Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
A Pinch of Saffron: Herbal Tapas
by Sandra Bowens
Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.
At last, the answer to the age old question of what goes with what. Thousands of ingredients are listed and cross-referenced making this book part reference, part cookbook.
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How could anything so delightful be derived from the necessity to prevent flies from getting into a beverage? Accounts may differ but historians always agree that this is the origin of tapas. Something flat, like a slice of bread or a small plate, would be placed atop a glass of wine in Andalusia to keep the fruit flies out. Tapa means "to cover."
Eventually, a clever barkeep came up with the idea of placing a bit of food on the cover to attract customers. Taverns began competing for the best bar snacks and tapas became a standard offering. All over Spain today the custom still exists, ranging from a dish of nuts to a hearty near-meal.
In other parts of the world tapas have become trendy. Common to Spanish restaurants for years, the concept now translates to all cuisines in the form of "small plates." Upscale eateries have added long lists of appetizer-sized dishes to their menus. Wine bars and tapas cafes are popping up in cities around the globe.
This type of snacking is by no means only done in Spain. The Greek have meze, in Italy we find antipasti, even sushi could fall into this category, but for some reason the word tapa is the one that has gone mainstream.
Tapas also translate into fun party food at home. Mostly finger foods that can be prepared ahead of time, plates of tapas impress guests while taking the pressure off of the host or hostess. For those of us who love to cook, it is the perfect excuse to play with different foods.
To keep with a Spanish theme, seek out authentic foods from Spain. Larger supermarkets stock Manchago and other Spanish cheeses. The savory jamón Serrano, or Spanish ham, and spicy chorizo sausage are true basics to tapas. Look for olives and olive oils, sherry and wine vinegars, all from Spain, for high quality finishing touches.
Seafood is a frequent feature on a Spanish small plate. Shrimp, calamari, sardines, mussels, anything goes as long as it is fresh. As always in cooking at home, choice ingredients should be a priority. If you do not have access to fine fish and shellfish, think of those products that come in a jar, like meaty tuna fillets, or tins of sardines. Salt cod, known as bacalao in Spain, will bring true authenticity to your tapas.
Consider the delicacies of Spain as tasty extras. Marcona almonds, flat nuts that are lightly fried and salted are a special treat. Dates and figs, along with the famous Seville orange, provide a sweet reminder that tapas hail from the Mediterranean.
Also from Spain are the unusual condiments that will enhance your cooking, serve as interesting garnishes and can even stand alone as a part of your tapas selection. Fire-roasted Piquello pimentos, the famous red peppers from the northern region, can be stuffed or mixed into other dishes. Capers bring their piquancy to fresh fish while the giant caperberry is a treat unlike any other and adds interest when mixed with black olives on the relish tray.
The list of herbs and spices that may flavor these tiny dishes is long. Many of our favorite herbs, like oregano, rosemary and thyme, are Mediterranean natives so it is no surprise that they show up in this cuisine.
No spice could be more synonymous with tapas, however, than the wonderful smoked paprikas from Spain. Sweet or hot, the taste is intense and flavorful. Other peppers, red, black and white, wind up in the recipes in one form or another. Saffron has a place in tapas as much as it does in the traditional paella. Garlic goes into marinades, sauces, meats and vegetables. Sea salt is preferred and bay leaves are common.
The recipes below use a variety of herbs, both fresh and dried. Fresh is best for the two bread toppers, the Tarragon-Tuna Spread and Tomato with Oregano Topping, since they are no-cook preparations. Either fresh or dried thyme works well in the Tortilla Espanola. You will get nice results from this traditional potato dish even without the saffron so don't let that elusive ingredient keep you from trying the recipe if you do not have any on hand. Use dried rosemary in the Little Pork Pies only if you must. I find fresh rosemary far to superior to the dried product.
Planning for parties
An impromptu tapas party can be as simple as slicing a bit of ham, cutting cubes of cheese and opening a can of olives to serve with a glass of wine or sherry. With more advance notice, tapas that are prepared ahead of time and heaped onto platters instantly create a festive atmosphere.
Variety is the spice of life, we all know, so it is nice to offer guests plenty of choices. If the crowd is small, say four people, try six dishes. For eight people, maybe twelve different foods to choose from would be appropriate. Not every dish needs to be elaborate. A bowl of almonds can count as one offering.
I like to aim for combinations that include a meat and/or seafood, cheese, bread, a vegetable and something pickled or marinated. Since everything is to be served at one time, it is easiest to keep last minute preparation to a minimum. I plan for only one or two items that need to be served hot.
As for drinks, cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, is fun to serve but sherry or other wines from Spain are equally pleasant. A big punch bowl filled with sangria, club soda and sliced fruit works well for a crowd. Substitute grape juice for the sangria if you prefer a non-alcoholic version.
With the recipes below, a few good friends and some lively music, your tapas party is sure to be a hit. Do be clear in your invitation, some people may think you are saying topless party…
12 pitted dates
12 whole almonds, preferably Marcona
12 strips of thinly sliced ham, preferably Jamon Serrano
Cracked black pepper
Use a small knife to cut a slit into each date. Slip an almond into each slit. Wrap each stuffed date with a strip of ham (secure with a toothpick, if desired).
Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. Add the stuffed dates to the skillet long enough to frizzle the ham just a bit and heat the dates. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the black pepper.
Makes 12 appetizers.
Garbanzo bean, or chick pea, flour is available at natural foods stores. It adds a toothsome quality to this frybread and stands up to bold toppings.
1 cup garbanzo bean flour (besan)
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons shortening
2/3 cup warm water
oil for frying
Combine the flours with the baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Use a fork to work the shortening into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add the water slowly to form a soft, somewhat crumbly, dough. Knead for a minute or two to bring it together into a smooth mass. Form the dough into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
In a cooking pot suitable to deep frying, heat a half-inch of oil to 375 degrees over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, on a lightly floured surface, roll half of the dough (for ease in handling, keep remaining half covered) to 1/8-inch thick. Use a pizza-cutter to cut the dough into approximately 3x5-inch rectangles. Brush off excess flour.
Working with 3 or 4 rectangles at a time, depending on size of pan, carefully slide the dough into the hot oil. Fry until puffed and golden on one side then turn to cook other side, about three minutes altogether. Use a slotted spoon to remove the fry bread to paper towels for draining. Continue the process until all the dough is cooked.
Serve warm or at room temperature. These are best the day they are made.
Makes about 24 pieces.
2 Ahi tuna steaks (about 4 ounces each)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped into a paste with 1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Season the tuna steaks with black pepper and grill or broil until cooked through. Allow to cool completely.
Using your fingers or a knife, break the tuna into coarse pieces and combine with the remaining ingredients. Taste for seasonings, adding more lemon juice, salt or pepper as needed. Serve with Chickpea Flatbread or other bread, toast or crackers
Tomato and Oregano Topping
Salt will release the juices from the tomatoes so if you really want to add salt, pass a container of Kosher salt separately.
2 perfectly ripe, medium tomatoes
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 Tablespoon olive oil
As close to serving time as possible, chop the tomatoes into a small dice. Combine with the oregano and olive oil. Serve as a topping for cheese, bread, toast or crackers.
This method works well with other vegetables too. See the directions for an eggplant variation below.
1 bulb fennel
4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Slice off the top of the fennel, reserving the fronds for garnishing. Cut off the root end, but leave as much of the core intact as possible. If necessary, remove any outer leaves that are tough or dried out. Starting from the top, slice the cleaned bulb into 1/4-inch thick pieces, cutting through the core to keep the slices whole. Arrange the sliced fennel in a roasting pan just large enough to hold them in one layer. Drizzle with 1 Tablespoon of the oil; gently mix the pieces to coat both sides. Roast for 15 minutes, turn the pieces to the other sides and roast 15 minutes more.
Meanwhile, make the marinade. Cut the lemon into six wedges. Into a 1-quart jar with a lid, or similar vessel, squeeze the juice from the lemon wedges and drop the rinds in as well. Add the remaining 3 Tablespoons oil along with the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.
While the fennel is still warm from the oven, add it to the jar of marinade and shake gently. Marinate overnight, shaking the jar occasionally if the fennel is not completely immersed.
To serve, remove the fennel pieces from the marinade. If desired, strain the marinade and pour over the fennel.
Eggplant variation: Follow directions above using an eggplant cut into 1/2-inch thick slices and roasted for 10 minutes on each side. Cut the slices into cubes before adding to the marinade.
Said to be one of the most popular tapas offering in Spain, don't be confused by the name--it has nothing to do with the flat dough disc from Mexican kitchens. Although the Yukon Gold variety called for is especially tasty, use any type of potato you prefer.
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound (about 4 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 small onion, peeled, quartered and sliced thin
2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried)
pinch of saffron (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon salt
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Heat the 1/2 cup oil in a 9-inch skillet over medium heat until it begins to shimmer. Add the potatoes and onions; stir to coat with the oil. Cook, stirring regularly, for about 15 minutes or until they appear transparent but not yet browned. Remove from heat, drain off any remaining oil and set aside; transfer the potato/onion mixture to a plate lined with paper towels. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the thyme, saffron, salt and pepper.
Return the skillet to the stove over medium heat and heat 2 Tablespoon of the remaining oil, or fresh oil if needed, until nearly smoking. Stir the cooked potatoes into the eggs; pour into skillet, arranging the potatoes into an even layer. Without stirring, cook for 3-5 minutes, until the eggs have become deeply browned and the top is beginning to set. Place a plate over the skillet and carefully flip the omelet onto it. Return the skillet to the heat and add 2 more Tablespoons of the oil. Slide the omelet from the plate back into the skillet to finish cooking, 2 or 3 minutes more. Slide the finished omelet onto a clean plate and set aside to cool. Cut into 2x2-inch squares and serve at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Little Pork Pies
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 pound ground pork
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/2 cup diced roasted red pepper
1/4 cup finely shredded Manchago cheese (or use Parmesan)
1 batch pie dough, recipe follows
Egg wash made from 1 beaten egg and 1 teaspoon water
Work the garlic, rosemary, paprika, salt and pepper into the ground pork. Fry this seasoned pork in a skillet over medium-high heat, breaking it up as finely as possible, until no longer pink. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Use the back of a wooden spoon to mix in the tomato paste and then add the red pepper and the cheese.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a large baking sheet.
To make the pies, roll out half of the pie dough to an 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 6 or 8 four-inch circles. Transfer the circles to the prepared baking sheet. Brush the edges with the egg wash and place 1 heaping Tablespoon of the pork mixture onto one half of the circles. Fold the other halves of the dough over to make a half-moon; seal by pressing a fork around the edges. Trim off any excess dough, if desired. Brush the tops of the pork pies lightly with the egg wash. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Bake the pork pies for about 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 12-16 pies.
Pork Pie Dough
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl. In a small bowl, mix together the water, oil and egg; pour into the flour mixture. Using a fork, stir the mixture just until the flour is moistened but still a bit shaggy. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead lightly until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before filling with the pork mixture.
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