I remember the first time I had tapas. It was a summer night in New York. I was a graduate student and had taken the train in from Jersey to meet up with friends at Tia Pol in Chelsea. There were four in our group. The restaurant was packed and loud as hell. We initially ordered 7 or 8 tapas. They came out of the kitchen in rapid succession, each one just enough for everyone to have a taste. It became clear that we hadn’t ordered enough. Menus were brought back to the table and we ordered more, but the cumulative effect of these diminutive dishes remained maddeningly insignificant — like adding drops to my swimming pool of hunger. Only later — after a trip to Spain — did I realize the folly of trying to compose a meal out of snacks.
My small plate anxiety endures to this day (I’m in good company). With the exception of dim sum, I don’t trust restaurants organized around the small plate format. Making tapas at home is an entirely different story. Absent the specter of a mounting bill, there’s great pleasure in having a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Here are three classics (which I once taught at a Whole Foods demo) to know by heart. The secret behind the tortilla? Potato chips soaked in eggs. Crazy, right? Nobody has to know, and nobody will be able to tell.
GAMBAS AL AJILLO
olive oil, about 1/4 cup
4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled & thinly sliced
24 large shrimp, peeled & deveined
about 2 tablespoons of sherry or brandy
piment d’espelette (or Aleppo pepper)
Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick skillet on medium-high flame. Saute the garlic until it begins to color. Turn the heat up and add the shrimp. Do not move the shrimp for 1 minute. Stir in the sherry, piment, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Stir the shrimp. The shrimp is finished when no longer translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat. Salt to taste and serve immediately.
TORTILLA DE PATATAS
one 5 oz. bag of high-quality salted potato chips
Heat the oven to 400. Crush the potato chips in their bag. Empty the bag into a large bowl with the eggs and mix well. Let this sit for 10-15 minutes. On medium flame, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a 6-inch non-stick skillet with some depth (such as a French skillet). Pour the potato-egg mixture in to the brim and lower the temperature. Cook until the edges begin to firm up and turn golden. Transfer the skillet to the oven. It is ready when the omelet is firm in the center, about 10 minutes. Carefully flip it out of the pan onto a plate.
2 large handfuls of ramp leaves*
(when not in season, use spinach)
1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup of raisins
Heat several tablespoons of olive oil on medium high. When the oil is hot, add the ramp leaves and saute for a minute. Add the pine nuts and raisins and saute for another minute or two. Remove from heat and add sea salt to taste.