With tapas, tour the Mediterranean from your table

If you want to taste the sun-drenched flavor of the Mediterranean, there is no better way than sampling a table full of tapas. Tapas are an archipelago of olives, sausage, cheese, tomatoes, seafood, and garlic, sprawling across the culinary landscape in a dazzling array of variety and complexity.

Tapas capture a given region's freshest and most popular ingredients in small, appetizer-size portions, a style that allows diners to enjoy a spirited session of sharing and sampling. And although they have become strongly associated with Spain, tapas - or their equivalent - are served in Mediterranean countries from Portugal to Greece.

In the United States, tapas have become an urban mainstay for a fashionable night on the town. But like many of the world's most glamorous foods, they have a humble origin.

"The name means 'cover,' " explains Jorge Ramirez, executive chef at Tapeo, a tapas restaurant on Boston's swanky Newbury Street. "Many years ago, when people traveled from one town to another, they would stop between cities and have a glass of wine. And because there were so many flies around, they'd put a piece of paper on top of the wine: a tapa. Later, they changed the piece of paper for a piece of bread, and after that is when they started using different things, which they called tapas."

The price range and seriousness of preparation ranges wildly from dish to dish.

"Some of these are delicacies. One of the things in Spain people enjoy a lot - and also enjoy here - are the baby eels, angulas," he says. "It's a kind of tapa we don't serve [at Tapeo] too much because of the cost, but it's something exquisite." The eels (which, according to The New York Times, can cost up to $165 a pound) may not be within most people's price range, but American cooks can find a staggering variety of more reasonably priced and approachable tapas to tackle.

Mr. Ramirez, a native of Spain who has been cooking for more than 20 years, teaches cooking classes with an emphasis on tapas. "I try to teach people something easy," he says. "Something fast to prepare. You can do some very good tapas, great tapas, in half an hour in your house."

Fortunately for aspiring chefs with limited amounts of time at their disposal, some of the simplest tapas are also some of the best. Classics such as garlic potatoes, Shrimp Bruschetta (see recipe below), and goat-cheese toasts are all a snap to make. Tapas can be a great way to dazzle guests - and making them can be as easy as plucking an olive.

Vegetable Dolmas

1 cup long-grain rice, preferably basmati

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium onions, chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)

3 cloves garlic, minced

2/3 cup canned (diced and seeded) or fresh (peeled, seeded, and diced) tomatoes

1/2 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup raisins, soaked in hot water and drained

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint (optional)

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

36 to 40 grape leaves, rinsed well, drained, and patted dry

1 cup olive oil

Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/4 cup)

Lemon wedges and yogurt for serving

Soak the rice in cool water to cover for about 30 minutes. Drain. While the rice is soaking, melt the butter in a medium skillet over low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and tender, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a few minutes more. Add the rice, diced tomatoes, pine nuts, raisins, parsley, mint, salt, and pepper, and combine well.

Snip the stems off the grape leaves and place smooth side down on a table. Place a teaspoon or so of the rice filling near the stem end of each leaf. Fold the sides of each leaf over the filling, and then roll into a cylinder. The rice expands as it cooks, so do not roll too tightly.

Arrange the dolmas seam-side down and close together on the bottom of a pan large enough to fit the dolmas in a single layer. (You may have to use multiple pans or two pans twice.) Pour the olive oil and lemon juice over the top and add enough hot water to just cover the dolmas. Weight them with a plate to keep them from unrolling.

Heat the liquid to boiling and cover the pan. Reduce the heat and simmer 35 to 40 minutes. Uncover the dolmas so they can cool quickly. As soon as they can be handled, remove dolmas with a spatula and arrange on a platter. Serve warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges and yogurt. Makes 36 to 40. Serves 10.

- From 'The Mediterranean Kitchen,' by Joyce Goldstein

Shrimp Bruschetta

1 loaf rustic Italian bread

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon butter

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and diced

5 sprigs Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped

5 large cooked shrimp, chopped


Freshly ground black pepper

Cut bread into 1/2-inch-thick slices, place slices on a cookie sheet, and lightly toast both sides. Heat olive oil and butter in medium sauté pan. Add garlic, and sauté until it just begins to turn light brown. Add tomato, parsley, and shrimp, and sauté on medium heat for 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle onto bread and serve. Makes about 16 pieces.

- From Tony Rocha, chef and owner of Gala Ristorante, Arlington, Mass.

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