the parsley. Serve at once.

Recipes excerpted from Tapas: Sensational Small Plates from Spain by Joyce Goldstein (Chronicle Books, 2009).

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated nine times for James Beard Foundation awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received five awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies. Her new book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine, 2009).

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