Torrid Tapas

Fiery Foods Manager In the Kitchen with Chile Peppers Leave a Comment

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by Nancy Gerlach, Food Editor Emeritus

Nancy Gerlach


Recipes in this Issue:

Champinones al Ajillo (Garlic Mushrooms)

Tortilla Española with Salsa Romesco (Spanish Tortilla)

Gambas al Pil Pil (Spicy Sauteed Shrimp)

Aceitunas a la Sevillana (Olives, Sevilla Style)

Albondigas in Sherry Pepper Sauce


Most everyone who has traveled to Spain has quickly fallen under the spell of the flamenco music and grazing at the tapas bars. Tapas are Spain’s answer to hors d’oeuvres, and the Spanish have turned these small dishes into an art form and a way of life. Throughout the country, from the smallest villages to the largest cities, you can find bars and restaurants offering dozens of tasty miniature morsels. And when accompanied by a glass of dry Spanish sherry or a cold beer, tapas are a fun way of enjoying appetizers before an evening meal or as an informal meal in itself.

The Spanish have a long history of serving tidbits of food with alcoholic drinks. There was even a centuries-old decree that required that the bars in road houses serve food in addition to drink in attempt to keep the coach drivers sober. But it was in the wine producing region of Andalusia that the “tapas bar” originated, more than 200 years ago. The word tapa means little cover or lid, and bartenders there would put a tapa over glasses of wine to keep out dust and prevent little fruit flies from diving into the drink. It started with a saucer or just a slice of bread but soon, in an attempt to attract customers, a few olives were placed on the plate and a small slice of cured ham on top of the bread. Then the competition was on. The cook, which was usually the bar owner’s wife, began to develop recipes that would out-do the competition and coax patrons into their establishment. The “tapas bar” was born.

Today the choices of tapas in an establishment can range from as few as five or six to spreads of 70 to 80 different dishes. And since each taberna has its own specialities, the ritual and the fun is stopping at two or more for a drink and maybe a small plate of marinated olives, deep-fried squid rings, or Gambas al Pil Pil, which are spicy, garlicky shrimp. Even though the Spanish can make an evening of tapas and drinking, one rarely–if ever–gets drunk. Those “old” Spaniards were right. Continual eating while sipping sherry does keep you sober. Almost any ingredient can be and is used in these dishes. There are vegetable, seafood, poultry, meat, dairy, and bread-based tapas, and, of course some contain chiles.

When Christopher Columbus made his historic journey, he sailed from the port in Andalusia. So it’s natural when he returned with the New World culinary treasures of tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, they became popular ingredients in the cuisine of that area. There is evidence of peppers being grown in Spain as an ornamental plant as early as the late 1400’s. But it wasn’t long before people realized how tasty they were and began using them in their cooking. Even though the Spanish have a definite preference for sweet peppers and paprika, they do enjoy eating spicy foods. They just don’t believe in overpowering the taste buds with searing heat! Back when Columbus was looking for black pepper, he misnamed the Capsicum berries “pimentos” or peppers. This generic term is still used today in Spain for all cultivars, though tiny hot dried red peppers are occasionally called chiles.

Summer is here and a tapas party is a wonderful way to entertain outdoors. Since most are not difficult to prepare and can be prepared ahead of time, and served hot, cold, or at room temperature, tapas are an easy way to provide a large variety of dishes with a small amount of hassle. And with tapas, they don’t all have to be complex. Build your menu around tapas requiring preparation and then expand the choices with easy tapas such as almonds toasted in oil, Manchego cheese, sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and topped with capers, and even chorizo sausage served with toothpicks. So, invite some friends, set out the tapas, put on the Gipsy Kings on the CD player, and enjoy the summer the Spanish way.

Champinones al Ajillo (Garlic Mushrooms)

Mushrooms are a popular tapa ingredient all over Spain and they are fried, gilled, marinated, or stuffed. Another popular ingredient is Spanish garlic. Prized around the world for its flavor, it is abundantly used in Spanish cooking There are many variations of mushrooms and garlic but the following with chile is one of my favorites. White, button mushrooms are traditionally used, but any mushroom, such as a sliced portobello or cremini mushroom, are a good substitute. If you have access to wild mushrooms, they are wonderful in this recipe.

  • 1½ tablespoons olive oil, virgin Spanish oil preferred

  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic

  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper

  • ½ pound mushroom caps, rinsed and drained

  • 3 tablespoons dry sherry

  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice

  • ½ teaspoon crushed red chile

  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy frying pan over high heat, heat the oil, add the garlic and saute until the garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the bell pepper and continue to saute for an additional minute.

Add the mushrooms, sherry, lemon juice, and chile. Simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid is evaporated and the mushrooms are browned, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove from the heat, stir in the parsley, and season with salt and pepper. Serve the mushrooms either hot or at room temperature.

Yield: 12 appetizers

Heat Scale: Mild

Tortilla Española with Salsa Romesco (Spanish Tortilla)

This traditional tapa is not anything like a Mexican tortilla. A Spanish tortilla is a large, thick, omelet-like cake made with potatoes and eggs and is served at room temperature. Romesco sauce is an all-purpose Spanish sauce that is served with a wide variety of dishes. From the Tarragona region, this Catalan sauce combines two of the most popular horticultural imports from the New World—chiles and tomatoes. The sauce gets its name from the romesco chiles that are used but are not readily available outside of Spain. The combination of ancho and New Mexican chiles approximates the taste.


  • 3 pounds (approximately 10 medium-size potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch thick slices

  • 1/3 cup olive oil, virgin Spanish olive oil, preferred

  • 1 medium-size onion, thinly sliced

  • 6 eggs, beaten

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Romesco Sauce:

  • 1 dried ancho chile, stem and seeds removed

  • 2 dried red New Mexican chiles, stems and seeds removed

  • ½ cup blanched, silvered almonds

  • 5 large cloves garlic, unpeeled

  • 2 tomatoes, unpeeled

  • ½ cup red wine vinegar

  • 1/3 cup olive oil, virgin Spanish olive oil, preferred

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To Make the Sauce:

Preheat the oven to 200 F.

Place the chiles, almonds, garlic, and tomatoes on baking pan and roast the ingredients in the oven until the nuts are toasted, the chiles are fragrant, and the skins of the tomatoes and garlic are blistered. The nuts will take about 5 minutes, the tomatoes about 20, and the chiles somewhere in between. Check frequently to be sure nothing burns.

Allow the ingredients to cool. Grind the almonds. Place the chiles in a saucepan and cover with hot water and steep for 5 to 10 minutes to soften. Drain the chiles. Remove the skins from the tomatoes and garlic.

Put the almonds, chiles, tomatoes, garlic and vinegar in a blender or food processor and puree to a smooth paste.

Transfer the paste to a bowl and slowly whisk in the oil, 1 teaspoon at a time, until half of the oil is absorbed. Gradually add the remaining oil. Season with the salt and pepper.

Allow the sauce to sit for an hour or two to blend the flavors.

To Make the Tortilla:

Increase the oven to 350 F.

In a small roasting pan, toss the potatoes with the oil, cover, and bake for 20 minutes.

Uncover the pan and spread the onion slices evenly over the potatoes. Cover and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are just done. Remove the pan and pour off the oil, reserving it. Cool the potatoes to room temperature.

Season the eggs with the salt. Gently fold the potato and onion mixture into the eggs and mix carefully.

Heat a nonstick saute pan over high heat with a few tablespoons of the reserved oil. When it’s hot, carefully add the egg mixture. Allow the eggs to set on a high heat for a minute while gently shaking the pan so they don’t stick. Reduce the heat to the lowest temperature and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mixture is firm.

Place a plate on top (upside down as you look at it) of the saute pan and flip the tortilla onto the plate. (Do this over your sink.) Reheat the skillet over high heat and carefully slide the tortilla back into the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook the other side until it’s done, about 8 minutes. When the tortilla feels firm to the touch, it’s done.

Cool the tortilla to room temperature, slice it into wedges. When you are ready to serve the tortilla, spoon some of the romesco sauce onto a plate and place a wedge on top.

Yield: 6 wedges or 16 bite-size appetizers

Heat Scale: Mild

Gambas al Pil Pil (Spicy Sauteed Shrimp)

This is a classic Spanish tapa with variations in every region and no tapas bar would be complete without garlic shrimp. Shrimp are abundant off the coast of Spain and soaking them in salt water before cooking gives them a fresh, briny flavor, that is reminiscent of being just caught. Serve this tapa with lots of crusty bread to soak up the sauce.

  • 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

  • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, virgin Spanish preferred

  • 4 whole garlic cloves plus 1 teaspoon chopped garlic

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • ½ teaspoon ground paprika

  • ½ teaspoon crushed chile piquin

  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry

In a medium bowl, stir the salt into 1 cup of water until it has dissolved. Add the shrimp and soak them for 5 minutes. Drain the shrimp and pat them dry.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat with the whole garlic until hot but not smoking. Add the shrimp and cook for a few seconds to seal in the flavor. Remove the shrimp.

Pour out all of the oil and discard the garlic. Return the shrimp to the pan and reheat over medium-high heat. Pour the lime juice over the shrimp and add the butter, minced garlic, paprika, chile piquin, and sherry. Simmer until the shrimp has turned pink, just a couple of minutes. Do not overcook.

Yield: 8 servings

Heat Scale: Medium-hot

Aceitunas a la Sevillana (Olives, Sevilla Style)

Olives, whether in the form of oil or whole black or green olives, are a very important part of Spanish cuisine. Spain was occupied by the Moors for 800 years and their influence on the architecture, culture, and food of the Iberian peninsula is very evident. And these typically Andalucian olives, because of the variety of herbs with which they are seasoned, leaves little doubt of their Arab origins. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 1 7-ounce jar large green Spanish olives

  • 2 chile piquins, crushed

  • ½ teaspoon dry oregano

  • ½ teaspoon thyme

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1/4 cup vinegar

  • 1 cup dry sherry or white wine

  • 1 anchovy fillet (optional)

Lightly crush the olives and put them in a glass jar and add the remaining ingredients. Add just enough water to cover the olives. Stir well and marinate in the refrigerator.

Occasionally open the jar and stir the ingredients. The olives will take at least a week to marinate but left longer, they will get hotter. The olives will keep for about a month in the refrigerator.

To serve, drain the olives and allow to warm to room temperature before serving.

Yield: 8 appetizer servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Albondigas in Sherry Pepper Sauce 

These meatballs fall into a class of tapas called “cosas de picar.” Named after the picks that the picadors use during a bull fight, the term refers to those tapas that are served with toothpicks. In Spain, they would be made with minced meat, but since ground meats are more readily available, I use a combination of ground pork and beef. Traditionally these are made with paprika, but since I like my foods a little more spicy, I also add ground cayenne.


  • 1 cup finely chopped onion, divided and used in the sauce

  • 1/4 cup finely chopped bell pepper

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • Olive oil for frying, virgin Spanish olive oil preferred

  • 2 slices stale bread, crusts removed

  • ½ pound ground beef

  • ½ pound ground pork

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

  • 1 teaspoon ground paprika

  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne

  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • All-purpose flour

Sherry Pepper Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, virgin Spanish olive oil preferred

  • ½ red bell pepper, thinly sliced

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 2 teaspoons ground paprika

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne

  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour

  • 2/3 cup dry sherry

  • 1 cup canned chicken broth

  • Garnish: chopped fresh parsley

To Make the Meatballs:

Cover the bread with water or milk and soak until the bread is softened. Remove the bread and squeeze to remove the liquid.

In a large bowl, combine the beef and pork. Add all the meatball ingredients and mix well. Form about 1 tablespoon of the mixture into small balls and roll them in the flour.

Reheat the skillet and add additional oil if necessary. Brown the meatballs in batches over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently so that the balls retain their round shape. Remove and drain.

To Make the Sauce:

Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the onion, bell pepper, and garlic until soft. Add the paprika, cayenne, and the flour. Continue to cook for an additional minute.

Whisk in the sherry and chicken broth, bring to a boil, and reduce the heat. Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer, turning the meatballs occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes until they are cooked and sauce has thickened slightly.

Serve the albondigas with the sauce, garnished with the parsley and speared with a toothpick.

Yield: 40 to 50 meatballs

Heat Scale: Mild

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