A fiesta of tapas and wine

‘In Spain food is always served with wine because food without wine is boring’ – wine educator Steven Olson.

Attendees at the seminar sample tapas and wine pairings. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Attendees at the seminar sample tapas and wine pairings.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
‘In Spain, food is always served with wine – because food without wine is boring,” proclaimed renowned wine educator Steven Olson, at his wine seminar at The Bazaar by Jose Andres restaurant in Los Angeles.
Obviously, this is a matter of opinion; some might turn the phrase around and argue that wine without food is boring.
At the seminar we sampled some of Spain’s best vintages, including red wines from Ribera del Duero in northern Spain and white wines from nearby Rueda, all of which were DO wines (denominación de origen, similar to the French appellation d’origine contrôlée, denoting good quality associated with a specific region). The whites were made from Verdejo grapes, which Olson believes were brought to Spain by the Moors, North African Muslims who ruled Spain for centuries.
Following Olson’s seminar, there was a walk-around tasting at which we could match tapas with a variety of Spanish wines.
“Tapas, the little dishes of Spain, are the most representative foods in Spanish cuisine,” wrote the late Penelope Casas, author of the just-published 1,000 Spanish Recipes. They are “usually based in the cooking of the regions where the [tapas] bars are located. They can be very simple, such as slices of... chorizo [Spanish sausage]... or a small plate of almonds, or they can be more elaborate, involving sophisticated sauces such as... romesco, a pepper-based sauce.”
We tasted some light tapas such as marinated olives, olive salads and slices of Spanish cheese, including delicious Basque Idiazabal made from sheep’s milk. At the cheese display we learned that the famous Manchego cheese, which is made from the milk of manchega sheep raised in the La Mancha region, is often served as a tapa – the cheese is cut in thin slices, and each is topped with a thin slice of quince paste.
A simple but tasty tapa we sampled was tomato- garlic bread. Rhoda Magbitang, a sous chef at the restaurant, told us they made it from “cristal” bread brought from Spain, but that ciabatta bread or baguette work fine. For the topping, they grated halved tomatoes in a box grater and strained off most of the liquid. To the tomato pulp they added olive oil, crushed garlic, bay leaf, thyme and salt, and marinated the mixture in the refrigerator for a day. A couple of hours before serving, they removed the tomato mixture from the refrigerator, and at serving time slathered it over toasted bread. Casas used a simpler method, the way it’s usually made at home. (See recipe.)
In Catalonia tomato bread is always on the table, said Dan Kumler of Torres Winery. He told us that people often put a slice of cured meat or cheese on top, and choose the wine according to what goes best with the meat or cheese. He was quite specific in his choices; for example, he finds that Torres Celeste Crianza 2011, a fruity red wine from Ribera del Duero, is perfect with a Manchego cheese that has been aged for 18 to 24 months.
Others were more flexible in their pairings. Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain, told us that thin slices of sausage and cured meats are popular tapas because they can be enjoyed with any style of wine. “If you’re in Rioja [in northern Spain], you’ll love these meats with Rioja wines,” she said.
A tapa we particularly enjoyed was chicken croquettes.
(See recipe.) Croquettes are also made with fish, vegetables or meat, and are among the most frequently prepared tapas in restaurants because they go with so many wines, said Naelapaa.
Also common at tapas bars are canario potatoes, or salt-crusted potatoes, said Naelapaa, made by cooking potatoes in salted water until the water evaporates and the salt forms a light crust on the spuds. If they’re served with green mojo, a herbal sauce – such as the one we sampled, which was made with cilantro pureed with parsley, garlic and olive oil – people usually drink white wine with them. When the potatoes come with red mojo – made with red peppers blended with garlic, olive oil and vinegar – red wine is preferred. Naelapaa likes these potatoes with fino sherry.
“When you think of Spain, you automatically think Mediterranean – and I caution you not to do that,” said Olson. “Only the eastern part is Mediterranean.” Much of the climate is very different from the typical Mediterranean one – which, of course, influences the wines and the cuisine.
One of Casas’s tapas that originated far from the Mediterranean, in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, is deep-fried beef empanadillas, or small turnovers. They are filled with ground beef flavored with crushed dried hot peppers, white wine and sauteed onion, garlic and green pepper. Another of her empanadillas is filled with veal and chopped spicy chorizo sausage.
Tapas of tiny meatballs in saffron sauce are most likely of Moorish origin, wrote Casas. Her recipe calls for browning the meatballs, then cooking them with chopped onion, smoked paprika, veal broth and white wine, and for a finishing touch, adding garlic mashed with parsley, saffron and salt.
Simple canapés with strong-flavored ingredients also make good tapas. To make blue cheese and pine nut canapés, Casas spread mashed blue cheese on bread and topped it with pine nuts and sliced black olives. Another of her canapés is topped with green olive paste, made by grinding the olives with capers, anchovies and almonds in a food processor and flavoring the mixture with garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, thyme and black pepper; the olive paste is spread on bread and garnished with sweet red peppers.
“Any food can be a tapa,” wrote Casas, “but the main characteristics are that tapas should be affordable, [comprised of] small portions, served promptly in a pleasant, friendly environment.” In other words, they are perfect party food.
To celebrate the New Year, we’re going to match Spanish tapas with Israeli wines. One will be the award-winning Redblend. Renana Vardi of Jezreel Valley Winery told us that their Redblend is made from Argaman, an Israeli grape, blended with Carignon and Syrah. This refreshing wine should go well with our tapas.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dinner Inspirations and of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
Garlic and Tomato Bread – Pa Amb Tomaquet
“This regional specialty of Barcelona can now be found in many parts of Spain,” wrote Penelope Casas. She noted that it is best when made with thick slices of country bread, which should be toasted and served warm.
If you like, serve it with a platter of thin slices of sheep’s milk cheese or sausage, placed on top of the flavorful bread.
Makes 4 tapas
❖ 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
❖ 4 garlic cloves, mashed in a garlic press or mortar
❖ 4 slices (2 cm. or ¾ inch thick) of round country bread or baguette
❖ 1 very ripe medium tomato
Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). In a small bowl, combine the oil and garlic. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast until lightly crisp. Leave the oven on.
Cut the tomato in half crosswise, and gently squeeze each half to extract the seeds.
Brush the bread with the garlic mixture and rub well with the tomato. Repeat for the other side of the bread. (The tapas may be prepared ahead to this point.) Toast again in the oven until crisp. Serve warm.
Chicken Croquettes
“This recipe,” wrote Casas in 1,000 Spanish Recipes, “comes from Lhardy in Madrid, one of the oldest and most elegant restaurants in Spain.”
The recipe calls for using butter and milk in the sauce, and adding finely chopped cured ham. To make it kosher, we use margarine and soy milk in the sauce and chopped smoked turkey. Use soy milk that is not sweet.
Makes about 35 tapas
❖ 3 Tbsp. margarine
❖ 5 Tbsp. olive oil (for sauce) plus additional olive oil for frying
❖ ¾ cup all-purpose flour
❖ 1½ cups soy milk or other non-dairy milk that is not sweet
❖ ½ cup chicken broth or vegetable broth
❖ Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
❖ Pinch of grated or ground nutmeg
❖ 1 cup finely chopped boiled chicken breast
❖ ½ cup finely chopped smoked turkey
❖ All-purpose flour, for dredging
❖ 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
❖ Bread crumbs, for dredging
Heat the margarine and 5 tablespoons oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the margarine melts. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. Gradually stir in the soy milk, broth, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thickened and smooth.
Add the chicken and smoked turkey and cook, stirring, until the sauce reaches the boiling point, about 10 minutes more.
Let cool, cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours or up to 1 day.
On a lightly floured work surface, shape the chicken mixture into 2.5-cm (1-inch) balls (about 1 tablespoon each) with floured hands.
Place the eggs and bread crumbs in separate shallow bowls.
Heat at least 2.5 cm. (1 inch) of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat (or better still, use a deep fryer set at 185ºC or 365ºF) until it turns a cube of bread light brown in 60 seconds.
Dip each croquette in the egg, dredge in the bread crumbs and place in the oil. (Cook in batches if needed to avoid overcrowding.) Cook, turning several times, until golden.
Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels and let drain. Serve hot.