Summer of Tapas
In Spain, dining out is a mobile and intensely social affair. In a tradition as integral to the nation’s culinary fabric as the food itself, patrons hop from bar to bar, sharing drinks and a sampling of tapas at each—perhaps golden croquetas oozing bechamel insides at one, slices of jamón and manchego atop toasts at the next. Food and conversation alike are shared, as the night stretches long and leisurely.
The stars of the show, those inherently shareable, conversation-sparking tapas, also happen to be perfect for breezy entertaining at home. That’s part of the idea behind the recently released “Boqueria: A Cookbook, From Barcelona to New York,” from Barcelona-native chef Marc Vidal and restaurateur Yann de Rochefort, the duo at the helm of Spanish tapas restaurant Boqueria.
“The idea was to make recipes that were easy to make, [and that] everyone could do in their own apartment or home,” Vidal said. Filled with recipes pulled from the menus at the Boqueria restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C., the cookbook is a gateway to Spain.
To start, there are plenty of tapas bar classics, the likes of which you’d find at every bar in Spain. Boqueria’s rendition of patatas bravas is their best-seller: potatoes fried until golden-crisp on the outside and fluffy-soft on the inside, coated in a slow-simmered, spicy tomato sauce and finished with creamy garlic aioli. The secrets of their popular gambas al ajillo, sweet and tender shrimp served still sizzling in a potent, garlicky oil that begs to be sopped up with crusty bread, are also revealed (hint: brandy is involved).
Other dishes are highly regional. Spain is a patchwork of 17 distinct and diverse regions, each with its own ingredients, specialties, and preparations. “It’s like 17 countries inside one big country,” Vidal said.
Boqueria draws from across the board: pork meatballs stewed with shrimp and black trumpet mushrooms pay tribute to Catalonia’s “mar i muntanya” or “sea and mountain” tradition (the region enjoys both Mediterranean coast and Pyrénées ridges); seared octopus dusted with pimentón on a bed of mashed potatoes is inspired by Galicia’s iconic pulpo a la gallega; and grilled lamb skewers draw from Andalusia, in the south, warmed with North African spices like cumin and coriander brought by the Moors who ruled there for centuries.
More local influences permeate other recipes, a result of prioritizing ingredient quality above all. “We try to replicate our cuisine with the products that we can find in New York,” Vidal said. That often translates as non-traditional ingredients given a traditional Spanish treatment—sweet roasted acorn squash, uncommon in Spain, slathered in smoky sobrasada, a spreadable cured pork sausage from Mallorca; or a twist on a Caesar salad dressed in romesco, a Catalan sauce rich with caramelized tomatoes, nora peppers, and garlic.
If the offerings at Boqueria are any indication, the recipes are all delicious—but more importantly, they’re a means of recreating that communal spirit of Spain’s tapas tradition.
That’s the spirit at the heart of Boqueria, and what Vidal and de Rochefort hope the cookbook captures for readers and home cooks. Whether at a bar in Barcelona, the high-seated tables of Boqueria, or your very own dinner table, ideally surrounded by loved ones on a warm and lazy summer night, “it opens up conversation, when you’re sharing food,” de Rochefort said.
How to Throw a Tapas Party
Vidal offers some additional advice on assembling a Spanish tapas spread at home.
First things first: head to the farmers market. “Our food in Spain is super simple with very little preparation, all based on the product,” Vidal said. “Without a good product, you probably cannot do good Spanish cuisine. Use products that are in season, [and] for sure it’s going to be great.”
For the best and most authentic of Spanish cabinet staples, like olive oil, pimentón, jamón, and canned fish, Vidal points home cooks towards online sites like La Tienda, which stocks a variety of good quality products from Spain. De Rochefort offers a word of warning: “You get what you pay for; the good stuff is expensive.”
On the menu, start off with montados, simple olive oil-drizzled toasts that act as a versatile canvas for any toppings you can dream up. The key is to hit upon a balance of salty (perhaps anchovies, or green olive relish), creamy (aioli, or a smear of cheese), and bright (sweet peppers, or sundried tomatoes). The toasts are easy to make and can be prepared ahead of time.
A salad or two adds welcome freshness. In Spain, salads tend to be bare—lettuce, tomato, and onion are the usual and often only suspects—but your possibilities are as varied as the flourishing summer market produce.
Jamón is a must (jamón ibérico is the gold standard, though admittedly a splurge, so serrano works fine), and for a true Catalonian spread, so is pan con tomate. The national dish of Catalonia, toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato and finished with good olive oil and salt, is simple but transcendent.
Finally, “if you can finish with a paella to share with a lot of people, it’s the greatest,” Vidal said. He recommends trying a fideua, the popular pasta version of paella, made with short, vermicelli-like fideo noodles toasted and simmered with seafood and stock. Long situated at a crossroads for trade, Catalonia’s culture is embedded with influences from across the Mediterranean; pasta is one of many examples.
If you do serve a paella, “eat it from the pan,” Vidal said. “Everybody putting the spoon inside the pan—that’s how I would do it. Everybody needs to trust each other.”