Tap In To Tapas
For a fun celebration, serve these trendy Spanish appetizers at your next party

By Lynne Eppel
Photos by Rita Maas

Tapas, today's popular happy-hour finger foods, actually began as a clever invention to keep out the flies. Tapa—a Spanish word meaning "lid" or "covering"—became tapas meaning "tidbits" or "hors d'oeuvres" when, in 18th-century Spain, innkeepers placed a slice of bread over each glass of wine to protect drinks from dust, insects, and other undesirables. The bread also provided patrons with a thirst-inducing snack, and it didn't take long for an enterprising barkeep to add a slice of ham or cheese to the bread as a further inducement to eat, drink, and run up a bigger bar bill. In time, the "tapa" was elaborately developed and grew ever more diversified until it became today's flavorful appetizers known as tapas.

Instant Party Fare

By simply combining several ready-to-go ingredients and one or two easy tapas, you're prepared for guests. Along with your tapas, serve warm, rustic country bread; sliced pears or apples; and, of course, some good Spanish sherry—best with tapas are the dry fino variety or the moderately sweet amontillado sherry.

Nowadays enjoying tapas has become a way of life in Spain. A favorite pastime is to gather before lunch and again before dinner in bars, taverns, and beer halls for a bit of socializing, gossip, joking, or flirting over drinks and tapas. Typically, one might visit several establishments, savoring each bar's specialty—a warm wedge of tortilla with egg and potato, garlicky grilled shrimp bathed in olive oil, melting cheese-stuffed mushrooms, or tiny grilled sardines. Tapas are also a way to distinguish one's culinary skills. They are as varied as the cooks who create them, ranging from simple canapés, to platters of silky jamon Serrano (cured ham) and tangy Manchego cheese, to surprisingly sophisticated dishes.

The rustic appeal of tapas crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s, when tapas bars started popping up from San Francisco to Atlanta. Their popularity means it's easy to recreate the great tapas of Spain in your own home because now many markets commonly stock several varieties of classic ingredients: fine olive oils, sherry wine vinegars, cheeses, olives, fragrant saffron, smoky paprika. Offer these little bites at your next cocktail party or holiday gathering. With enough selection, you and your guests can turn them into a complete meal—no flies allowed.

Cheese and Spinach Tartlets

Makes 36 / These rich little mouthfuls are a special treat and make a wonderful addition to any tapas menu. Spanish Cabrales cheese is considered by some to be the pinnacle of all blue cheeses. Both Cabrales and its substitute, Manchego, are relatively easy to find in good grocery stores. If you're feeling decadent, substitute heavy cream for the fat-free half-and-half.

2 tablespoons chopped almonds
9 slices firm white bread
3/4-1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup fat-free half-and-half
10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3/4 cup crumbled Cabrales cheese or shredded Manchego cheese (about 3 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Lightly oil 3/4-inch-wide mini muffin cups. Toast almonds by placing in a small, dry skillet over medium heat; stir until golden, about 5 minutes.

2. With a 1-1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut out 36 rounds from bread. Place rounds on a cookie sheet and bake until just pale gold, turning once, about 5 minutes. Gently press toasted rounds into the bottom of mini-muffin cups and set aside.

3. Dissolve cornstarch in half-and-half. In a medium bowl combine half-and-half, spinach, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg until blended. Spoon cheese mixture into bread cups; sprinkle each with almonds.

4. Bake until filling is set, about 15 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm. The baked tartlets may be frozen in a tightly covered container. To reheat, place frozen tartlets on a pan in a 400° oven until hot, about 10 minutes.

Nutrition Facts Per Piece: Calories: 40 calories % fat calories: 31 Fat: 2g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 2mg Carbohydrate: 5g Protein: 2g

Smoked Salmon-Fennel Toasts

Makes 16 / Light and crunchy, garlic-infused toasts are the perfect counterpoint to lush salmon drizzled with a lemony, fennel dressing.

16 bread slices, cut 1/4-inch thick from a long, narrow loaf
2 cloves garlic, mashed to a purée
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
3 tablespoons minced fresh fennel
3 tablespoons minced sweet onion, such as Vidalia
6 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon
Capers and minced fresh fennel, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350š. Arrange bread slices on a baking tray; bake until just golden, turning once, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl stir together garlic and 2 tablespoons oil. Brush toasts with the garlic-oil mixture; let cool.

2. In another small bowl whisk together lemon juice, mustard, and remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Stir in parsley, dill, fennel, and onion. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, if desired.

3. Just before serving, arrange a slice of salmon over each toast. Drizzle the dressing over each piece; garnish with capers and a sprig of fennel, if desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Piece: Calories: 107 calories % fat calories: 46 Fat: 6g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 3mg Carbohydrate: 11g Protein: 4g

Marinated Chicken and Grape Skewers

Serves 8 / Smoky, seasoned grilled chicken makes a wonderful contrast with sweet, juicy grapes. Instead of 8-inch skewers, shorter wooden skewers could be used for smaller portions. Just remember to soak the skewers in water at least 30 minutes before grilling to avoid burning them.

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon Spanish sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
32 large red seedless grapes

1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium-size bowl. Add the chicken, stirring to coat well. Marinate at least 2 hours, or overnight.

2. On eight 8-inch skewers, alternately thread chicken pieces with the grapes (about 4 grapes per skewer). Over a medium-hot grill, grill skewers, turning once, until chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Serve warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 115 calories % fat calories: 37 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 31mg Carbohydrate: 5g Protein: 13g

Pepper-Wrapped Shrimp with Saffron Aioli

Makes about 20 / Aioli, a garlicky mayonnaise, is seasoned here with saffron, justifiably the world's most precious spice. Made from the stigmas of crocus flowers, one ounce of saffron results from a staggering 14,000 hand-picked stigmas.

1/2 cup low-fat or regular mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon drained capers, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1/8 teaspoon saffron, crushed
1 pound large shrimp (about 20), shelled and deveined
2 teaspoons Spanish hot or sweet paprika
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup piquillo peppers or roasted red peppers, cut into 1/2-inch strips

1. To make the aioli, combine mayonnaise, parsley, capers, lemon juice, garlic, and saffron in a bowl; cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Preheat broiler. Sprinkle shrimp with paprika and salt. Wrap each shrimp with a strip of piquillo pepper. Arrange shrimp on a rack in a broiler pan; brush with olive oil, if desired. Broil just until center is opaque, turning once, about 3 minutes. Serve with saffron aioli.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 178 calories % fat calories: 48 Fat: 9g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 177mg Carbohydrate: 4g Protein: 19g

Thyme-Scented Green Olives

Makes 3 cups / Seasoned Spanish olives make up one of the most traditional tapas, always served to accompany the more elaborate varieties. If you're serving only a few tapas and would like to make these a more substantial offering, skewer them on toothpicks along with cubes of bread, marinated mushrooms, cubed cheese, small grilled shrimp, or pieces of grilled chicken.

10 ounces pitted Spanish green olives, well drained
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or 3/4 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon crushed fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

1. In a medium bowl, combine olives, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, garlic, and red pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/4 cup): Calories: 68 calories % fat calories: 95 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 1g Protein: 0g

Pine Nut-Stuffed Mushrooms

Serves 4-6 / In Spain, there are endless ways to stuff mushrooms and call them tapas. Some delicious variations on the following recipe are substituting cheese, crabmeat, ham, or even softly scrambled eggs for the turkey.

3/4 pound medium cremini or white mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp cloth
Fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 pound spicy turkey sausage
3 tablespoons plain breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon Spanish brandy or cognac (optional)
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped pine nuts

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Trim dark ends from mushroom stems; discard. Separate mushroom stems from caps; finely chop stems and measure out 1/3 cup. Sprinkle the caps with lemon juice.

2. Heat butter in a medium skillet. Add onion and garlic; cook, stirring, until onion wilts. Add turkey sausage and cook, stirring, until meat is cooked through. Add chopped stems and cook 3 minutes more.

3. Remove skillet from heat. Stir in breadcrumbs, brandy, parsley, and pine nuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if desired.

4. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. With a teaspoon, fill mushrooms with mixture forming a smooth top; place on baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 47 calories % fat calories: 59 Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 10mg Carbohydrate: 3g Protein: 3g Lynne Eppel is a chef, yoga teacher, and writer, specializing in food, nutrition, and travel.