Bite-sized entertaining ideas: tasty tapas for the holidays


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Don't you just hate it when one of your kids knows something you don't, but should?

I sure do.

For years, my oldest son, Dan, has been raving about Spanish-American chef Jose Andres, and his popular small-plate restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. Insisting that the best-selling cookbook author did tapas -- those exquisite, meant-to-be-shared dishes that originated in Andalusia, southern Spain -- better than just about anyone in the U.S.

"Jose's so charismatic, and it translates into his food," he told me on more than one occasion. "It's delicious!"

Yada, yada. Kids think they know everything once they (finally) get out of your house and are on their own.

Then last month, I had the good fortune to spend a long weekend in our nation's capital with Jose.

In less than 48 hours, I went to four of his five establishments there, including the bright-white, hipster barmini, a reservations-only "cocktail lab" where a mustachioed bartender in a polka-dotted bow tie mixed me a most excellent Moscow Mule. My husband's surprisingly froufrou whiskey sour, topped with frothy egg white, also was outstanding, as was Chef Johnny Spero's "foieffle," a mini waffle stuffed with foie gras then drizzled with peanut butter and honey.

In Spain, eating tapas is so much a part of the culture that there's actually a verb for it -- tapear, which means to go and eat tapas, particularly from place to place. We did our best to follow suit.

At Zaytinya, we noshed on small plates of fried brussels sprouts drizzled in garlic yogurt, salt cod carpaccio with wilted greens and fingerling potatoes, beef and lamb meatballs, and htipiti, a Middle Eastern-style spread made with roasted red peppers and feta. Mezze-style desserts -- Turkish coffee chocolate cake, galatopita with apple sorbet -- arrived in tall shot glasses.

Around the corner at Oyamel, Mr. Andres' Mexican restaurant in Penn Quarter, we stuffed ourselves silly with small plates of spicy huevos rancheros, shredded beef tacos and tamal verde, house-made corn tamales filled with shredded chicken and doused in spicy, luscious tomatilla sauce.

The best meal was at the bar at Jaleo. Here we filled up on such traditional Spanish favorites as croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes), patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy tomato sauce) and probably the best shrimp dish I've ever had in my life, gambas al ajillo (shrimp sauteed in garlic and chile). It was the one time I was happy my husband had a shellfish allergy because I got it all to myself.

Dang. Dan was right. I was blown away by these tapas.

And you can be, too.

Versatile and tasty, tapas are the perfect food for this season of entertaining. They can be hot or cold, and many can be eaten with the fingers, scooped onto bread or served with toothpicks, eliminating the need for plates and the clutter of silverware. And talk about variety. Depending on budget, size of the crowd and what you're hungry for, tapas can be made from meat, vegetables, cheese, fish, seafood, eggs and rice.

Even better, tapas quite often are quite easy to make.

To make a mean bowl of marinated olives, for example, all you have to do is cover them with oil, add a clove or two of garlic and a pinch of spices (cumin, chili powder, thyme and lemon zest are popular seasonings) and leave them for a few days until they are ready for eating.

But the main appeal of tapas, Mr. Andres writes in the foreword to the very lovely "The Book of Tapas" by Simone and Ines Ortega (Phaidon, 2010), is that they offer "such an informal, fun and social style of eating."

Partygoers love noshing on a string of different dishes, and while that can be a bit more difficult for the host to plan and prepare, having a variety of small plates to serve throughout the course of the evening can take some of the pressure off, too. You know there will be something for everyone to enjoy, whether he or she comes with a small appetite or large.

Below, we offer a mix of traditional tapas recipes with different textures and flavors, perfect for New Year's Eve. With the exception of the croquetas, they're all extremely easy to prepare.

Buen provecho!

And happy holidays!

Patatas Bravas

This classic dish is considered the french fries of Spain. I used Yukon Gold potatoes, and boy, were they delicious.

For potatoes

4 medium potatoes, peeled and halves (about 11/4 pounds)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced

2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaved picked

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon sea salt

For the bravos sauce

Olive oil

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced

3 fresh red chiles, deseeded and roughly chopped

1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped

A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked

14-ounce can chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Parboil potatoes over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they are starting to get tender but still hold their shape. Drain in a colander and leave to steam dry until cool.

Meanwhile, put pan over low heat and start your sauce. Add lug of olive oil and, once hot, add chopped onion and sliced garlic. Cook for 5 minutes, or until onion is soft but not colored. Add chiles, carrot and thyme leaves and cook for another 5 minutes. Add canned tomatoes, sherry vinegar and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to boil, then turn heat down and simmer for 15 minutes, or until carrots are soft and sauce is lovely and thick.

While sauce simmers, put a large frying pan over medium heat and add enough olive oil to cover bottom of pan by 1/4 inch. Cut potatoes into large bite-sized chunks. Once oil is hot, carefully add potatoes to pan. Cook them for around 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden all over. You'll need to do this in batches so you don't overcrowd the pan. Add garlic and rosemary leaves to pan for the last minute of cooking.

Transfer potatoes, garlic and rosemary to plate lined with paper towels to drain, then scatter over the paprika, fennel seeds and a good pinch of salt and toss together until well coated.

Carefully tip your cooked sauce into a blender, or use an immersion blender, and whiz until lovely and smooth. Have a taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Serve in a jug next to your potatoes or, if you want to be more traditional, pour the sauce over your potatoes and toss together before serving. If you have any leftover sauce, use it with pasta or on a homemade pizza.

Serves 4 as tapas.

-- "Jamie Oliver's Food Escapes" by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion; Oct. 1, 2013; $35)

Gambas Al Ajillo (Traditional Garlic Shrimp)

The best shrimp dish you'll ever eat, and so easy! Serve with crusty bread so guests can sop up the garlicky oil.

4 tablespoons of Spanish extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

20 large shrimps (about 1 pound)

1 guindilla chili pepper (or your favorite dried chili pepper)

1 teaspoon brandy

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

Salt to taste

In a medium saute pan, heat the olive oil over a medium-to-high flame. Sauté the garlic cloves until browned, about 2 minutes.

Add the shrimp along with the chile pepper. Cook for 2 minutes. Turn over the shrimp and saute for another 2 minutes. Pour in the brandy and cook for another minute. Sprinkle with the parsley, add salt to taste, and serve.

Serves 4.

-- Jose Andres

Pinchos Morunos (Spicy Marinated Pork Skewers)

"Heavily seasoned and marinated skewers of meat are a staple bar tapa," writes Jeff Koehler in "Spain." These are made with pork butt.

Be sure to trim the meat into same-size pieces to ensure even cooking. I grilled them on top of the stove in a ribbed-bottomed grill pan.

1 teaspoon Spanish pimenton picante (spicy paprika)

1 teaspoon Spanish pimenton dulce (sweet paprika)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 garlic cloves, mashed or finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling pan

Sherry vinegar or wine vinegar

2 pounds boneless pork, preferably butt or shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 to 10 small pieces crusty bread (optional)

In a large bowl, combine spices, herbs and garlic; season with salt and pepper, and blend in the olive oil and a few drops of vinegar. Mix into a moist paste. Add pork and turn to coat well. Cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate, and marinate for at least 1 hour, though ideally a few hours longer. Toss the pork from time to time while it marinates.

Thread 4 to 6 pieces pork on each skewer so that the pieces just touch.

Preheat grill pan, griddle pan or large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat and very lightly oil it. Lay on skewers and grill, turning from time to time with the help of a spatula in order to cook them evenly on each side, until the meat is cooked through and firm to the touch, 8 to 10 minutes.

If desired, impale a piece of bread on the tip and serve hot on the skewer. Serves 4.

-- "Spain" by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle Books, 2013, $40)

Croquetas de pollo (Chicken Croquettes)

Spanish croquettes use a thick, bechamel-like sauce as a base. These are exceptionally creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

12 ounces boneless skinless chicken breast

Salt

1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces

1 medium onion, very finely chopped

3 cups whole milk

Freshly ground black pepper

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2 eggs

1 cup fine breadcrumbs

Sunflower oil or mild olive oil for frying

In skillet or saute pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Season chicken with salt and saute until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Tranfser to platter to cool. Cut chicken into pieces and grind with a food processor.

In clean skillet, melt butter over medium heat and add onion. Cook over medium-low heat, until soft and transparent but not yet browned, about 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer; season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Reduce heat, cover pan and keep hot.

Sift flour into the skillet over the onion and cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes. It should be a compact and just-moist ball. Spread out the ball in the pan and being slowly stirring in the hot milk until mixture is creamy and not too sticky when touched, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and fold in ground chicken. Cook, gently stirring, for 2 minutes. The mixture should be spongy and can be touched without sticking to your fingers.

Transfer mixture top large bowl to cool. Once cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours until chilled. (I skipped this step.)

On a flat work surface dusted with flour, form croquettes into 2-inch cylinders about 1 inch in diameter. Lightly roll in flour.

Break eggs in bowl and thoroughly whisk. Place breadcrumbs in second bowl. Dip croquettes in egg and roll in bread crumbs to completely cover.

In skillet, heat at least 3/4-inch oil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low.

Working in small batches that don't crowd the pan, fry the croquettes, turning frequently, until they are golden on the outside and hot and creamy at the center, about 2 minutes. Gently transfer them to absorbent paper towels to drain off excess oil. Serve hot.

-- "Spain" by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle Books, 2013, $40)

Brussels Sprouts Afelia

Even if you don't think you like Brussels sprouts, you'll love these, thanks to a yummy garlic dressing. Be sure not to overcook the sprouts of they'll taste bitter.

For Coriander Ladolemono

3 tablespoons whole coriander seeds

2 tablespoons Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the Roasted Garlic Yogurt

2 cloves roasted garlic

6 tablespoons Greek yogurt

Sea salt to taste

For brussels sprouts

1 pound brussels sprouts

Oil for deep-frying

1/4 cup chopped dill

1/4 cup dried cranberries rehydrated in 1/2 cup of port or other sweet wine

Make Coriander Ladolemono: Using a rolling pin, grind the coriander seeds until coarse. Do not finely ground. Whisk the coriander seeds into the Greek yogurt. Slowly add the lemon juice and olive oil and continue whisking until it forms a smooth, creamy dressing. Set aside.

Make roasted garlic yogurt: Using the back of a knife, mash the roasted garlic cloves. Mix into the yogurt and season with salt. Set aside.

Preheat a heavy-bottomed pot or deep fryer to 350 degrees.

Trim ends of brussels sprouts and discard. Remove any discolored leaves and cut into quarters.

Deep-fry the sprouts for about 2 minutes until golden. Do not overcook the sprouts or they will turn dark and become bitter. Remove from heat and drain. Remove any excess oil with a paper towel.

Toss sprouts lightly with salt and chopped dill. Adjust salt to taste as needed.

On a serving platter, spread the roasted garlic yogurt on the bottom of the plate. Arrange the sprouts on top of the yogurt. Top with Coriander Ladolemono dressing.

Garnish with rehydrated cranberries, and serve.

Serves 4.

-- Jose Andres


Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

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