February 19, 2016
Vol. VIII No. 4
Tapas from Casa Benigna restaurant in Madrid: roasted eggplant with duck confit, Navarra tomatoes with hot pepper oil, wild mushrooms with a fried egg, and red tuna salad. Photo from Oldways Madrid Culinaria.
Spotlight on Spain
Spanish cuisine is a product of its rugged terrain, ideal for growing olive trees, grape vines, and raising small animals like pigs and sheep. It's also influenced by the various populations that occupied the Iberian Peninsula over the years: the Roman Empire brought olive oil, mushrooms and wine, and the Moors' 700-year occupation contributed Middle Eastern flavors like almonds and saffron, for example. Spain's conquest of the Americas was equally influential, bringing ingredients that we think of as central to the Mediterranean diet - potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers - to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. 

Perhaps more than anything else, Spanish cuisine is built around a strong sense of community and social eating. People from small towns to big cities regularly gather in tascas, or Spanish bistros, to meet, chat, enjoy a drink or two, and share delicious samples of regional specialties called tapas (pictured above). The word tapa literally translates to lid in Spanish, and it used to describe the small pates of food that servers would place on top of glasses of wine to protect them from flies. Flies are no longer a problem in Spanish tascas, but tapas plates are still central to Spanish culture. They can range from a simple plate of homemade pickled olives or tender seasonal vegetables to a sample of a stew on the dinner menu. Here are a few more examples of what you may find on a tapas table:
  • Queso (Cheese) - Every region of Spain has its own cheese, but Manchego P.D.O., a raw sheep's milk cheese made in La Mancha is a favorite. It has a fuller flavor than many cow's milk cheeses, and pairs well with robust red wines.
  • Jamón Ibérico (Iberian Ham) - One of the priciest items on the menu, Jamón Ibérico is made from the cured meat of a breed of pigs descended from wild boars. A slice of Jamón Ibérico is dark, velvety, and the pride of the land.
  • Jamón Serrano (Serrano Ham)Serrano means "from the mountains," where a more modern breed of pig is raised for this delicious, more affordable, cured meat.
  • Chorizo - Garlicky chorizo sausages are usually on the tapas menu, sliced, and served with a little cheese. They are also slowly simmered with beans and vegetables to add flavor to soups and stews.
  • Sopas (Soups) Salmorejo, tomato and pepper soup, and gazpacho, bread and tomato soup, are popular chilled soup options for balmy Spanish weather. Ajo blanco, chilled almond and garlic soup, is another favorite.
  • Croquetas (Fritters) - A relative of French croquettes, Spanish croquetas are usually stuffed with jamón, chicken, or cod and served with a light béchamel sauce.
  • Aioli - Spaniards love their garlic, and this simple sauce is made from just two ingredients: garlic and olive oil. It's used on salads, seafood, and tender vegetables.
  • Mariscos y Pescados (Shellfish and Fish) - The variety of shellfish and fish dishes on the tapas menu is ever-changing, especially in coastal regions of Spain. Shrimp, salted cod, fried squid, sautéed eel, steamed clams, and tuna salad are popular options.
  • Huevos y Tortillas (Eggs and Egg Dishes) - From a quick-fried egg over vegetables to the famous Tortilla Española (potato omelette, recipe below), eggs are a fundamental part of Spanish cooking. Minced or sliced hard-boiled eggs often garnish meat, fish and vegetable dishes, and whole eggs are cooked into soup and baked into breads.
There are really no rules to tapas: they are meant to be fun, inspiring, and always different. Tapas served in larger portions make excellent meals, but Spaniards know it can be hard to pick just one or two dishes from endless fantastic options. In big cities like Madrid, people often hop from tasca to tasca to sample different dishes over the course of an evening (tapear is the Spanish verb for this). Season, geographic region, and skills of the chef all factor into what tapas will be served, and the possibilities are endless. Some tascas even claim that they never serve the same tapas twice!

Get inspired by the spirit of Spanish communal eating and try making one of the dishes below to share.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipe.

Simply grill potato planks (try russets, reds or yellows) for 10 minutes on each side. Then top them with your favorite Mediterranean mixtures, like a bruschetta topping or a simple combination of olives, tomatoes, feta and Greek yogurt. The possibilities with grilled potatoes are endless and definite crowd pleasers!

Recipe and photo courtesy of the U.S. Potato Board.

These stuffed dates pack a lot of flavor in a couple of bites, making them perfect for parties - and tapas! Almonds, whole or ground, are the main ingredient in many Spanish desserts, soups and sauces. In this recipe, whole almonds are stuffed into Medjool dates along with (optional) goat cheese and wrapped with bacon.

Tortilla Española is one of the most popular dishes in Spain. There are many variations of the dish, but the most common version features potatoes and onions. It's a perfect lunch, and is a staple of tapas bars throughout Spain. Gabriela Llamas taught the participants of an Oldways Culinaria in Madrid how to make this particular recipe.

An Oldways recipe and photo.

by Claudia Roden
One of our foremost authorities on Mediterranean, North African, and Italian cooking, Claudia Roden brings her incomparable authenticity, vision, and immense knowledge to bear in The Food of Spain. Full-color photos capture the color and essence of this wonderfully vibrant nation and its diverse people, traditions, and culture.

by José Andrés and Richard Wolffe
Tapas are Spain's gift to the world of great cooking: a fresh and fun way to eat with friends and family, and easy to make at home. Recently named Bon Appétit's Chef of the Year, José Andrés draws on American ingredients for his inspiration, and is a master at translating his native Spanish cooking for this country's kitchens. 
by Penelope Casas
Casas' Tapas includes dishes that have long been a tradition in Spanish cuisine, such as seafood in aromatic sauces, colorful salads and marinades, and tortillas. The book also features recipes that reflect the influence of the innovative cooking in Spain today, using other Mediterranean ingredients like phyllo pastry and soft goat cheese. 

Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.   

To find even more delicious Mediterranean recipes please visit: