On Tapas

Teena Burgess | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 4

Nowadays, you’re more likely to find a tapas menu and a comprehensive international beer list at your local bar.

There has been a resurgence in Spanish cooking over the past few years. Traditional styles have been popular, but there has also been a trend to experiment, updating the more traditional Spanish dishes with modern techniques and ingredients. Both approaches are based on a rich and varied culinary heritage, with a melting pot of influences. Throughout history, Spain has, at various times, been invaded by the Celts, Greeks, Romans, Moors, French and Italians. Each of these cultures has left an indelible mark on the local dishes, making Spain the true melting pot of European cuisine.

‘Neuvo Cocina’, or the ‘New Cuisine’, has updated many of the traditional dishes of Spain, retaining their unique flavours and ingredients, but bringing a more contemporary approach and lighter touch to many of the time-honoured favourites. Among those culinary customs unique to Spain, none is better known than tapas. These are small dishes served in bars to accompany an ice cold beer, chilled sherry or wine on the way home from work or on the way out to an evening with friends. Originally tapas were free snacks – marinated olives, a sliver of local cheese or sausage – but the custom soon caught on and developed into a national tradition, which now encompasses a mouth-watering array of small dishes that vary from region to region and showcase the local ingredients of the area.

Although the range of tapas is enormous, we have selected a sample of those that are interesting and easy to make. Just the thing to serve with drinks when entertaining guests.

Spicy prawns with perri perri sauce

Peppers of all sorts are very popular in Spanish cooking. The perri perri sauce needs to be made several days before use. Be warned though – this dish is for those who like it hot.


¼ cup chopped chilli peppers*

2 cloves garlic, chopped

125ml olive oil

30ml white wine vinegar

½ teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse for 30-60 seconds. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for several days (or up to several weeks) before using.

Prawn Marinade:

2 cloves of garlic

2 small red chillies

125ml olive oil

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Place all ingredients into a food processor and pulse until a smooth paste is formed.

To Prepare:

1kg large prawns, peeled and deveined lime wedges to serve

Rub the prawns with the marinade and refrigerate for several hours. Preheat a grill and cook for 5-6 minutes, turning regularly. Sprinkle with salt and serve with the perri perri sauce – and lots of ice cold beer. Serves 4-6.

* Always be cautious when handling chillies. Wear gloves and/or wash hands very carefully afterwards. Remember, the heat is in the seeds. I suggest that the first time you make the sauce, you deseed half the chillies and then add more seeds later if you like a hotter sauce.

Calcots with Romanesco sauce

Calcots are a type of overgrown spring onion. In early spring, a festival is held in the town of Valls, where hordes of people gather to eat the barbecued calcots dipped in Romanesco sauce. This is a messy business involving peeling the charred outer layers of onion skins from the tender insides before dipping them into the fragrant almond and pepper mixture.

If you can’t find large spring onions, asparagus makes a good substitute. The sauce can also be served as a dip or as an accompaniment to grilled meats. Traditionally made with both hot and mild chillies, this modern version contains smoked paprika and cayenne pepper instead for those times when a variety of chillies is not readily available.

Romanesco Sauce:

125ml olive oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 slice white country-style bread, crumbled

½ cup crushed tomatoes

¼ cup semi sun-dried tomatoes

100g almonds, toasted

100g hazelnuts, toasted and skinned

1 tablespoon red wine or sherry vinegar

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

salt and pepper

Place the oil in a fry pan over a moderate heat and add the garlic, paprika and bread. Cook for just a few minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are golden but not brown. Remove from the heat. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the cayenne pepper to the food processor and then spoon in the contents of the fry pan. Process until you have a smooth paste. Season to taste with salt, cayenne pepper and pepper.

To Serve:

24 fat spring onions or asparagus spears

Preheat a grill or barbecue. If you are using spring onions, place them, unpeeled onto the barbecue turning occasionally for about 5 minutes or until the outer skins have blackened. Remove and wrap in newspaper for about 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Transfer to a large serving platter and accompany with the Romanesco sauce. Traditionally, diners peel off the outer layers themselves, but you may want to do this before serving for a somewhat more elegant presentation!

If you are using the asparagus, drizzle with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt before grilling or barbecuing for about 3 minutes, turning several times. Place on a serving platter along with the sauce. Serves 6-8.


These little skewers, also called ‘pinchos’ (which means “stuck on a thorn”), are very popular tapas. Ingredients can include cured meats, pickled vegetables, different cheeses and even cubes of country-style bread.

1 tin of anchovy fillets, drained

12 capers, rinsed and drained

12 pitted black olives

12 small gherkins

12 green pitted olives

1 red capsicum, roasted and cut into strips

100g of good quality hard cheese*

100g cured meat, such as prosciutto

cocktail sticks or toothpicks

Thread 3 or 4 of the various ingredients onto a skewer according to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 6.

* Choose from the wide range of quality hard cheeses, such as cheddar, available at your local supermarket or deli.


Although the coca is often said to be the Spanish version of pizza, it is perhaps more akin to a cross between a pizza and a foccacia. It is usually eaten cold and can have a variety of toppings, most commonly vegetables like capsicum, onions, eggplant, etc. Tomato and cheese, in particular, are rare additions to the topping. The base is usually a yeast dough and rectangular or oval in shape, although pastry is sometimes used. Like pizza, the base can be thin and crispy or thick and bread-like, such as that in the recipe below. If you prefer a thinner crust, omit the second raising period.


4 cups bread flour

2 teaspoons dried yeast

½ cup olive oil 1 teaspoon salt

300ml water

Mix all the ingredients together to form a dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for about an hour or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Place the dough on a floured work surface and roll out to a thickness of about 2cm. Transfer to a greased baking sheet and allow to rise in a warm place for about 20 minutes. Add the topping. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the crust is crisp.

Makes 1 large or 2 smaller coca.

Spinach and pine nut topping:

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ cup pine nuts

1 large onion, finely sliced

1 clove garlic, crushed

3 cups baby spinach

¼ cup sultanas

salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a fry pan and add the pine nuts. Cook until just starting to brown, remove from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Add the onion and garlic to the oil remaining in the pan and cook over a moderate heat for a few minutes until softened. Add the spinach and cook, stirring gently until the spinach has just begun to wilt. Add the pine nuts and sultanas. Season to taste.

Summer vegetable topping:

1 red capsicum, sliced into fine strips

1 green capsicum, sliced into fine strips

1 onion, very finely sliced

1 zucchini, sliced length wise with a vegetable peeler

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and add the olive oil and season to taste. Mix well.

Tuna Banderilla

This recipe is very simple, very easy and very nice.

500g fresh tuna

lemon or lime slices

bay leaves

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon mild honey

1 teaspoon thyme leaves

12 metal or wooden skewers*

Cut the tuna into neat 3cm cubes. Film a fry pan with a little olive oil and sear the tuna over high heat until just cooked through. Thread the tuna onto skewers, alternating the lemon or lime slices along with the bay leaves for garnish. Mix the remaining ingredients together to make a dressing and drizzle over the skewers. Makes 12.

* In our photo we have used trimmed bay tree twigs to skewer the tuna. Other woody herbs, such as rosemary, canal so beutilised in this way; just remove the leaves, wash, dry and trim to a point.

Moorish meat kebabs

The legacy of Moorish rule, or as this dish is known, “pinchos morunas”, can be found all over Spain. Originally made with lamb, variations using pork and chicken are also popular.

500g lamb diced (shoulder or leg)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

125ml olive oil

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Metal or wooden skewers

Put the lamb into a large bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients together, pour over the lamb and mix to coat thoroughly. Refrigerate overnight. Thread the meat onto skewers and grill or barbecue until just cooked. The lamb should still have a touch of pink. Serve immediately. Serves 4- 6.

Mussels with a tomato sauce and parsley crust

Seafood is well represented in the tapas repertoire and this dish, with its spicy sauce and crusty topping, is a real winner.

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 spring onions, sliced

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 cup crushed tomatoes

1 chilli pepper, chopped

3 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

2 tablespoons grated cheese*

1kg mussels

1 cup water

salt and pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a fry pan and cook the onions and garlic for a few minutes or until soft. Add the tomatoes and chilli to taste and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Season to taste and set aside. In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, remaining olive oil, parsley and cheese.

Scrub the mussels thoroughly, scraping off any beards. Rinse well in clean water and discard any with open or broken shells. Place the mussels in a large pan, add the water, cover with a lid and steam for about 5 minutes or until the shells are open. Drain, and discard any that have not opened. Remove the top shell of each mussel and place on a heat-proof dish.

Preheat the grill. Spoon a little tomato sauce over each mussel and top with a scattering of the breadcrumb mix. Grill for a few minutes or until the topping is golden. Serves 4.

* In Spain the cheese of choice here would be the famous Manchengo cheese – an aged sheep’s milk cheese from the Castile region. It can be substituted with a mature cheddar.