The last time I was in Spain I thought that tapas were vastly overrated, but now I'm beginning to wonder if I wasn't culinarily less adventuresome in those days. Or perhaps I just wasn't as good at picking out interesting combinations? Whatever the reason, I mainly remember eating a lot of portions of Spanish tortilla, partly because I kept forgetting that in Spain it means an omelette, not a Mexican tortilla - oops!
In this regard, on our recent trip to Spain, Catalonia was, again, a happy surprise. We had our first plate in a bar near one of the biggest tourist attractions in Barcelona: the church-in-progress Sagrada Familia. And they were delicious. I had been a little worried about finding tapas that I could safely eat (I'm supposed to avoid ham and sausages that don't come supermarket-pre-packaged) but in fact I found I had too many choices. And they were all wonderful! Also, I loved the fact that we could serve ourselves from the selection on the bar: they were stored under a plastic cover, a bit like the sort you see in a sushi bar except that there were little doors to open on the patron's side as well as the bar side.
I looked around for a cookbook on tapas, but didn't find one in English. According to my guidebooks, Catalonia is not really a region famed for its tapas, so perhaps this is why. In fact, it is only in recent years that they have become common, especially in the trendy bars of Barcelona. Whatever. Having taken to this typical Spanish tradition, the Catalonians did a great job of adapting them to local tastes! And so, below, I have attempted to recreate the two that seemed most typical of the ones we tasted - and coincidentally my favourites!
Escalivado is a very typical Catalonian vegetable dish. I ordered it whenever I saw it on the menu, without fail. The recipe for cooking the vegetables was in my book of Catalonian cuisine; the only difference between the recipe in the book and the one below is the toasted bread!
1 medium eggplant
1 red pepper (capsicum)
1 tomato (optional)
Wrap each of the vegetables in tin foil. If you have more than one of any of them - this is a loose recipe - you can group them together. Put them in a hot oven (200C/375F) for an hour, or until all are soft and cooked through. The eggplants will take the longest, so you may want to remove the others as they finish cooking. Cool and unwrap the tin foil packages. Tear or cut the vegetables in bite-sized pieces and toss them with a bit of olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar. If you are using tomatoes, seed and peel them. I also peeled the pepper of all the skin that came off easily. Toast rounds of bread. If you are using a baguette, cut on a diagonal to get slightly larger pieces; if you are using loaf bread, you may want to cut the slices in half. Artistically arrange a piece or two of eggplant, one of onion, one of pepper and one of tomato on each slice of bread and top with an anchovy. They really are delightful and extremely good for you to boot - yummy vitamins!
Note: the reason I inserted the word "optional" after the tomatoes is that I never saw them included in escalivado when we were in Spain. However, the cookbook called for including them, so...they are "optional"!
Tuna and Crabmeat Tapas
I did not have a recipe for this one, but it seemed easy enough to guess what went into it:
1 can of tuna, drained (packed in water, not oil!)
6-8 crab sticks (impossible to find 100% crab ones in Paris, so I settled for 10% crab and 90% crab-flavoured fish)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 small purple (sweet) onion
anchovies or fish eggs as a garnish
Break up the tuna with a fork; cut the crab sticks in half lengthwise and then in on cm lengths. Chop the onion finely. Mix the onion, crab meat and tuna with the mayonnaise. The crab will separate into smaller strands, which is all to the good. Spread on top of slices of bread and top with an anchovy or some oeufs de lompe (fish eggs). Basically, it's just a slightly more elegant open face tuna salad. In fact, I used the leftovers from this batch to make myself an upscale tuna sandwich for lunch the next day!
So there you have it: not very complicated recipes but still authentically close to the good things we ate in Catalonia. It would seem that the essence of good tapas lies in the simplicity of the recipe, the freshness of the ingredients and the creativity of the chef. I am now off to research Amazon for cookbooks on tapas, so that I don't have to rely solely on my own creativity!
One last note: before making these tapas you would do well to ascertain whether your guests have an aversion to anchovies. As you will notice on the photo above, I opted for anchovy toppings for both kinds when I made them...but unfortunately our guests did not like anchovies. More anchovies for me, but not so nice for them! (Sorry, Angela and Jonathan!)