Updated: Mar 27, 2022
We have lived in Spain twice over the course of my career and our gastronomic interests are heavily influenced by the cuisine of that fabulous country (among others). An evening out in any of Spain’s fine cities is best accomplished by undertaking a ‘tapeo’, which is the tradition of strolling through a neighborhood to sample drinks and snacks at the local establishments. For us, especially when entertaining visitors, that would more than likely be a very extensive outing!
In Spain, the ‘tapa’ is an appetizer, cold or hot, generally to accompany a drink. The tradition goes back centuries to the early days of innkeeping, in which samples were given in lieu of a menu. This evolved to become a marketing ploy to encourage more drinking (as if some of us need an incentive).
Today, the ‘tapa’ restaurant is a fairly mainstream offering in many cosmopolitan cities. We have several in metro DC, and even though we have sampled the best of Madrid and Barcelona, we do not shy from indulging our cravings here. I especially like to turn evenings of entertainment into a theme of sampling some of our favorite cuisines from places we have lived, Spain among them. Our typical ‘tapa’ menu would likely consist of three staples.
Escalibada is a roasted vegetable dish from Catalunya (Barcelona region where it is called Escalivada) that comprises eggplant, bell pepper, onion and tomato. The ingredients are grilled over an open fire until the skin is crusting or nearly black. The skin is then removed, as are the seeds, and the flesh is chopped up and mixed with a generous amount of EVOO and a few sprinkles of red wine vinegar. This mixture is fantastic when served on crusty bread.
Gambas al ajillo
This is a Spanish appetizer comprising shrimp grilled in garlic, oil and chili pepper. There is a famous location in Madrid, called ‘El Abuelo’ that has always been part of our ‘tapeo’ there. There are places in Madrid that pretty much do one thing, and only one thing, and ‘El Abuelo’ does this better than most, paired with a glass of wine (that generally is not a premium selection).
When we cook our version of this at home, it is in my favorite Calphalon frying pan, quickly and at a very hot temperature. But we add sweet Spanish paprika to the dish. And we serve it in a typical Spanish ceramic dish, called a cazuela, as they do in ‘El Abuelo’.
Another favorite is octopus (‘pulpo’ in Spanish), which is generally roasted over a charcoal grill or in a wood fired oven. The most traditional way of serving this in Spain is ‘a la gallega’, or Galician style, which is sliced thin and covered with paprika and EVOO. Cooking octopus is not easy. There is a method to break down the tendons by freezing and then braising that is very high maintenance. Believe me, I would love to learn this, but I buy frozen octopus, defrost it, steam it until tender and then prepare it for grilling by cutting it into sections.
My most recent experiment involved a quick and hot sear on the BGE. I served the char-grilled octopus with a traditional aioli, which is a garlic mayonnaise from Spain.