The Amazing ‘Small Plates’ of Spain

Along with flamenco music, the little bites of food called tapas may well be the most “Spanish” thing about Spain. But if some long-ago bartender hadn’t been trying to keep insects away from his customers’ sweet wine from Jerez, the idea might have gone undiscovered.

Jerez (which the Spaniards, unlike their Latin American progeny, manage to pronounce Hair-ETH) is indeed a sweet wine. We know it by the anglicized name of its hometown, “sherry.” So it does attract fruit flies and such. 

Which inspired that anonymous tender of that anonymous bar to cover the glass with a small plate. Which inspired him, or some other Spanish bartender, to cover that plate with a round of spicy-garlicky sausage, a piece of marinated grilled octopus, or whatever else the fellow could afford to give away to help his customers stick around for “just one more.”

Little did anybody realize at the time, the global “small plate movement” was born.

To learn more about Spanish tapas, and enjoy a classic Spanish meal with wine, you should consider signing up for Chef Fernando Herrera’s class at our Culinary Adventure Cooking School. With vast experience pairing food and wine at Navajo Grill and other Hill Country restaurants, not to mention his own cultural roots in the Spanish world, Chef Fernando seems just the guy to teach us all about tapas.

“Tapas have been gaining recognition,” offers Herrera. “It’s a style of eating people are starting to understand and therefore enjoy. Tapas bring people together at the time of the meal because it’s all informality and delicious bites. The secret to making great tapas? It’s in the ingredients. Because a tapa might consist of only two or three components, those ingredients most be of the best quality possible.”

As most Americans who travel in Spain quickly discover, that country’s tapas fixation is more than a cultural expression – it may well be a necessity. Lunchtime is Spain comes no earlier than 2 p.m. (in restaurants, except for noonday Americans, of course), but an authentic Spanish dinner might not happen until anytime between 10 p.m. and midnight. There is, therefore, a long gap during which, wonder of wonders after hearty Spanish lunch, hunger might set in.

Express this “hunger theory” to a Spaniard, however, and he or she is likely to dispute it, affectionately, we hope. No senor, simply no, tapas are not about getting hungry or, as you say, “making it” until dinner. Tapas are about socializing. No senor, I do not mean drinking, though drinking occurs. I mean meeting with friends, family, even potential business. It all happens here, senor, as in your country, but it all happens over tapas.

In general, with the launch of “tapas concepts” around the world, tapas have grown more sophisticated and sometimes even global. You never know, with today’s no-borders chefs, when Peruvian ceviche might turn up, or Korean bulgoki. Yet tapas remain forever Spanish, and as such, forever regionalized.

Many would say that the southern region of Andalusia is Tapas Central, between its long hot summer days and its spice-driven (though not heat-driven) Moorish Arab flavors. Still, every region of Span has its own favorites tapa – yes, that’s the singular, though we dare you to stop after eating just one. Coastal regions specialize in seafood tapas, with meat, especially pork, ruling the roost in the dry, flat or mountainous interior.      


The long-exotic Spanish food tradition of tapas is (or was) unique to Spain. Yet as Chef Fernando Herrera will no doubt stress during his class, it fits our modern lifestyle remarkably well and can become an easy part of your home cooking as well.  

Chorizo Sauce:

½ pound ground chorizo (see Note below)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups Mom’s brand Spaghetti Sauce
½ cup beef broth
½ cup chopped pimento
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

¾ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 ¼ cup white wine
3 cloves garlic, mashed
½ pound ground beef
½ pound ground veal
½ pound ground pork
½ pound ground chorizo
½ cup chopped green onion
¼ cup chopped parsley
Additional extra-virgin olive oil 

Prepare the sauce by thoroughly browning the ground chorizo in the olive oil, then straining out as much fat as possible and returning the chorizo to the pan. Add all remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes to let the flavors meld. In a mixing bowl, soak the breadcrumbs in the wine for a few minutes, then combine them with all remaining ingredients. Form into small (cocktail-size) meatballs and cook in a pan with a little olive oil, in batches if necessary. When meatballs are all cooked, transfer them to the sauce and keep them warm. Serve on toothpicks, preferably with whole garlic cloves from the Mom’s sauce. Serves 6-8.

Note: Spanish chefs tend to use lightly seasoned chorizo for the sauce and then, for this recipe, add cumin, coriander, paprika and other spices, maybe even a little heat. Using ground reddish-colored “Mexican-style” chorizo accomplishes the same thing.

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