Summer entertaining: 20 tasty tapas

Kick off your meal with these succulent starters – or make them the main attraction at your next party.

They can be a tasty snack, a prelude to a fine dinner or a meal all unto themselves. Tapas — small dishes or appetizers — are a versatile addition to any gathering whether it’s a barbeque, cocktail party, sit-down dinner or summer gathering.

And they’re a natural compliment to a glass of wine or your favourite alcoholic beverage. In fact, rumour has it that’s where the tradition began. One of the legends reports that tapas got their start in Spain with King Alfonso X of Castile, who ate small snacks with wine between meals while recovering from an illness. Afterwards, he made it law that food must be served with alcohol in local taverns.

Other stories relate back to more practical concerns like alcohol being served with a slice of bread or meat covering the top to keep out flies or hide the smell of bad wine. Serving salty foods made patrons thirsty, and tavern owners saw their sales go up. Whatever the origins of the tradition, the combination of socializing, food and drink certainly caught on.

So how can it work for your summer entertaining? Cooking experts note that tapas are a style of eating, not a style of cooking. It’s about conversing with friends and family in a relaxed and informal atmosphere. In fact, the finger-food nature of the tapas means they can easily be eaten standing up — translating to more mingling and conversation. They don’t require the attention of a multi-course dinner either.

In addition, serving a variety of tapas instead of a main meal ensures there’s a little something to please everyone (especially if you have choosy eaters in the crowd). They give people a chance to try a little of everything — and perhaps something new.

Not sure where to begin? Here are some traditional Spanish recipes to get you started:

Spanish Omelette – According to various sources, the tortilla de patatas is one of the best-known tapas recipes and it’s easy to make.

Patatas bravas- These crispy potatoes are called “fierce” for a reason: Tabasco sauce and a few key seasonings make for a spicy red topping. Instead of deep-fried potatoes, this recipe uses healthier roasted ones instead.

Spanish Meatball Recipe — Where’s the beef? No appetizer or tapas selection would be complete without meatballs. Serve them with tomato sauce, salsa or your choice of dips.

Costillas (Barbequed Mini Ribs) — They’re perfect for the grill, but you can roast them in the oven too.

Herbed Chicken Tapas — Fresh rosemary and thyme combined with lemon juice and olive oil make a quick marinade for this hot dish.

Gambas al Ajillo (Garlic Shrimp) — Reportedly one of the most common tapas in Spain, this shrimp dish is easy to make and will please any garlic-lover. Keep some fresh bread on hand to soak up the leftover oil.

Calamares Fritos (Fried Squid) — An easy recipe to whip up in the frying pan from fresh or frozen. If it’s your first try, look for squid that is already cleaned.

Ceviche — A spicy, Spanish-influenced dish made with your choice of fish, chilli and lime juice. The acidic lime juice even starts the cooking process for you. For fresh twist on this tradition, try Strawberry Shrimp Ceviche.

Tuna and Goat Cheese Empanadillas — These small, pocket turnovers don’t require silverware to eat — just fingers!

Mushroom Pinchos — Garlic, parsley, paprika and a dash of sherry vinegar add flavour to these fried mushrooms.

Mini Chilled Gazpacho — This chilled soup adds a new texture to the mix. Serve it in mini-glasses with a garnish of cool cucumber.

Red onion and orange salad — Bring some colour to the table with this popular and festival salad.

Apple and Walnut Salad — It’s fruity and crunchy, and helps you get some of those healthy omega-3 fatty acids too.

Ensalada de Pepino (Cucumber Salad) — An easy salad to throw together at the last minute when unexpected guests stop by. Not only are the tomatoes and cucumber refreshing on a hot day, but they’ll also help to balance out some of the richer fare.

Stuffed Cherry Tomato Tapas — Wondering what to do with that bumper crop of tomatoes in your garden? Stuff them for a fresh finger food. (If you’ve got larger tomatoes in your garden, try RecipeZaar’s Breaded Tomatoes instead).

Chick-Peas and Spinach Tapas — these tapas are good for you because they’re packed with protein, fibre and nutrients. Use the mixture to stuff mini pita pockets or serve it on toast.

Ham, Cheese and Chorizo with Bread — Toasted bread or baguette slices topped with meat and cheese are another popular form of tapas. This version uses tasty choices like Manchego cheese, Serrano ham and Spanish chorizo sausage.

Lemon Olive Tapas — Save the lemon zest from other recipes to make this tangy appetizer. Give yourself a day’s leeway to give the herbs, lemon and olives a chance to thoroughly mingle.

Spiced Spanish Almonds — Nuts are another popular munchy that can be served any time (and you can prepare them well ahead of time). For a little extra pizzazz, try using the flatter, richer Spanish Marcona almonds instead of the usual ones.

Simple Fig and Mascarpone Dessert– Need something sweet to add to the menu? This dessert recipe can also double as one of your selections of tapas.

ON THE WEB
Of course, these are just a few of the many ideas you can serve up to your guests. For more recipes and ideas, here are a few good sources to check:
About.com Top Spanish Tapas
Spain-recipes.com
RecipeZaar.com
Proper-Spanish-Tapas.com

Tips for starting out

- Stick with the ingredients list if specialty items are required. Many tapas recipes are flexible and can easily be adapted, but ones that call for certain kinds of ham, cheese or sausage are strict. Substituting in a different product might not give you the results you want.

- Branch out into other cuisines. The tapas tradition may have started in Spain, but you can include your favourite recipes and ideas from other cuisines as well. For example, include a selection of Asian foods like dumplings, potstickers and spring rolls, or go Italian with some bruschetta or pizzas hot off the grill.

- Go for balance. Chances are there’s going to be a lot of rich foods, breads and proteins in your choices. Bring in some salads like marinated vegetables or fruit salad to lighten things up.

- Host a theme potluck. For an inexpensive evening in, have guests bring their favourite tapas or appetizers and make a meal from the selections. Throw a Spanish-themed party, complete with music and decorations, or have an “international cooking” night.

- Plan for the weather. Recipe sources note that there aren’t any special tapas for holidays. Tapas can be served any time, but hot dishes may be better suited to chilly nights while a selection of cold dishes compliments toasty summer weather.

- Balance your time. Some recipes are more time-consuming than others, so it’s okay to include choices that don’t require a lot of prep work or that you can make ahead of time. (You can even cheat a little and pick up some pre-made foods at the grocery store — we won’t tell).

Remember: The recipes are just a start. Tapas are meant to be enjoyed with alcohol, so make sure to pair wines with the food you’re offering and offer a selection of other drinks too. For Spanish cuisine, try Spanish wines like Crianza — and you’ll want to have some sherry on hand too for cooking!

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Floortje

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