Pros: Numerous examples of tapas, with variations on the theme.
Cons: A very few errors in ingredient names and amounts
Written by Brook Elliott
Can you have too many tapas cookbooks?
A month ago, if you’re a small-plates enthusiast as I am, I would have answered that question with a resounding “no!” I’ve got at least a half dozen books dealing specifically with tapas, pintxos, and their eastern Med cousins, mezze. Add in the tapas sections in general Spanish cookbooks, and that’s quite a few.
To be sure, there are many repeats in these books. Sizzling Shrimp, and Albondigas, and Tortilla Espanole, to name a few, reappear time after time. But each of these books also contains numerous unique examples; enough of them, each time, to justify yet another addition to the small-tastes library.
Now comes The Book of Tapas, which may be the last such book anyone needs. It’s certainly the only one you’ll need if you’re more casual about small plates than I am.
Authors Simone and Ines Ortega are no strangers to the world of Spanish cuisine. Their first book, 1080 Recipes, quickly became the definitive work on Spanish cookery, comparable to The Joy of Cooking and Silver Spoon in their respective countries. Now they’re doing the same with these small bites, exploring not only the recipes, but the cultural phenomenon that is tapas.
What, exactly, is a tapa? Good question. As Muddy Waters (or, maybe, Jelly Roll Morton) said about jazz, “if you have to ask, man, you’ll never know.” In general, tapas are small, one- or two-bite portions, traditionally served with Sherry or other wine. Tapa translates as “cover,” and, originally, that’s what they were: slices of bread or ham used to cover a wine glass to keep the dust and insects out. Over time tapas developed into a cuisine of their own, with bartenders competing to provide special treats that kept the customers coming back.
What they most definitely are not, as some writers portray, is appetizers. Tapas aren’t something you eat to stimulate the appetite. Rather, they are something that replaces the traditional meal of a main course and sides. In format they can be bits of tasty edibles spread on small pieces of bread; or small skewers of this and that, or more traditional entrees scaled down to bite-size. They can be finger foods, or they can require a fork; they can be meat, or fish, or…..well, now I’m beginning to trespass on the Ortega’s work, so will move on to the book itself.
For starters, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. The entire book is made up of a goldenrod-colored stock, with the titles in tomato-paste red and black text. Eminently readable while being easy on the eye.
Spread throughout the book are groups of four-color photos, mostly food-porn, showing what some of the 250 tapas recipes in the book look like. The first such spread is a 24 page pictorial guide to ingredients used making tapas---twenty four pages of photos, themselves following a multi-page glossary of tapas terms, gives you some idea of the depths to which the Ortegas go.
Normally I’m not big on having pictures grouped in sections. But in this case it works, on several levels. In a typical tapas bar, the offerings are arranged in, and on, display cases, from which you pick and choose the ones you want. In many respects, the book’s layout mimics that sort of service, with the exception that there are more recipes than pictures. Even so, it makes for a very nice presentation, whether or not that was the publisher’s intent.
The recipes, themselves, are arranged in chapters, each of which deals with a food type (i.e., vegetable tapas, fish tapas, egg & cheese tapas), and each is subdivided further into hot and cold varieties within the category. These are highlighted by the final chapter, called “Guest Chefs,” in which ten of the top Spanish chefs from around the world contribute their own original tapas recipes.
There are, more than likely, as many repeats of popular tapas as you find in other books on the subject. But with 250 recipes, they kind of get lost in the shuffle. For example, whereas many tapas books include a scaled down version of Tortilla Espanole, the Ortegas include it among the 20 distinct recipes for tortillas specifically designed as tapas. And, while they include an albondigas recipe (how could they not?), it gets lost in the 46 pages of other meat-based treats. Old standards, such as Orange, Fennel and Onion Salad are certainly to be found, but they’re mixed in with 52 pages of hot and cold vegetable and fruit tapas.
Proof of the chowder is in the slurping, though. Doesn’t matter how many recipes there are unless they produce good tasting tapas. And in that the Ortegas really shine.
There’s no way, given the nature and diversity of this book, that the Cheftalk reviewers’ rule of making two recipes could work. So, in order to fairly assess the quality of the recipes I decided to invite a few friends and have a tapas party. Recipes were chosen at semi-random, with an attempt to mix up the types and temperatures, and ignore the old chestnuts. All in all, we sampled a dozen: Onion Mushroom Salad; Cabreles Stuffed Potatoes; Octopus In Vinaigrette; Brussels Sprouts With Chorizo; Shrimp Croquettes; Cauliflower Shrimp Salad; Chicken Roll; Tuna Epanadillas; Lamb Cutlets With Béchamel Sauce; Rice With Chicken Livers; Cabrales Cheese Dip; and Cheese Fritters With Tomato Sauce.
Frankly, I expected some trouble due to translation errors. This is often a problem with such cookbooks, with directions being left out, ingredients and quantities wrong, etc. I was a happy surprise to discover little of that; and in cases where it did happen the actual intent was obvious. For example, the recipe for Shrimp Croquettes calls for cooked shrimp. Based on the instructions, you’d be tempted to add them whole. But it’s self evident that they need to be at least chopped.
A second surprise was the universal appreciation of all twelve tapas. Sure, there were criticisms based on personal taste---I thought the Onion Mushroom Salad had a strange undertaste, for instance, but most of the others didn’t share that view. The Cauliflower Shrimp Salad was on the bland side, but a sprinkle of Piment d’Espelette fixed that. And, while we all enjoyed the Chicken Roll at room temperature, as called for, we generally agreed it would have been even better served warm.
All in all, not one of the samples was even close to not being a keeper.
Am I ready to donate the rest of my tapas cookbooks to the library? Not hardly. But I’m sure they’ll languish, for a while, as I work my way through the rest of this near-encyclopedic tome.
Octopus In Vinaigrette
2 ¼ lbs (1 kg) octopus
2/3 cup (150ml/1/4 pint) olive oil
1 ½ tbls white-wine vinegar
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, halved, seeded and diced
1 ½ cps (250g/9 oz) cooked or drained canned peas
Salt and pepper
First, prepare and cook the octopus.* Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette. Whisk together the oil and vinegar in a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the onion and bell pepper and set aside. Drain the octopus well and rinse under cold running water. Remove and discard any remaining dark skin and cut the meat into medium-size pieces with kitchen scissors. Put the octopus pieces in a bowl, pour the vinaigrette voer them and add the peas. Taste and adjust the marinade if necessary. Cover the bowl and let marinate in the refrigerator, stirring occasionally, for two hours before serving.
*To tenderize the octopus it is best to freeze it before cooking. To cook it, bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, add the frozen octopus, and cook for about 35 minutes, or until tender. You will need to test it, as the length of time depends on the age and size of the octopus.