Season for noshing
The holiday entertaining season is upon us, time to share delicious noshes and sips with friends and family.
One of the easiest ways to entertain is to slice, dice and marinate a few Spanish tapas, the savory snacks enjoyed each evening in cafes all over Spain.
"The key to tapas is simplicity," said chef Mark Stark, who gave a "Spanish Tapas for Holiday Entertaining" class in early December at Relish Culinary Center in Healdsburg. "It should be simple if you're throwing a tapas party."
Last Christmas, Stark put on a casual tapas party at home as a test run for his new restaurant, Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg. Bravas is the fifth Sonoma County restaurant opened by Stark and his wife, Terri, since 2002.
At Bravas, which means "spicy" or "wild," the Starks have recreated the fun-loving spirit of Spain's sangria-sipping, bar-hopping, food-obsessed culture.
"They have a spring onion festival every year," said Stark. "They celebrate an onion! Any excuse for a party."
The Starks decided to do tapas in their new space because it has a small kitchen and the dishes are not terribly complicated.
"All of these dishes are easy," Stark said. "And they're better when you do them ahead of time."
The name tapas comes from the verb tapar, to cover. The earliest version consisted of simple slices of cured ham or chorizo sausage, placed over a glass of wine or sherry ostensibly to keep out fruit flies.
Since then, the tradition has expanded to encompass hundreds of venerated dishes, from marinated olives and seafood to fried potatoes and potato omelets.
For his cooking class at Relish, Stark hopped through the Bravas menu, choosing tapas that showcase the signature ingredients of Spain.
To start with, he served some of the beloved Jamon Iberico, a thinly sliced cured ham, along with some marinated olives.
"We use the Fermin ham because it was the first company to bring the ham to the U.S.," he said. "It tastes like prosciutto times 10."
The famous Jamon Iberico, a cured ham made from black Iberian pigs fed on acorns, can be ordered, pre-sliced, from websites such as La Tienda or The Spanish Table.
Another dish in the standard tapas repertoire is Tortilla Espanola, a humble but delicious omelet.
"You cook the potatoes and onions in the olive oil, drain them, and add the eggs," he said. "We also add a little shredded Manchego."
Since Spain boasts the longest coast in Europe, it wouldn't be an authentic feast without some kind of seafood. Stark makes a simple Mussel Escabeche served in a sardine can.
"It's like a Spanish ceviche," he said. "Only you cook the product first and use vinegar instead of citrus."
He also sources locally grown crimini mushrooms to make a Mushroom Escabeche, sauteed in olive oil, garlic, onions and smoked paprika, then marinated in vinegar.
One of the most iconic Spanish tapas is Leeks Cal?tada served with Romesco, a Spanish sauce made with roasted red peppers and almonds. The leeks and peppers taste best when charred on a charcoal fire, but in a pinch, you could roast them on a gas grill with wood chips.
"It's such a simple dish, but it's so good," he said. "You can serve it at room temperature."