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Whether as a meal or just an appetizer, try these takes on traditional Spanish tapas

Spanish-inspired meatballs (albondigas). (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Spanish-inspired meatballs (albondigas). (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Years ago on a trip to visit friends in Spain, I experienced the tradition of tapas for the first time. Sitting at an old oak bar in Granada, we ordered small glasses of the house sherry. With it came plates of anchovies soaked in vinegar, tiny green peppers fried in olive oil sprinkled with coarse sea salt, cubes of fried potatoes with garlicky aioli, a thick potato tortilla (more like an omelet than a Mexican tortilla) and shrimp swimming in garlic, olive oil, smoky paprika, and flakes of spicy peppers. Crusty bread was served alongside all the little plates. I fell in love with this way of eating: trying lots of new foods and never filling up on any one dish.

But I quickly learned these were simply appetizers or starters. Dinner would come later. Much later. In Spanish tradition, dinner generally isn’t served until around 10 p.m. (the time of night when I’m already in bed, almost asleep!).

Many Americans think tapas translates to “small plates,” because it involves many small plates offering Spanish specialties. But tapas actually refers to a style of eating rather than the specific dishes.

The Spanish word tapas means “to cover,” and many say the tradition began when small slices of meat or bread were served at bars and used as a way to keep bugs out of drinks. Not the most appetizing thought, but today, tapas are more sophisticated and interesting — everything from small plates of olives, egg dishes, thin slices of jamon, fish, vegetables, fried potatoes and sauces. They are generally served with sherry or wine.

The three recipes below are inspired by the Spanish tradition of tapas. They all come together to make a wonderful meal or can be served one at a time with other family favorites.

Chickpeas and leeks

Chickpeas and leeks. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Chickpeas are a common ingredient in tapas plates. In this dish, I saute leeks and stir in crunchy chickpeas and herbs. The dish can be served warm, but I like it even better at room temperature lightly tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. The dish uses fresh cilantro, but if you’re averse to cilantro simply add more parsley.

Serves 4.


  • 1½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium leeks, cut down the middle, washed, and white and light green sections thinly sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 13-ounce jar or can of cooked chickpeas, drained, washed under cold water, and drained again
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, or another ¼ cup parsley

Optional dressing:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ tablespoons lemon juice


  1. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over low heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Add salt and pepper, the chickpeas, and half the parsley and cilantro. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook another 8 to 10 minutes or until the chickpeas crisp up slightly. Taste for seasoning.
  2. Serve warm as is, sprinkled with the remaining parsley and cilantro. Or serve at room temperature gently tossed with the olive oil, lemon juice and remaining herbs.

Oven ‘fried’ potatoes with garlic mayonnaise

This dish was inspired by the popular tapas dish patatas bravas: crispy fried cubes of potato served with a garlicky aioli. Here I chose not to deep fry the potatoes but

Oven ‘fried’ potatoes with garlic mayonnaise. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

instead toss cubes of peeled potato with olive oil,  paprika, salt and pepper, and roast them in a hot oven until crispy on the outside and tender and buttery inside. The dipping sauce is made from a whole roasted head of garlic that is mashed with mayonnaise (store-bought or homemade) and lemon juice.

Serves 4.


  • 1 small head garlic, with about ⅛ to ¼ inch cut off the top to just expose the cloves
  • 3½ tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup mayonnaise, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, smoked paprika or spicy paprika


  1. Make the garlic mayonnaise: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the head of garlic in a small ovenproof skillet, cover with 1½ tablespoons of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast on the middle shelf for about 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the garlic, or until the cloves feel soft when you gently press on the outside of the garlic head. Remove and let sit until cool enough to handle. Squeeze the cloves out of the garlic skins and place in a small bowl. Using a kitchen fork, mash the garlic to a paste. Add the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. The sauce can be made 24 to 48 hours ahead of time; cover the sauce and refrigerate.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the potatoes, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, salt, pepper, and paprika in a large roasting pan and spread the cubes out in an even single layer. Place on the middle shelf and roast for about 20 minutes, tossing the potatoes once or twice. The potatoes should be crispy and golden brown on the outside and tender when pierced with a small sharp knife or a fork. Remove and serve warm with garlic mayonnaise.

Spanish-inspired meatballs (albondigas)

Kathy Gunst’s take on tapas. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

These small, flavorful meatballs can be made ahead of time and reheated just before serving. A combination of ground pork and beef, they are flavored with onion, garlic, herbs, Spanish paprika and chile flakes and served over tomato sauce. Serve with warm crusty bread to soak up all the juices.

Makes 22 small meatballs; serves 4 to 6.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion  (1 small onion, or ½ medium)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
  • 1½ teaspoon sweet smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce) or hot smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón picante)  or paprika
  • Dash chile flakes or hot pepper sauce
  • ½ pound ground pork
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 to 3 cups tomato sauce, your favorite brand or homemade


  1. To make the meatballs: In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions and garlic, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add half the cilantro and/or parsley and all the thyme, rosemary, paprika, and chile flakes (or hot pepper sauce) and cook for another 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Place in a large bowl. Add the ground pork, beef, egg, ½ cup panko, and mix well to combine all the ingredients.
  2. Place the remaining ½ cup panko on a large plate. Roll out 22 small (quarter-sized) meatballs and roll each one in the panko.
  3. Heat half the remaining oil in the large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the meatballs in batches, being careful not to crowd the skillet, about 3 to 5 minutes per side or until golden brown on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon. Cook the remaining meatballs, adding more oil as you go as needed.
  4. Spread the tomato sauce onto the bottom of a baking dish or large ovenproof skillet. Top with the meatballs. The dish can be made ahead of time up to this point; cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the meatballs on the middle shelf for about 15 to 20 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through (no sign of pink in the middle) and the sauce is bubbling. Sprinkle with the remaining cilantro or parsley. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Other tapas ideas: 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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