As one story goes, the practice of serving la tapa began when a Spanish innkeeper placed a piece of bread atop a glass of wine or sherry to shield the beverage from fruit flies. (The Spanish word tapa comes from the verb tapar, which means "to cover.")
In time, weary travelers and hungry imbibers began to nibble on the bread covering, allowing the enterprising innkeeper to charge a bit more for the topping.
Eventually, the tapa became something more, ham or cheese were served with the bread and some eateries even began placing the tapa on a saucer atop the wineglass.
Another tale relates that a very ill King Alfonso of Castile improved by taking small sips of wine and little bites of food during his recovery.
When he was well, he proclaimed that all tabernas (taverns) should serve small portions of food with their wine.
One final chronicle tells of King Alfonso XII (another King Alfonso), who ordered sherry at an inn in the windy city of Cádiz.
The waiter covered the cup with a slice of ham before serving it to keep beach sand from blowing into it.
After drinking the wine and eating the slice of ham, the king requested another sherry "with the same cover."
However the multitude of tapas recipes came to be, these tasty little dishes are celebrated throughout Spain and also have become very popular in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Tapas generally are served in small quantities accompanied by a beverage, traditionally wine, sherry or sangría.
Tapas are a social food, often enjoyed where people can gather to have a drink, enjoy a tapa or two and carry on a lively conversation.
They can be eaten before lunch, for lunch, before a late dinner or, when grouped together, as a main dinner meal.
But for authentic Spanish flavor, serve yours a few at a time, the staggered progression allows you and your guests to savor the nuances of each delightful dish.
Each region in Spain specializes in different tapas based on local ingredients; a bar might offer a menu of eight or 10 different tapas, which could be as simple as a bowl of olives or roasted and salted almonds.
Tapas of seafood, meat or vegetables fried in olive oil also are popular.
Sauces range from garlicky olive oil to spicy tomato sauces and bread often accompanies the sauced dishes.
This simple menu features a bounty of fresh, seasonal flavors.
Most of the dishes are quick and easy to prepare.
Invite a few friends and neighbors, and you’ll have the makings of a fun-filled gathering.
Top 5 Tapas-Style Dinner Ideas
Not at all like a Mexican tortilla, a Spanish tortilla is a thick potato and onion omelet, served cold.
The eggs are an excellent source of protein, the olive oil offers the good monounsaturated fats, and the onions and potatoes provide Vitamin-B6 and C, as well as fiber.
Traditional recipes use up to a quarter cup of olive oil per serving, but this can easily be reduced to a tablespoon or two.
Calories and cholesterol can also be reduced by using only egg whites instead of whole eggs.
2. Avocado, shrimp, and tomato salad
As simple as it sounds, this is a deliciously creamy dish made of mashed-up avocado topped with shrimp and cherry or grape tomatoes, with a little fresh ground pepper to top it off.
The avocado has more than 20 vitamins and minerals, including high levels of potassium, folate, and fiber, plus good monounsaturated fats; the tomatoes are high in Vitamin-C, A, and Vitamin-K, plus they contain lycopene (a carotenoid with many health benefits); and the shrimp offers protein and Vitamin-B12.
The traditional version of this chick-pea-based dish is made with tripe (a cow's stomach lining), but a healthier version that's more appealing to North American palates can be made with extra-lean ground pork instead.
Cook the pork thoroughly, then saute with garlic, onion, tomato sauce and chick peas until you have a thick stew.
Serve with green peppers on top.
This chick peas and pork provide protein, and the onion and tomato sauce offer the benefits described for the dishes above.
The garlic and pepper add a kick of Vitamin-C and B6, plus fiber.
4. Champiñones al ajillo (Mushrooms with garlic)
"Al ajillo" can be a term to watch out for in restaurants.
It means "with garlic," but the garlic is often added by cooking with loads of olive oil.
In this case, though, a splash of wine and some lemon juice reduce the amount of olive oil needed, even in traditional recipes.
Just saute the mushrooms and garlic in a small amount of olive oil, then add the wine and lemon juice and simmer until the mushrooms are soft.
Mushrooms are a good source of fiber and B vitamins.
5. Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts
This is a simple saute dish, and a great way of packing loads of nutrition into a small serving.
Swiss chard is a good source of Vitamin-A, C, E, K, and B6, plus calcium, iron, and fiber; raisins offer potassium and fiber; and pine nuts offer protein and alpha-linolenic acid, which is good for your heart.
But be careful with this dish as the raisins and pine nuts, while healthy, bump up the sugar and fat content, so keep the servings appetizer-sized.
The Bottom Line
It's easy to get stuck in a rut cooking the same dishes over and over.
But following the Spanish tradition of going "tapas-style" can be an easy way to work some intriguing new flavors into your menu.
Since there are several dishes to make, and none of them are too complicated, a tapas-style meal can be a great way to get the whole family involved, from preparation, to serving, to eating.
The key is only to eat a small serving of each dish, and to make some minor modifications to the traditional Spanish recipes to cut down on calories and fat.
Tapas dishes also make great leftovers that can be re-purposed for family lunches later in the week.
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