Kitchen Shrink demystifies the trendy tapas … just in time for the holidays

By Catherine L. Kaufman


When the holiday season rolls around it transports me back to the cocktail hors d’oeuvres of my youth including the greasy, artery-clogging pigs in a blanket, devilled eggs, Spam pinwheels and chipped beef on toast rounds (which my uncle in the Navy so graphically called st on a shingle). These edible clichés have been elegantly replaced by exotic tapas now ubiquitously enjoyed, not only in Spain, but also throughout this country.

What are tapas? Here’s a primer on these Spanish finger foods.

The origin of the word “tapas,” which is derived from Spanish meaning “cover” or “lid,” is the subject of several theories by food folklorists. Many believe the name was derived from the practice of placing something flat, like a plate, on top of a drink to prevent fruit flies from taking a backstroke in the fluid. Eventually, this drink “cover” was topped off with a snack or appetizer. Others believe the name originated from tavern owners, circa 16


century in the region of Castilla/La Mancha when the taste and aroma of stinky cheese camouflaged or “covered” the even worse taste and aroma of bad wine. This started the culinary marriage — serving cheese to accompany cheap wine.

My favorite explanation is the yarn about King Alfonso XII who, while on an official journey, made a pit stop in the town of Ventorillo del Chato and ordered a glass of


or sherry. The beach town was blustering so the conscientious innkeeper served the king a cup of sherry that he gingerly covered with a slice of cured ham to prevent sand from blowing into the libation. The king thoroughly enjoyed the wine and ham combo, and ordered a second sherry “with the cover,” ergo the name “tapa.”

The evolution of the modern tapas is a blending of the regional tastes of the people of Spain and their social and dining habits. Since Spanish dinner is usually eaten between 9 p.m. and midnight, the large gap following the end of the workday and the main meal must be filled with a substantial snack. To satisfy the pre-dinner munchies, bars and cafes serve a variety of tapas with wine or cider to tide over the diners until supper.

Tapas are such an important and beloved part of their life that the Spanish people concocted the verb


, which translates to “go and eat


Tapas run the gamut from cold appetizers to warm or hot snacks that can be so hearty and satisfying they make a whole meal. Some traditional cold Spanish tapas include an assortment of olives stuffed with anchovies or red bell peppers,


or thinly sliced cod loin with bread and diced tomatoes, and

pinchos de encurtidos

, an assortment of small foods like olives, onions, chunks of peppers and baby cukes pickled in vinegar and strung along a skewer.

Some popular warm or hot tapas are deep-fried chili peppers,


or battered and fried baby squid,


that consists of a slice of sausage called


and a fried quail egg on top of a slice of bread,


or turnovers stuffed with meat and a variety of vegetables, and


, sautéed prawns jazzed up with black peppercorn salsa.

Chef Ernest Lopez from Club M at The Grand Del Mar has concocted a delightful tapa you can enjoy for the holidays that he has graciously shared. Tapear!

Bay Scallop Ceviche

(Serves 2)

6 ounces bay scallops

2 ounces plus 2 teaspoons lime juice

2 ounces plus 2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 ounces orange juice

2 quarts cooking oil (peanut or canola)

12 corn tortillas, sliced into wedges

1/2 jicama, diced

1/2 cucumber, diced

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

1/4 red onion, diced

1 orange, segmented (flesh only)

2 teaspoons chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon diced jalapeño

2 cilantro sprigs for garnish

Salt and pepper to taste

Soak scallops in cold water and remove the attached muscle and sediments. Combine 2 ounces each of lime juice, lemon juice and orange juice. Pour juices over scallops, making sure the scallops are completely covered. Marinate for 2 hours. Preheat oil in a small pan to 350 degrees. Lightly fry tortilla wedges in oil for about two minutes or until crisp. Remove the tortillas and drain on paper towels to absorb excess oil. Season with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, combine diced jicama, cucumber, pepper, onion, orange segments and jalapeño. Dress with chopped cilantro, 2 teaspoons each of lemon and lime juice, salt and pepper to taste. Drain the marinated scallops and season generously with salt and pepper. In a martini or cocktail glass, layer some of the dressed vegetables and alternate with the cured scallops. Garnish with cilantro sprigs. Serve with a side of tortilla chips.

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