The tapas craze, which is peaking in New York, is on the verge of erupting in Los Angeles, if voices in the air speak truthfully. Restaurants featuring these traditional Spanish appetizers served on tiny plates are popping up here and there. Tapas seem to fit in.
The hearty nibble food is taken on the run to or from theater, or savored over drinks by an increasing number of singles and couples who rarely make it to dinner. Tapas, in fact, can replace dinner.
In Spain, the sampling of an amazing array of tapas is a passionate pastime between the hours of 7 and 10 p.m. An evening of tapas may end with a late dinner or not, depending on the appetite or what the budget can endure.
Every tapas bar in every town and village of Spain boasts a specialty, making tapas bar-hopping an adventure wherever one dines.
One stands at the packed counter and orders a few gambas (shrimp) cooked over a grill, and served on paper squares or tiny plates with a small glass of wine or Sherry. A heap of emptied shells lies at one's feet, as is the custom of disposing of the shells wherever gambas are served.
Then on to the place next door where the specialty might be dishes made with saffron, rice, chicken wings or snails, then to yet another bar where as many as 20 to 100 tapas specialties (we give 10 recipes) may range from the Spanish omelet called tortilla to chorizos on toast, grilled mushrooms, skewered meats, airy rings of fried squid, snails, baby eels, beans and roasted peppers.
That's in Spain.
Having fond remembrances of those lovely evenings of tapas bar-hopping near the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, we turned to Jean Leon, a native of Spain, who owns and operates La Scala restaurant and boutique in Beverly Hills and Presto restaurant in Brentwood (both Italian restaurants), for help in preparing some tapas for our story. He and his chef, Emilio Nunez, a Spaniard also from the northern Basque region, graciously consented to do so and we have since photographed Nunez's tapas on the counter at Presto for these pages.
According to Penelope Casas, author of "Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain," (Knopf: $22.95 hardcover; $12.95 paperback), tapas , from the Spanish verb tapar, meaning to top or cover, probably originated in Andalusia, where Spanish Sherry is made, and cries out for some food accompaniment.
Originally, writes Casas, tapas were said to consist only of salty slices of cured ham, called jamon serrano , or chorizo placed over the mouth of a wine glass to accompany the wine. Others describe tapas as having originally been served only on top of a counter, hence their name. The tapas style of serving many small plates, however, could stem from pre-dinner appetizer customs of maza (or meze) brought to Spain by Saracens and Moors.
But tapas are easily adapted for use at home, patio, picnic or beach. And they make wonderful party food, used as a substitute for dinner. They tend to be filling as pre-dinner fare, but the choice is up to the host. Most tapas are served at room temperature or cold, but there are hot tapas , such as Asturiana, the pot of beans shown here, too.
Tapas prepared at home need not be elaborate. In fact, the simplest tapas , which Spaniards call tapas naturales , may include a few pantry shelf items, such as olives, almonds, marinated artichoke heart, canned sardines and pimiento. They may consist of grilled shrimp, oysters or mussels on the half-shell, fresh tuna drizzled with olive oil, or pickled cucumbers.
In addition to the cooked appetizers, Nunez also served Spanish cheese called queso manchego (found at most gourmet food stores or cheese shops locally) and a few Spanish cold cuts, including chorizo (a dried version of the fresh Mexican chorizo ), a dried pork loin called lomo de cerdo (available at Spanish and Philippine grocery stores) and j a mon serrano , the Spanish cousin of Italian prosciutto. Like Italian prosciutto, the imported Spanish version is unavailable in the United States, but domestic prosciuttos are easily substituted.
Spanish olives (called aceitunas if you use the small green Spanish olives) and almonds--two favorite appetizers in Spain--also can be added to the tapas menu.
If you are planning a tapas party, select several that can be prepared well ahead of time and that do well in the freezer or refrigerator for a period of time. Among the group given here, the roasted red peppers can be prepared a day or two in advance. The asparagus in vinaigrette sauce and lobster salad can be prepared early in the day or the night before.