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A Festive Tapas Party

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For a different kind of dinner party, serve up some Spanish nibbles like manchego cheese, jamón serrano, and pimentón-seared shrimp

Ever since living in Spain 17 years ago and falling in love, first with the food, and then, much later, with my future husband, I’ve been stuck on that country’s wonderful cuisine. There’s paella and gazpacho, of course, but I think Spain’s most brilliant invention is its tradition of tapas. Order a glass of wine or a beer at a bar, and alongside you’ll be served a little morsel of something delicious. That’s a tapa. The concept also plays out in homes. When I visit my mother-in-law in Madrid, dinner is often just a spread of the most basic tapas—cheeses, cured meats, olives, perhaps a salad—and we all just nibble on what we please. Dress up the dishes a bit, and you have the makings for a great party.

So the next time you’re casting about for an idea for a different kind of dinner gathering, you can make it easy on yourself and fun for your guests by serving tapas. The dishes I’m offering here are completely typical of what you’d find in Spain: They’re rustic, earthy, a little bit lusty, and utterly easy. Round out these seven recipes with the simplest tapa of all: jamón serrano, sliced paper thin and set on a plate. For more information on the authentic Spanish ingredients such as chorizo and piquillo peppers, including where to find them, see Stocking Your Spanish Pantry.

Recently I hosted this tapas party for some new friends. The tapas did the magical thing they always do: They loosened up the crowd and got the party rolling. And I was relaxed, too. That’s because I prepped the heck out of the recipes, so it was smooth sailing once people started to walk through the door. It was one of the best parties I’ve thrown in a long time.

Menu Timeline

If the following timeline looks long, it’s only because I’ve broken it down into very small steps

Up to 3 days ahead:

  • Make the tomato sauce for potatoes.

The day or evening before:

  • Make the marinated manchego; refrigerate.
  • Make the scallion vinaigrette; refrigerate.
  • Assemble the olive and pepper picks; refrigerate.
  • Slice the chorizo, put in bowl with the thyme sprigs; refrigerate.
  • Peel the shrimp and refrigerate in a paper- towel-lined bowl. Put the peeled garlic, washed chives, and washed lemon in a smaller bowl and refrigerate.
  • Wash and cut up mushrooms; store, refrigerated, in a damp-paper-towel-lined bowl along with peeled garlic and washed parsley.
  • Set jamón on serving plate; cover with plastic and refrigerate.
  • Cut up chocolate for toasted bread and keept at room temperature.
  • Slice bread for the chocolate toasts and for the chorizo; store in separate zip-top bags.
  • Wash the potatoes, put them on a sheet pan, along with the pre-measured oil in a measuring cup, and salt and rosemary (not chopped) in dishes.
  • Measure pimentón and red pepper flakes for shrimp into a small dish.
  • Measure sherry for the shrimp into a small dish.
  • Measure sherry vinegar for the mushrooms into a small dish.

2 hours before guests arrive:

  • Put the manchego in a serving bowl and set out.
  • Measure red wine for the chorizo into a small dish.

1 hour before guests arrive:

  • Drizzle scallion vinaigrette over the olive and pepper picks and set out.
  • Set out the jamón.
  • Sprinkle shrimp with the salt and toss; refrigerate.
  • Slice chives for shrimp, wrap back up in damp towel.
  • Slice garlic for shrimp and put in the dish with the pimentón.
  • Grate lemon zest for shrimp into a small dish; set with the shrimp.
  • Chop garlic and parsley for the mushrooms, wrap in damp towel, return to mushroom bowl.
  • Chop rosemary for potatoes. Toss potatoes with oil, salt, and rosemary.

15 minutes before guests arrive:

  • Start roasting the potatoes (set timer for 15 minutes).
  • Reheat the tomato sauce.

When guests arrive:

  • Offer wine or sherry and as people nibble on the manchego, jamón, and olive and pepper picks, mingle and relax. (Turn the potatoes when the timer goes off, and set it twice more for 15 minute intervals.)
  • Take a few minutes out to cook the mushrooms and serve them.
  • Chat with guests, then take 5 minutes to cook chorizo and serve with bread.
  • At a break in conversation, take 5 minutes to cook and serve the shrimp.

When you’re ready for dessert:

  • Make the toasted bread with chocolate.

Shopping List

Fresh Produce

  • 2-1/2 lb. yukon gold, white, or red potatoes
  • 1 lb. white or cremini mushrooms
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 small carrot
  • 1 small scallion
  • 1 red serrano or jalapeño chile
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley
  • 1 bunch fresh rosemary
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 lemons

Meat, Eggs & Dairy

  • 1-1/2 lb. soft, cured chorizo
  • 1-1/2 lb. large (31 to 40 count) shrimp
  • 1/2 lb. jamón serrano, sliced paper thin
  • 8 oz. Manchego, preferably aged
  • 12 oz. creamy feta (optional)

Other Groceries

  • 40 small pitted green olives (From about a 2-1/2-oz. jar)
  • 40 pickled sour cocktail onions (from about two 3-1/2-oz. jars) (optional)
  • 1 dried red chile
  • 7 jarred piquillo peppers or 2 jarred roasted red peppers
  • 2 loaves good country bread
  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
  • Fino sherry
  • 1 bottle dry red wine
  • 1 bottle dry white wine
  • 1 bottle fino sherry
  • 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes

Pantry staples

  • 2 -1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. Tabasco
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cumin
  • Heaping 1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt
  • Sea salt or another specialty salt for sprinkling
  • black peppercorns

Drink Suggestions:
Dry sherry is a traditional partner for tapas. The nutty, briny qualities of a fino or manzanilla sherry match perfectly with the tangy, salty, and savory flavors in the tapas. So when guests arrive, offer them a small glass of chilled sherry to sip as they begin to enjoy the spread. Try Emilio Lustau Puerto Fino Sherry or Bodega Hidalgo Manzanilla “La Gitana” Sherry.

As for wines, crisp dry whites with citrus and mineral notes, such as Albariño, and dry rosés with tart red berry and citrus fruit are both versatile tapas wines. I’d recommend Vionta Albariño, Rias Baixas;  Nora Albariño, Rias Baixas; A to Z Rosé from Oregon; and Goats Do Roam Rosé from South Africa.

Finally, a ruby port would be delicious with the Toasted Bread with Chocolate. Good ones include Graham’s Six Grapes and Fonseca Bin 27.

The Menu


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