Taking Tapas to the Masses

Penelope Casas (1943-2013) was the trailblazing food writer who brought Spanish tapas to our American tables.

By Kristin Belz August 19, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

As Penelope Casas wrote in her ground-breaking 1985 book "Tapas," "almost anything atop a piece of bread becomes an instant canape in Spain." Here, typical Spanish ingredients: grilled chorizo sausage and Padron peppers. Both ingredients are well known now in our American kitchens, but were new to most of us when Casas published the book.

Image: Courtesy Nito

In the constant evolution of food fashions, certain people are pioneers, introducing our tastebuds to flavors and ways of cooking we never knew existed. We may not know their names unless they're at the well-publicized top of their field, like Portland's James Beard or that other much loved cooking teacher and writer, Julia Child.

But alongside those missionaries bringing gourmet cooking into our American homes, we should add the name of Penelope Casas. She passed away on August 11 at the age of 70, in Long Island, NY—after a successful career the birthed several influential books on Spanish cooking and especially tapas, the then-little-known small plates popular in Spain. 

The recipes in her classic book Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain capture the essence of Spanish cooking, which she explains is “not the hot and spicy cooking of Mexico and South America,” but, like other European cuisines, “fine and exciting.” It boasts a “tremendous variety, partly a result of centuries of Moorish occupation, which lent Arab overtones to some Spanish cuisine, and partly because Spain is a country of such great cultural and geographical diversity.”

Today we find tapas on many menus around Portland (including at Racion, whose name comes from the Spanish word for a double portion of the usually small serving that would be the tapa). But when Casas published Tapas in 1985, a suggestion that friends join you to have a bite at a “tapas bar” would be met with inquisitive looks wondering why you wanted to go to a “topless bar” to eat.

We’ve moved on from the pioneering fashions of 1980s cuisine, but tapas are a tradition that warrants continuing. As Casas put it, “tapas are not necessarily a particular kind of food; rather, they represent a style of eating and a way of life” that are very Spanish yet appropriate for American translation. They are small portions with bold flavors. They are fortifying and flexible in-between meals; served “in a country where lunch is rarely eaten before 2:00 or 3:00 pm and dinner is typically served at 10:00 pm, tapas are almost a necessity.” And here, where meals can mean "grazing," and with so many fresh foods to draw from, tapas are a natural.

The recipes Casas shares in her Tapas book include “green and garlic sauces, the almond sauces,” and seafood marinades that are typically Spanish, as well as the “exceptional Galician savory pies.” All are worth discovering and adding to the rotation of meals made at home day to day or for special parties.

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