Big Taste From 'Little Bites'

SUNDAY GOURMET

January 19, 1992|By GAIL FORMAN

For some folks the partying never ends. With the holiday merriment now a memory, many of us don't want to see another hors d'oeuvre until next December at least. But these party people forge ahead -- always looking for that new and different menu.

Maybe now's the time to try tapas -- those tasty Spanish appetizers that have been slowly making their way onto the local scene. It would be hard to find a more perfect party menu or one that would make both hosts and guests happier.

No special equipment or ingredients are needed to make tapas. Dishes can be made ahead and served at room temperature. And since people today want to eat light but well, these little party pleasers -- with a variety of tastes and textures -- will satisfy all.

I experienced the joy of tapas recently at the Gloria Ferrer Vineyard in Sonoma, Calif., at a meal sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain and cooked by Chef Gil Martinez Soto of the Virrey Palafox restaurant in the small town of Burgo de Osma in northern Spain. This chef, who has been cooking since he apprenticed in his preteens, turned out more than 20 dishes for 50 people in a tiny kitchen with a minimum of help. Highlights included roasted red peppers with garlic, potato omelet, Sorian-style soup made with cubed veal, turkey in escabeche, paella and Andalucian gazpacho.

Tapas, or "little bites" as they are affectionately called, have been a Spanish tradition for centuries, and are as varied as the chefs who cook them. One might serve shrimp or baby eels with garlic, dates wrapped with bacon, empanadas, anchovy toast and gazpacho. Another might offer stewed chickpeas, dried cod, pickled fish and potatoes with garlic mayonnaise. Still another might put out pate, olives, slices of chorizo sausage and serrano ham.

In Andalucia, where tapas are thought to have originated, bartenders once covered wine-filled glasses with complimentary slices of salty ham to stimulate customers' thirst (and to keep flies out of the wine, some say). In time, this custom of covering the glass gave birth to the word tapas, from the verb tapar, to cover.

At home it's easy to set up a tapas "bar" on the dining room table or the kitchen counter. Put out plenty of small dishes, forks and napkins. Set out the food just before guests arrive and let them help themselves when they are hungry. Then relax and enjoy the party.

Stock your drinks bar with red and white Spanish wines, Spanish "champagne" (such as Freixenet) and a pitcher of sangria. And don't forget to serve chilled dry fino or amontillado sherry, the original tapas beverage that is sometimes called "bottled sun."

TURKEY IN ESCABECHE

Escabeches, popular at tapas bars all over Spain, date from the days before refrigeration, when pickling served to preserve perishable foods.

4 1/2 pounds boneless turkey (thighs and breasts)

salt to taste

4 cups olive oil

2 cups white wine vinegar

20 whole black peppercorns

3 bay leaves

2 medium onions, sliced

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

Cut turkey into large bite-size pieces and place in a large skillet or casserole. Sprinkle with salt and add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 40 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight or longer. Serve cold with gherkins and green onions, if desired. Serves 15-20.

SPANISH POTATO OMELET

The tortilla a la espanola is the quintessential tapas dish. Dieters will be pleased to know that the classic recipe can be made with egg substitutes.

1 cup olive oil

1 onion, minced

6 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

salt to taste

6 eggs

Heat oil in a deep, 12-inch non-stick skillet. Add onions and saute until tender but not brown. Add potatoes, sprinkle with salt and saute, turning them frequently, until tender. Drain in a colander, reserving oil. Beat eggs with a pinch of salt until slightly foamy. Add potato-onion mixture and mix well. Clean skillet, add 2 tablespoons of the reserved oil and heat until very hot. Add egg mixture, spreading it out to cover the bottom of the skillet. Reduce heat to medium high and brown on one side. Flip omelet over and brown on second side. Cut into squares and serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 10-12.

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