Serving Spanish Tapas
Serving Spanish tapas can at first seem like a mind boggling task, which tapas ideas to use? Hot or cold tapas? And what really are Spanish tapas? Tapas are small bites of food served in Spain when you buy a glass of beer or wine, they can range from the very simple such as a bowl of almonds to something a bit more complex like chili garlic prawns or tortilla (Spanish omelet) to name only a few. Tapas are also not just about the food but more importantly the size, for example Spanish paella makes good tapas, the trick is to serve each portion in the correct size so it becomes not a meal or a side dish but more of an appetizer to go with your drink. Combine various Spanish dishes together, all in small servings and you are half way to a Spanish tapas party…
There are many ways to serve Spanish tapas, usually only Spanish restaurants make them flamboyant perhaps with garnish and intricate presentation but for tapas at home (food artists excluded!) the colours and vibrancy of Spanish ingredients as well as what the food is served in or on makes a lovely presentation and best of all tapas are, in the main very easy to make.
Paella is the classic Spanish dish and manufacturers of paella pans in Spain have designed the perfect ‘tapas paella pan’. These mini pans besides from being to scale are made using the same materials larger pans are made from with the difference that they are a mere 10cm in diameter, complete with handles mini paella pans are a great idea for serving your paella tapas, typically you can expect 3 – 4 forkfulls of paella which is the ideal tapas size. The terracotta cazuela or clay dish is also popular for serving portions of food, in particular hot tapas where the insulating qualities of the terracotta keep the food warm. Cazuelas are regularly used in tapas bars and restaurants for serving dishes such as gambas al pil, steamed shellfish or Spanish meatballs in tomato salsa. Terracotta cazuelas, like the humble paella pan come in a range of sizes from the tiny 6cm dish to the largest 46cm, the latter being a great piece of durable Spanish cookware. Cazuelas are very versatile and where tapas serving is concerned can break the rules, a 14cm cazuela for example can hold four tapas servings in one and in this case would come with four forks where it would then be placed center of the table for everyone to dig in – tapas between friends.
Spanish ceramics are a popular choice for serving a whole range of Spanish dishes, ceramics bowls come in a plethora of shapes and sizes and also design depending on the area of Spain in which they were made. Andalucia in southern Spain in famous for its ceramics in particular Granada and Jaen. Ceramics from Granada are painted in blue, white and green and have a typically regional design with most depicting the pomegranate or ‘Granadina’ which is how the city got its name. Tapas bowls range from 8cm upwards, growing into salsa bowls, gazpacho soup bowls, salad bowls and many more, the list truly is endless! Jaen on the other hand tends to produce highly colourful and vibrant designs using reds, greens, blues, oranges and yellows to decorate a range of similar complexity. Spanish ceramics will brighten up any table and are indicative of southern Spain, its traditions and colours. There are of course many other types of ceramic which will compliment the tapas table and your tapas servers such as olive oil pourers, salt cellars and allioli dishes. Spanish ceramics also tend to be hand painted so expect no two pieces to be exactly the same, which, really is half of the charm.
Tapas are not just restricted to small bowls of nibbles or the occasional cazuela of hot food to be shared, recipes such as ‘pinchitos’ or kebabs are very popular and normally served on bamboo skewers, such a dish requires a serving platter and this is where Spanish ceramics come in again, designed for the purpose ceramic platters can be used to present a whole host of Spanish tapas from kebabs to slices of cured Spanish ham. Spanish ceramics such as platters and smaller flat plates or dishes always have a generously pronounced ‘lip’ around the edge – this allows for that drizzle of olive oil which in most cases is mandatory for most Spanish tapas, particularly with cured meats or when fresh bread is involved.
One of the more regularly served tapas in Spain is Serrano ham, look behind any good bar or indeed in any good restaurant and there will be a full leg Serrano ham clamped in its ham stand, every so often the ham will be carved with slices presented on top of sliced French bread and given a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It is probably fair to say that no tapas party would be complete without some cured ham or some acorn fed Iberian ham if you fancy splashing out, with hand sliced packs and smaller pieces available one of Spain’s most famous gastronomic experiences is now available to all. Of course we cannot forget the Spanish chorizo nor its lesser known cousin the salchichon, both great sausages which can be served sliced into segments then presented on cocktail sticks. Chorizo can also be cooked with, one popular recipe is chorizo braised in red wine, this can be both made and served in the terracotta cazuelas mentioned above but watch out that cazuela will be hot, tapas such as these including chili prawns meatballs and anything cooked with a salsa are great served in cazuelas which have just the right depth to allow that piece of fresh bread to mop up all the flavours. Ceramic bowls and cazuelas are also used throughout Spain for presenting cured fish which is a very popular tapas both in Andalucia and in Galicia in the North of the country. Anchovies are cleaned and butterflied before being marinated in vinegar, garlic and herbs or bay leaf and peppercorns, the fillets are presented in olive oil which has infused with all the flavours.
Besides from ceramic bowls, platters, sticks, paella pans and terracotta cazuelas you can also serve your Spanish sliced meats on wooden serving boards. The serving board is particularly useful if you are presenting a small piece of cured ham such the ‘babilla’ piece or the smaller ‘punta’, the board allows for carving as and when and although not exactly a typically Spanish product does have the advantage of displaying a nice piece of ham which when left at room temperature uncovered will begin to intensify in flavour. Accompany the ham with some Manchego cheese and glass of good red and you will be in tapas heaven. One piece of equipment that is very Spanish and specifically designed for the purpose of serving are the ‘pinzas’. Known as ‘pinzas para embutidos’ which roughly translates as ‘tongs for cured meats’ pinzas are a handy device for serving ham which has just been/or is being carved. Used in ham competitions and all good restaurants pinzas are designed both for serving aesthetics and hygiene allowing no contact with the hand or fingers.
If you decide to go the whole hog then there is nothing quite like a full bone – in Spanish ham. A Spanish ham will take pride of place on the table and make a great centerpiece with tapas for even the largest of functions. Carve up your tapas feast from the leg and the guests will surely be impressed at the spectacle and get them asking all manner or questions! A full ham can only be described as a delicious gastronomic experience and given that one will last for weeks later can provide solutions to a number of Spanish themed afternoons and evenings!
Great ideas for Spanish tapas either just for the family or at the tapas party would be recipes such as traditional ‘tortilla de patatas’ (Spanish omelet). The humble tortilla is a filling meal on its own but cut like a cake into small slices makes great tapas and also has the benefit of being delicious both hot and cold so can be prepared earlier. Another tasty Andalucian dish that can be served hot and cold and which also handy for kids tapas are croquettes, traditionally made with serrano ham the croquette recipe is highly versatile and there are many variations available. Chicken nuggets using olive oil, garlic and lemon can be served as tapas either in bowls or on sticks and there are of course banderillas – simply a cocktail stick with Manchego, ham and pequillo pepper although there are no rules at all to the combination you can use. Lighting of the barbeque will also present many opportunities for hot tapas and will bring the terracotta cazuela into good use, mushrooms stuffed with Spanish ham or morcilla are always popular or why not try chorizo slices braised in cider and apple. Chorizo works very well with chicken and small kebabs are usually the tapas of choice sometimes skewered on rosemary for an added herby flavour from the garden.
Unusual Serving Ideas
Staying with ceramics and if you are lucky enough to aquire some calcots from Spain the best way to serve these onions are on a Spanish roof tile, this method was shown to us by our Spanish neighbour who helps grow and prepare calcots in Barcelona with her Father Rafael before bringing some down to Andalucia at Easter time. There is a lot of preparation that goes into calcots (including the Romesco sauce used for dipping) so presentation is also important however you have to love the rustic way in which this is done! Take one Spanish roof tile, turn upside down and arrange the calcots lengthways, place the tile center table and let everyone help themselves dipping into several ceramic bowls of romesco sauce, a messy affair but one that can be matched for traditional Catalan flavour.
A serving technique for Spanish gazpacho tapas: Can gazpacho be a tapa? Well yes, it really depends how it is served, gazpacho shots are a great talking point and the cold tomato soup is served in hollowed out cucumber so the ‘glass’ can also be eaten. Take one cucumber and chop into 2 inch long segments, carefully remove the seeds and inner flesh leaving a layer at the bottom before filling with gazpacho. For the more artistic tapas enthusiast you can also shave or cut the cucumber skin into designs adding a very unusual touch to your Spanish soup.
So here we have discovered a handful of Spanish tapas ideas and how to serve them, the ideas are certainly not exhaustive as tapas by their very nature are simple finger food, they can be used for kids parties, kids can make them and they are also great for the adults too. Tapas can be simple, complex or even extravagant but are suitable for cooks of every level in the kitchen. Tapas are imagination, a combination of flavours and colourful presentation as well as simplicity but primarily flavour. Spain is a vibrant country steeped in tradition and although tapas may now only be found in the Granada region and certain pockets of the country you at home can still enjoy what is probably one the most famous traditions Spain has right in your own home.