(July 21) We can thank our lucky tapas for king of Spain Alfonso X, who became ill in the 1200s and was required to drink wine with small bites of food between meals.

Though his sickness didn’t linger, the drink and snack habit did. He decreed that all the inns in the area couldn’t serve wine without something to eat.

According to tradition, those little somethings, which usually were bread, slices of smoked ham and cheese, were placed on top of the wineglass to keep pesky flies out of the drink.

Thus came the Spanish term tapa, which means lid or cover. Drinks with snacks served between meals became a part of the Spanish culture that was embellished and passed on to other generations and civilizations.

Whoever thought to turn the food-on-glass concept into small plates of food was brilliant and opened a new world of tapa possibilities, says Mark Zukaitis, executive chef of La Bodega, a Spanish tapa bar in Kansas City, Mo.

The restaurant tries to adhere to Spanish authenticity, and therefore the tapas menu is similar to that of many other tapas bars. “Seventy percent of every tapa menu is exactly the same. There are enough traditional dishes it would almost be a sin not to put them on (the menu),” he says.

With their Mediterranean roots, tapas commonly offer tastings of salads, olives, cheeses, ham, sausage, cold omelets, stuffed peppers, finger sandwiches and toast topped with a variety of ingredients.

Tapas add fun to the restaurant experience because they give diners a casual setting in which to try fine dining samples of many things, which always are shared and enjoyed around the table, says Josh Duncan, owner-chef at Saffron restaurant in San Antonio. The restaurant serves globally influenced tapas.

No matter your restaurant concept, learn from the tapa offerings of others to add life to your appetizer menu.

Look for tapas recipes using the standard produce of the Mediterranean. If you use good quality fruits and vegetables, which make good tapas, you don’t need elaborate preparation, Duncan says.


Marinated and/or grilled asparagus spears wrapped in jamon serrano, a Spanish dry-cured ham, is a common tapa, Duncan says. He serves his version with almond aioli in which he mixes egg whites and oil with fresh almonds. “It gives it a nice nutty characteristic, which goes well with asparagus,” he says.

For another variation of wrapped asparagus spears, Dave Avalos, co-owner of Chokolate Morel in Mason, Ohio, adds a spoonful of goat cheese and wraps it all in prosciutto and lays it on a bed of greens drizzled with reduced balsamic syrup. The restaurant features an eclectic array of tapas with a blend of flavors from Asia and Latin America, he says.

The restaurant uses the word tapa loosely. He trains the staff to talk to guests and encourage sharing the food. “But we don’t use the term (tapa) to define the cuisine,” he says.


The edible thistles are as popular as they are Mediterranean and make great tapas. Duncan at Saffron makes a common tapa combining marinated artichoke hearts, green olives and grape leaves. He combines the ingredients and marinates them in lemon and oil. The grape leaves bring an earthy flavor, the olives add a salty taste, and the marinated artichokes have a slight savory acidity. “It gives a nice variety of what green can offer from salty to savory,” he says.

For another tapa bite, San Chez, a tapas bistro in Grand Rapids, Mich., sautés artichokes with garlic and green onions and serves it with a Madeira and habanero tomato sauce, says president Dan Gendler.

The restaurant’s chef lived in Spain for much of his life and serves traditional, authentic tapas, Gendler says.

One of the more popular dishes is a baked casserole that combines artichokes and asparagus in an earthenware terra cotta dish with asiago and colby cheeses sprinkled with crisp plantains and yuca, he says.


Tapa possibilities for mushrooms are endless, given the small size and how easy they are to stuff.

San Chez serves an authentic tapa in which a portabella mushroom is stuffed with serrano ham, manchego cheese (sheep milk cheese from Spain), green onions and roasted red peppers, Gendler says.

Chokolate Morel makes a more eclectic mushroom tapa by first marinating portabella mushrooms in a Costa Rican condiment sauce made of tomatoes, raisins, carrots and spices with a vinegary base, Avalos says. The chef roasts the marinated mushrooms and stuffs the caps with goat cheese and places them on green chili polenta squares. He tops it with seasonal mushrooms sautéed in garlic and butter and tops the dish with roasted red chipotle pepper coulis.

Toro restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., which serves eclectic tapas with Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Italian influences, serves a mushroom cake tapa with port reduction.

To make the cake, executive chef Paula Danilowicz dices and sautés various mushroom varieties in butter with garlic, shallots, parsley, salt and pepper and reduces it until there is no liquid left. Meanwhile she cuts off the crust of Tuscan bread and dices it into big chunks, pours milk over it to make it mushy and drains off the liquid. Then she combines the mushroom mixture with the bread and adds Gruyere cheese, more parsley, salt and pepper. In a pan she sautés both sides of the lump and then bakes it in the oven. To serve it in a tapa bowl, she pours port reduction in the bottom, adds the cake, then adds sour cream and tops it with fresh herb salad.


While bell peppers add color and flavor to tapas, piquillo peppers are the Spanish pepper of choice and show up in many traditional tapa dishes.

The Spanish traditionally roast the long, pointy red peppers, says Duncan with Saffron. He has stuffed the peppers with bread and calamari and served them with squid ink sauce or with goat cheese with basic chiffonade and red wine vinaigrette, he says.

Zukaitis at La Bodega stuffs piquillo peppers with rice, red onions, fresh basil and sushi-grade ahi tuna, he says. He arranges three peppers on a plate with the pointed ends facing the center of the plate and a small spring mix salad in the center as a garnish topped with extra virgin olive oil, salt and fresh cracked pepper.


Tapas make heavy use of vegetables in popular Mediterranean style.

Mixed vegetables on bread are as classic as tapas come. For its popular pan con escalivada, which is mixed vegetables on country bread, La Bodega uses zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant. Zukaitis coats sliced baguettes with extra virgin olive oil salt and pepper and grills them until they are crisp. He covers the toast with salsa fresca made of grated roma tomato, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh basil, and adds the grilled vegetable slices with a dollop of goat cheese.

Another vegetable-topped grilled bread tapa at La Bodega features sautéed spinach and mushrooms with a fresh Moroccan mammoth olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade. It has a more robust flavor than the pan con escalivada, Zukaitis says.

San Chez serves smoked trout with mixed greens, vegetable salsa and dill aioli. The homemade chunky salsa combines carrots, celery, tomato, eggplant, artichoke, zucchini and yellow squash with spices. It’s served with filet of smoked trout on a bed of organic greens with dill aioli, which has a bit of garlic infused, Gendler says.

Brix restaurant, which serves eclectic tapas in Yaletown, Vancouver, British Columbia, serves a vegetable lasagna tapa served in 3-inch squares, about 1 inch deep, says owner Patrick Mercer.

It combines red and yellow peppers, zucchini, squash and carrots layered with cheese and placed on top of orzo pasta. It includes a light tomato sauce and is finished with a relish of cucumbers, red onions, dried onions and tomatoes, he says.


As you consider the tapas or appetizers you can add to your menu, examine the sweet opportunities provided by fruit.

Emilio’s Tapas Bar and Restaurant in Hillside, Ill., combines prosciutto ham and figs in its jamon serrano de la huerta dish, which serves four people, according to its Web site, www.emiliostapas.com.

Arrange 16 slices of the ham on a plate equally and lay 12 figs on top of that. Place toast points around the plate and organize watercress to one side or in the center. Make a dressing of olive oil, pepper, salt, vinegar and Pedro Ximenez sherry.

Zukaitis with La Bodega developed his own tapa recipe using dates. The dates, wrapped in ham are stuffed with soft chorizo sausage, heated and served with vinaigrette. The heated dates make sweet syrup on the inside, he says. “It’s a broader combination of flavors than a lot of dishes can draw. It’s sweet, spicy and salty. … It’s popular for catering and makes for a nice finger food,” he says.

Danilowicz with Toro makes pickled oranges with feta and olives for her eclectic menu. She peels the navel or blood oranges, leaving them intact and slices them. Then she makes brine of cider vinegar, mustard seed, star anise, cinnamon stick, red pepper flakes, a little rosemary and brown sugar. She pours the mixture over the orange slices and lets them pickle for a day. Then she arranges a few slices on a plate and layers them with thin slices of imported Greek feta cheese and pours some of the brine liquid over the top. She uses kalamata olives as a garnish. The flavor of the popular tapa is sweet, spicy and tart, she says.

Pitted and stuffed peaches, nectarines and apricots make popular tapas for Chokolate Morel, Avalos says.

He stuffs the fruit with goat cheese, wraps it in prosciutto, grills it and serves it on a bed of arugula drizzled with balsamic syrup reduction, he says.


The taste of tapas only is part of the fun. The lively, colorful way in which they are presented on the plate is just as important.

Brix restaurant uses a lot of pea shoots, sage and other fresh herbs for garnish, Mercer says.

Fried thin slices of beets, yams and eggplant make great flags, he says. Cut, grill and oven dry them to give a crisp, paper-thin piece. Eggplant especially works well. The edges are purple with a lighter color inside, he adds.

Garnish is important at San Chez, Gendler says, but it can’t be time-consuming since the restaurant serves up to 3,000 plates on a weekend.

The garnish usually is an ingredient in the dish. For example, if the dish contains roasted red peppers, the plate is garnished with those peppers. If the dish calls for aioli, it also is swirled on the plate as a garnish, he says.