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Tapas and small bites make a refreshing, relaxing summer meal, such as the above "Pintxos", or skewered bites with a mix of ingredients such as olives, cheeses, and meats. (Mark DuFrene/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

Marcona almonds, Padron peppers, Jamon Iberico and chorizo are staples of a Spanish food spread. (Mark DuFrene/Bay Area News Group/MCT)


Tapas: Small plates bring big flavors

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - Updated: 7:22 AM


Contra Costa Times

It's no wonder Michael Chiarello's flirtatious Coqueta has been such a hit on San Francisco's waterfront. Tapas, gintonics and glorious water views are a potent recipe for happiness. It's also one to inspire a Spanish-style summer fete of your own.

You may not have that stunning waterfront view -- if you do, we'll be right over -- but the idea of tapas, skewered pintxos (pronounced peen-chos) and the oh-so-appealing practice of late night sips and small plates on the patio is tailor-made for relaxed entertaining.

It was a gastronomically charged trip to Barcelona, where Chiarello's daughter lives, that sealed the deal for the Napa chef known for his Italian cuisine.

"I fell in love with Barcelona, with the emotion and the community of eating," he says. "The waterfront, the seaside style of eating, where you eat as little or as much as you like, pintxos and a glass of sherry. It's dinner without such a large commitment."

From the party host perspective, it can be a delightful level of commitment -- or rather, noncommitment -- as well. Chilled wine, fizzy cocktails, platters of cured meats, cheeses and olives, and you're halfway there. Saute a batch of padron peppers -- the occasionally hot one in a glistening sea of sweet gives the dish a dash of chile pepper roulette. Make albondigas, perhaps, in a wine sauce, a la San Francisco chef Joyce Goldstein, whose recipe tastes even better when made the night before. And don't forget the jamon, the incredible prosciuttolike ham that may well be Spain's national obsession.

Then pass a tray of brightly hued, Basque-inspired pintxos -- skewered pickled vegetables and anchovies, for example, or the fresh baby beets, cucumbers and feta cheese combination favored by Gerald Hirigoyen, whose small plates fare dazzles at his Basque restaurant, Piperade, and in a cookbook, "Pintxos" (Ten Speed Press, 2009) devoted to that cuisine.

Pintxos are the "tapas of the North" says Jeffrey Weiss, who just opened a Mediterranean and Andalusian restaurant, Jennini Kitchen + Wine Bar, in Pacific Grove, Calif. Weiss encourages pintxo creativity in his new book "Charcuteria, the Soul of Spain" (Surrey Books, 2014): "There's a million and one pintxos to try in Basque country, but the truth is that anything you can stick on a toothpick qualifies as a proper pintxo."

The one you encounter everywhere, Weiss says, is the Gilda, a toothpicked flourish of cured guindilla peppers, green olives, cornichonlike pepinillos, magenta-tinged pearl onions and anchovies. Legend has it that the pintxo was inspired by Rita Hayworth's 1940s film "Gilda," because Gilda and the pinxto are both "green, salty and a little spicy." That's a stretch, Weiss says, but the salty, zesty little skewers are a great addition to any party.

Pintxos are a mainstay at Coqueta, too. "We put 20 of them on a platter, pass them around," Chiarello says. "It's wonderful."

They make a great little nosh to pair with that other Spanish obsession, the gintonic -- one word, Chiarello says -- served in balloon-shaped wine glasses or Riedel-type stemless goblets. In Barcelona, entire bar menus are devoted to gintonics. There -- and at Coqueta and Lafayette's Cooperage, whose general manager hails from Coqueta -- the libation becomes a splendidly aromatic, effervescent mix of stellar gin, Fevertree Mediterranean or house-made tonic ... plus slivers of citrus, swaths of zest, interesting botanicals and petals, punctuated by juniper berries.

Chiarello's staff goes all out, making their own Jamon Iberico-infused gin and acorn-apricot tonic. The Iberico pigs that produce Spain's signature prosciuttolike ham are fed acorns, so you get both a culinary resonance and "really sensual umami."

Of course, you don't have to make your own apricot-acorn tincture or even sangria -- although we have a great recipe for that. Pour a Spanish rose, an albarino, a cider or cava.

Just don't forget the ham. It's not a true Spanish spread without cured meats, sliced chorizo perhaps -- caramelized, Chiarello suggests, then deglazed with Spanish cider and cooked a few minutes more with fresh, pitted cherries -- and, of course, the Iberico.

"The expensive ham! People will eat two pounds!" Chiarello cautions. So use it the way you do prosciutto, complementing the salty, savory flavors with the sweetness of melon. Chiarello serves it with fresh peaches, soft cow's milk cheese and a dusting of dried piquillo peppers, or plums, watercress and a drizzle of olive oil. The combination, he says, is "a perfect celebration of the season."



A gin and tonic consists of just four things -- gin, tonic, ice and garnish -- but that simplicity means every ingredient matters. So don't slosh well gin into a plastic tumbler with diet tonic and a dessicated lime wedge. Here's how to make a perfect Spanish-style "gintonic":

1. Drop fresh, clear ice -- the bigger the cube the better -- into a wine glass or tumbler. Your freezer's ice-maker produces the very opposite of cocktail-ready cubes. Its ice has gone through repeated cycles of refreezing, thanks to your freezer's defrost function.

2. Add top quality gin. Coqueta uses London Bloom gin for its Barca gintonic, Cooperage uses St. George -- and Barcelona's famous Bobby Gin bar opts for Tanqueray Ten, Hendricks and No. 3.

3. Top with good quality tonic, such as Fevertree, Q or Fenniman's.

4. Twist strips of fresh citrus zest -- lime, grapefruit, orange and/or Meyer lemon -- to release the oils and drop them in. Add juniper berries, flower petals or other botanicals.


Serves 8

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

4 cups fruity red wine, such as a pinot noir

1/4 cup brandy

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

Bing cherries, sliced oranges and Meyer lemons

Soda water, optional

1. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Let simmer 1 to 2 minutes to form a simple syrup. Let cool.

2. In a pitcher, combine the wine, brandy, orange juice and some of the fruit. Add half the simple syrup, taste and add more, as needed. Refrigerate at least an hour, or as long as overnight.

3. Serve over ice, with a splash of soda water. Garnish with fresh cherries and orange and Meyer lemon slices.


Makes 6

Note: This classic Basque pintxo calls for specific pickled vegetables, but you can use Italian pepperoncini, for example, instead of guindillas, small Basque pickled peppers.

6 medium cured guindillas

12 large green Spanish olives, cured, marinated

6 cured cornichons

6 cured cebollitas

6 cured anchovy fillets

Arrange 1 guindilla, 2 olives, 1 cornichon, 1 cebollita and 1 anchovy on each wooden skewer. Serve on baguette slices or, if you want the pintxos to stand up, skewer the cebollitas last for stability.


Makes 3 to 5

pickled peppers

3 to 5 yellow chili peppers, such as guindillas or cubanelles, pricked a few times with a toothpick


White wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar per 1 cup liquid

1 tablespoon kosher salt per 1 cup liquid

1. Place chilis in a jar that just holds them; cover with water. Drain water into a measuring cup. Note the amount. Discard half and add an equal quantity of vinegar.

2. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water, swirling the pan lightly until a light amber caramel forms. Add the vinegar mixture and salt. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until sugar and salt have dissolved.

3. Combine peppers and pickling liquid. Weigh down peppers so they are submerged. Cool, then seal and refrigerate for 2 to 4 days, or until pickled.


Makes 15 to 20

pickled pearl onions

20 pearl onions


Red wine vinegar

1/3 ounce sugar per 1 cup liquid

1 medium red beet, peeled, quartered

1 ounce kosher salt per 1 cup liquid

1 fresh bay leaf

1/2 star anise

1/8 ounce black peppercorns

1. Slice off onion tips (the end opposite the root end). Fill a bowl with ice and water. Bring a small saucepan of water to a rolling boil. Add onions; cook 3 to 4 minutes, until they soften slightly. Transfer onions to the ice bath. Rinse saucepan.

2. Slip the onions from their skins. Place onions in a jar that just holds them; cover with water. Drain the water into a measuring cup. Note amount. Discard half and add an equal quantity of vinegar.

3. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine sugar and 1 tablespoon of water. Do not stir; swirl the pan lightly and heat until a light amber caramel forms. Add onions, beets and salt; stir to coat and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Add vinegar mixture, bay leaf, star anise and peppercorns. Reduce heat to medium, simmer 3 to 5 minutes more, until all the sugar and salt have dissolved. Cool to room temperature.

4. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a food-safe container; weigh down onions so they are submerged. Seal the container and refrigerate for 2 to 4 days, or until pickled.


Makes 8

Note: If you cannot find baby beets, use small beets. To make a vinegar reduction, simply simmer the moscatel vinegar until reduced by half.

8 baby beets, 1 to 1 1/2-inches in diameter

Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

8 squares feta cheese, cut 3/4-inch square and 1/2-inch thick

8 pitted Kalamata olives

8 squares peeled English cucumber, cut 3/4-inch square and 1/2-inch thick

Extra-virgin olive oil and moscatel vinegar reduction, for drizzling

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Trim the stems of the unpeeled beets, leaving 1/2 inch intact. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them in a baking pan with 1/4 cup water. Roast for 30 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with a knife. Transfer to a bowl of cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, top and tail them and slip off the skins. (Note: If you are using small beets, cut them into squares, as you did the feta and cucumber.)

2. Thread each of 8 skewers with a beet, a feta square, an olive and a cucumber square. Arrange on a small platter. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar reduction. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.


Serves 8


Olive oil

1/4 cup onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound each ground beef and pork

3 tablespoons fresh, flat-leaf parsley, minced

1 large egg, lightly beaten

2 slices country bread, crusts removed, soaked in water, squeezed dry

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon cumin

Salt, pepper

1/2 cup all-purpose flour


2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped, blanched almonds

2 tablespoons fresh, flat-leaf parsley, minced

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

A few saffron threads, warmed and crushed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup minced onion

1/2 cup dry white wine, dry fino or amontillado sherry

2/3 cup chicken broth

1. Meatballs: Saute the onion and garlic in a little olive oil, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes.

2. Combine ground meats, parsley, egg, softened bread, spices, salt, pepper and onion mixture. Mix well. Fry a nugget of the mixture, taste and adjust seasoning.

3. Shape mixture into 1-inch meatballs. Spread flour in a shallow bowl. Roll meatballs in flour, coating evenly and shaking off the excess.

4. In a large frying pan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sear meatballs, turning as needed, until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.

5. For the wine sauce, combine the garlic, almonds, parsley, paprika, saffron, a pinch or two of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a food processor; process until finely ground into a "picada."

6. In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add wine and broth; bring to a simmer. Add meatballs, reduce heat, cover and simmer until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes more. Add the picada and cook a few minutes more.


Serves 4

Note: This recipe works equally well with fresh figs or apricots.

12 ounces cooking chorizo, cut into 1/2-inch circles

1/2 pound cherries, pitted

1 large red onion or bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

Olive oil

1. Preheat grill.

2. Skewer the ingredients together, alternating between the chorizo, fruit and onion. Place in a grill-safe pan. Drizzle with olive oil.

3. Grill over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, rotating the skewers periodically.

--Matchbox Wine and


Every great tapas spread includes a few easy-to-assemble dishes, an assortment of cured meats, olives, nuts and other simple items you can find at well-stocked delicatessens and specialty shops, such as the Spanish Table in Berkeley and Mill Valley, or online at or Among the easy must-haves:

* Bowls of olives -- plus a dish for the pits

* Marcona almonds -- served plain or dusted with Maldon or another flake salt and chopped fresh rosemary

* Padron peppers -- fried in olive oil over high heat, then served hot, sprinkled with salt

* Cured meats -- thinly sliced Spanish chorizo and jamon serrano or, if you're feeling flush, the very expensive and very fine Jamon Iberico

* Cheeses -- manchego and other Spanish cheeses, served with fresh figs, a fruit conserve or membrillo, a quince paste. Want to be clever? Run small skewers through squares of manchego, membrillo and jamon serrano to make easy pintxos.


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