Chef John Ash prepares a small but delicious bite of Spain, sharing his favorite tapas recipes

John Ash writes about tapas, the small plates of Spain and Portugal that can start off an evening or create a harvest feast in Wine Country.|

Tapas have taken the world by storm. You can find tapas bars everywhere, including Asia, where I've seen Thai and Vietnamese “tapas,” and New Orleans, where I've seen “Cajun” tapas.

The origin of tapas is a bit of a mystery, but the most commonly accepted theory is that Spanish bartenders at farmers' bars would serve beer or sherry and “top” it with a small saucer to keep the flies and the dust out. Tapa literally means “a cover” or “a lid” - and this is a common thread to many tapas origin stories.

It didn't take bartenders long to realize that they could use the saucer to serve some nuts, a little ham, some olives, some cheese. This clever move made customers come back, thanks to the bar's apparent generosity.

Another theory is that since tapas bars used to be standing only, customers who ordered a snack had nowhere to put their plate except on top of their glass - hence the tradition was born.

Still another theory claims that some unscrupulous tavern keepers discovered that, if they covered cheap wine with a plate of strong cheese or meat, customers wouldn't notice how bad the beverage was.

The tradition of serving small bites with drink to begin the meal (or make it a meal) is now widespread, and of course, the Holy Grail for tapas is Spain and Portugal, where you'll find tapas bars everywhere.

During harvest season, a tapas party celebrating the bounty of Sonoma County's late summer tomatoes and peppers and figs is a terrific excuse to get together with friends and family in the backyard.

Following are some of my favorite tapas. Salud!


This is one of the classics in Spanish tapas presentations. You'll see the bread piled decoratively at the bar to be eaten as is or topped with shaved cheese such as Manchego, thinly sliced Serrano or Iberico ham, smoked salmon or other fish, white sardines, etc. You get the idea! I've included below a note from a diary that I kept on my first trip to Spain in 1994.

Catalan Tomato Bread (Pa Amb Tomaquet)

Serves 4

4 slices peasant-style bread, sliced thickly

- Fresh garlic cloves

1 ripe tomato

- Extra virgin olive oil

- Sea salt

Take thick slices of good peasant-style bread and grill or toast it so that it is just beginning to turn golden but still soft inside. Rub with a cut fresh garlic clove and then rub with a ripe tomato that has been cut in half and gently squeezed to remove seeds and excess moisture. As you are rubbing be careful not to moisten the bread too much. Serve immediately drizzled with a fragrant olive oil and a little sea salt either as is or as a base for other toppings.

Note from Spain: “I had this today for the first time and it's got to be one the simplest yet most delicious nibble I've ever had. Now that I've had it, I see it everywhere. The ingredients are very simple but depend on the ripest tomatoes and good crusty bread with a sturdy texture. It was served with little plates of roasted red peppers, fried capers, slices of hard-boiled egg, sweet onions, olives, sliced manchego and cabrales cheese, thinly sliced serrano ham, all accompanied with a choice of either a glass of nutty sherry or a cold Cava (crisp, dry Spanish sparkling wine). I'm in heaven!”


Here's a contemporary version from José Andrés book “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America,” ( Clarkson Potter 2005).

Tomato Toast with Spanish Ham made by John Ash.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Tomato Toast with Spanish Ham made by John Ash.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Tomato Toast with Spanish Ham (Pan con tomate y jamon serrano)

Serves 4

2 very ripe tomatoes

- Spanish extra virgin olive oil

- Sea salt to taste

4 slices rustic bread

4 thin slices jamón serrano

Cut the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze to remove seeds and excess moisture. Place a grater over a large bowl. Rub the open face of the tomatoes into the grater until all the flesh is grated. Discard the skin.

Add 2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil to the grated tomato and season to taste with salt. Toast the bread preferably over a wood-fired grill. (or in a ridged cast-iron skillet.)

Spoon the tomato mixture over the slices of toast. Place a slice of ham on top of each. Drizzle with a little more oil and serve.


This uses Spanish chorizo, which is a completely difference animal than Mexican chorizo. It's a cured meat more akin to salami than the raw spicy Mexican version. It's available in good delicatessens and online at sites like La Tienda ( or in the Bay Area at The Spanish Table (

Chorizo in Red Wine

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium shallot, peeled and sliced

1 medium garlic clove, finely sliced

10 ounces cured chorizo, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces

2 bay leaves, fresh preferably, or dried

¼ cup golden raisins

3 firm ripe figs, stemmed and thickly sliced (optional)

8 ounces fruity red wine

1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil, shallot and garlic and sauté for 2-3 minutes, or until softened.

Add the chorizo to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes or until just beginning to crisp and the oil is released from the chorizo.

Add the bay leaves, raisins, figs if using and red wine and cook until the wine has reduced to just coat the chorizo. Serve warm and garnish with parsley.


This is one of the simplest of all tapas presentations and very delicious. Both the Manchego and membrillo are available in good cheese shops. You can also make your own membrillo. Joyce Goldstein's new book, “Jam Session: A Preserving Handbook,” has a terrific recipe. For that, you'll need to get your hands on some fresh quince at the farmer's market.

Manchego with Quince Paste

Serves 6

4- ounce wedge Manchego cheese, room temperature

4- ounce piece membrillo (quince paste)

6 slices crusty bread, lightly toasted

6 ripe figs, cut decoratively

Trim the rind from the Manchego cheese and shave with a vegetable peeler. Spread the quince paste on the bread and top with the shaved cheese. Run under a hot broiler or use a propane torch to melt the cheese a bit and serve immediately with the figs.


Look for a good herbed fresh goat cheese or alternately mix in your own favorite fresh herbs. Piquillo peppers are available canned or jarred. Save any of the leftover garlic-scented olive oil for other uses such as frying potatoes.

Wonderfully versatile piquillo peppers come exclusively from the small northern Spanish region of Navarra. Nestled between the borders of southern France and Basque territory, the town of Lodosa thrives on a busy trade in piquillo peppers. The peppers take their name from their distinctive, narrow, triangular shape: Piquillo means “beak” in Spanish.

At first glance, piquillos look like a variant of sweet bell pepper, but just one bite will tell a different story, as the familiar sweetness gives way to a sneaky heat. Navarra's piquillo peppers are traditionally roasted over a beechwood fire, which adds a delectable smokiness to their bouquet. The final product is then packed whole in its delicious juices, ready to be sliced, stuffed and puréed into a variety of delicious dishes.

Goat Cheese Stuffed Piquillo Peppers

Serves 6 to 12 as tapa

10 ounces fresh herbed goat cheese

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

12 whole piquillo peppers

1/3 cup fragrant extra virgin olive oil

5 large garlic cloves peeled and thinly sliced

- Freshly ground black pepper

12 caper berries, drained

- Fresh Basil Oil (recipe follows) optional

Mash the goat cheese in a bowl with the zest. Stuff the whole piquillos three-quarters full with the mixture and place on a rimmed baking sheet.

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan and fry the garlic until lightly golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Drizzle the peppers with some of the oil and briefly broil in a preheated oven. If cheese oozes out, just push it back in.

To serve: Use a spatula to transfer to a platter or individual plates and top with the fried garlic and a grinding or two of pepper. Serve with a caper berry or two, if desired.

Basil Oil

Makes about 1½ cups

3 cups packed basil, large stems removed (can use mint, chive, cilantro, parsley etc.)

1-2 cups olive oil

- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Blanch the herbs in lightly salted, boiling water for 2 to 3 seconds. Drain and immediately plunge into ice water to stop the cooking and set the color. This blanching step inactivates the enzymes that cause the herbs to turn brown and develop an oxidized flavor.

Squeeze the herbs dry, chop and add to a blender or food processor along with enough oil to cover. Blend to make a thick paste. Pour into a clean tall jar and cover with up to 2 inches of oil. Stir well and store covered in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and preferably for a day or two, depending on intensity of color and flavor desired. Season with a little salt and pepper if you want and store covered and refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.


The key to this dish is to use the delicious oil-packed tuna from Spain or Italy. The very best of it is labeled Ventresca, which comes from the belly. Boquerones are special anchovies that are ubiquitous in tapas bars in Spain. They are not the intensely salty and fishy anchovies that most of us are used to. They are white, delicate and typically packed in a combination of oil and vinegar. You'll find them refrigerated in plastic containers in good delicatessens, and I'm addicted to them straight out of the container!

Tuna Stuffed Eggs with Boquerones by John Ash.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Tuna Stuffed Eggs with Boquerones by John Ash.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Tuna Stuffed Eggs with Boquerones

Makes 12

6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and cut in half lengthwise

½ cup imported oil packed tuna, drained and finely flaked

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons drained and chopped small capers

- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 Boquerones anchovies

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley and/or mint

¼ teaspoon or so Spanish smoked paprika

Place egg yolks in a bowl and mash. Add the tuna, mayonnaise, lemon juice and capers and stir to mix thoroughly. Season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the yolk mixture back into the egg whites. You may have a little more filling than you'll need, which is not a bad thing! Arrange two anchovies on top of each egg and sprinkle with parsley and paprika.


Bacalao - salt cod - is one of the great Spanish delights, adding flavor to bland ingredients such as potatoes. If you are unfamiliar with it, then this is a delicious way to try it out. Bite-size fish cakes, dipped into rich, creamy, garlicky allioli, are irresistible as a tapas dish or appetizer. Salt cod can be ordered online.

Salt Cod Fritters (Croquetas de bacalao)

Serves 6

For the croquetas:

1 pound salt cod

1¼ pounds russet potatoes, quartered

1¼ cups milk

6 spring onions or scallions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

- Juice of ½ lemon

- Freshly ground black pepper

2 large eggs, beaten and divided

- All-purpose flour, for dusting

2 cups dry white bread crumbs, such as panko

- Olive oil, for shallow frying

- Lemon wedges to serve

For the allioli:

2 large garlic cloves finely chopped

2 egg yolks

1¼ cups olive oil

- Juice of ½ lemon or to taste

- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

- Lemon wedges, to serve

Soak the salt cod in cold water for at least 24 hours, changing the water two or three times. The cod should swell as it rehydrates. Sample a tiny piece. It should not taste unpleasantly salty when fully rehydrated. Drain well and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Cook the potatoes, unpeeled, in a pan of lightly salted boiling water for about 15 minutes or until tender. Drain. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, then mash with a fork or use a potato masher or ricer.

Pour the milk into a pan, add half of the spring onions and bring to a simmer. Add the soaked cod and poach very gently for 10-15 minutes, or until it flakes easily. Remove the cod and flake it with a fork into a bowl, discarding bones and skin.

Add 4 tablespoons of mashed potato to the cod and beat them together with a wooden spoon. Work in the olive oil, then gradually add the remaining mashed potato. Beat in the remaining spring onions and the parsley.

Season with lemon juice and pepper to taste - the mixture may also need a little salt, but taste it before adding any. Add one egg to the mixture and beat it until thoroughly combined, then chill until firm.

Shape the chilled fish mixture into 12-18 balls, then gently flatten into small round cakes. Coat each one in flour, then dip in the remaining beaten egg and coat with dried breadcrumbs. Chill until ready to fry.

Meanwhile, make the allioli. Place the garlic and a good pinch of salt in a mortar and pound to a paste with a pestle. Using a small whisk or a wooden spoon, gradually work in the egg yolks.

Beat in about half the olive oil, a drop at a time. When the sauce is as thick as soft butter, beat in 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice. Continue adding oil until the allioli is very thick. Season to taste, adding more lemon juice if you wish. (Note: Yes, you can also use a blender here!)

Heat about 3/4-inch oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Add the fritters and cook over a medium-high heat for about 4 minutes. Turn them over and cook for a further 4 minutes on the other side, until crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper, then serve warm with the allioli and lemon wedges.


En escabeche is a traditional method of preserving foods that was frequently used before refrigeration. Mussels can be substituted here. The clams or mussels will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Be sure to save the cooking liquid. It is a wonderful stock for soups, chowders and stews.

Clams Escabeche (Almejas en escabeche)

Serves 6

3 pounds Manila clams or mussels scrubbed and debearded (if using mussels)

½ cup dry white wine

2 cups olive oil

2 small white onions, peeled and cut into thin rings

4 large unpeeled garlic cloves, bruised with the side of a cook's knife

2 bay leaves, preferably fresh

10 black peppercorns

1 tablespoon sweet pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika)

½ teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon sugar or to taste 2/3 cup sherry vinegar

Discard any clams or mussels that fail to close to the touch. In a stockpot, combine the clams with water to cover and add the wine. Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low, and cook, shaking the pot occasionally for about 5 minutes, or until the clams open. Drain clams into a colander or large sieve set inside a large bowl. Save this liquid for other uses. Discard any clams or mussels that have not opened and let cool.

Remove meat from the shells and discard the shells. Set aside.

In a nonreactive deep sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft but not brown. Using a slotted spoon, discard the garlic. Add the pimentón, salt, sugar and vinegar to the pan. Be careful, as the vinegar may make the oil spatter. Mix well and decrease the heat to low.

Add the clams, mixing well, and simmer until heated through, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the clams to cool in the brine. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until cold.

Serve the clams cold with toothpicks for spearing or on spoons.


Butifara sausage is one of the great treasures of Catalonia. It is also very popular in South American especially Peru. We are lucky to have it locally available from Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa ( who's version is delicious. This recipe makes more beans than you'll need but that's a good thing. They make a delicious salad or accompaniment to other grilled meats and poultry. The heirloom beans are available from Rancho Gordo at Oliver's Markets.

Giant White Beans with Butifara Sausage

Serves 4 – 6

For the beans:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped shallots

2 (or more) chopped anchovies in oil

½ cup or so chicken or vegetable stock

1 generous cup small cherry or pearl tomatoes

3 cups cooked white heirloom beans such as Gigante or Corona

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest

- Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Add the olive oil to a sauté pan over moderately high heat and add the shallots and anchovies. Cook stirring until the anchovies “melt” about 2 minutes. Add a little stock, the tomatoes, beans and basil and heat through. Stir in lemon zest and season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Grill the sausages until they are nicely marked and cooked through. Slice attractively and place on small plates with the prepared beans.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website,

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