The people around the Mediterranean know what makes a good party. They know the ingredients, the method, what is required and what should happen. They understand that a party only becomes a true success if it is centred around an event and an entertainment. They have also worked out that the best entertainment, the best event, is the food itself.
There is nothing more boring, more mundane and more of a mood killer than the standard British buffet. This abomination, a complete insult to everything that is good about food, has been given far too long a life; it should have been kicked out of the house many decades ago because it is, without doubt, a total party pooper. Since when does a party take on life and joy by the addition of three bowls of crisps, an anaemic, cold, rice dish, a preprocessed slop of egg and salad cream on a pappy roll and those horrendous, faux-Scandinavian, tasteless prawn rings?
Compare that to Tapas.
Tapas is a rolling adventure that originates in the tiny, local bars of rural Spain. These small family-run concerns often only have one chef, so Tapas does not happen all at once, it rolls out bit by hot, delicious bit over an entire evening. Every few minutes, platefuls of delicious mouthfuls of food appear on the bar or a large serving table to be gobbled up enthusiastically by the combined greediness of a crowd constantly hungry for more. The bar may have music and fun and lots of Spanish beer and wine, but it is the food, the Tapas and its imaginative creator that sets the mood and keeps the party going.
This makes it perfect for a party at home, of course, since you do not need to have everything ready at once. Indeed, it is far better that you don’t. That does not make it easy – this is hard work – but it makes it a lot of fun.
Here is the trick of doing it
Spend a couple of weeks looking up what you want to cook, taking into account your guests likes and dislikes. Try to invite people who really love food; those who prefer prawn rings and cheddar and pineapple cocktail sticks should fall off your Christmas card list. This research is fun in itself; finding the sites with the most genuine advice and recipes and translating that into what you can buy locally. Make sure you have far more dishes researched than you are actually going to make. Don’t worry about too much variety or whether the food clashes. The guests need to be surprised, so go as mad as you want/can, have fun and just make sure it is rich, luscious and leaves your guests hungry.
Shop just the day before, as usual, and remember that on the day of the cook you are going to spend THE WHOLE DAY doing it, so if there are any bits that you can prepare the night before to marinate, go for it and get a good nights sleep. There are some set ingredients you will use that you must have – herbs (parsley and oregano), peppers, chorizo, goats cheese, Manchego (hard sheep’s cheese), paprika, garlic, chilli and loads of olive oil.
Most of the cooking will be done the actual night of the party and continuously throughout the party. So, during the day, create little bags of pre-prepared ingredients ready to go. Somethings you can get halfway done. For instance, Tortilla (Spanish omelette) is based on slow fried potatoes, so get those cooked earlier so you can do the tortilla much easier. If things need tomato sauce bases (like meatballs) get the sauce cooked and ready to warm and mix in. Get all your peppers and squids stuffed and get your shellfish cleaned and prepared and fillet your fish. You know the drill.
You will use lots of serving dishes. Remember, this is a spectacular, so no matching. You can use metal baking tins, pottery dishes, old victorian bits, tin foil, baskets – the more variation the better. Nothing formal. Rural is the name of this game. This is village fare that has become trendy; honour its origins.
Face it, you will be knackered by the end of the night so think about kidnapping a couple of guests to help you with a little bit of waiting and doing things like sticking cocktail sticks in things. Kids are good for this too and are fun to have around anyway when you are sweating in the kitchen. Please, stop with this "adults only" approach to parties. It is boorish and arrogant.
Buy yourself and your helpers really big, proper, butcher’s aprons and put on bandanas – it looks right and keeps hair out of the food.
When you bring out dishes, don’t do it quietly. Never expect a good party to run itself. You are the chef, you are in charge and it is your responsibility to make the entire thing an event. Announce each dish, explain what it is and really go for the ooh’s and ahhs and hopefully some applause. You should be showing off like mad. You and Your food ARE the party!
Trust me – if you really break your back, really go for it, people will talk about it for years. People are so expectanting crisps and prawn rings that they won’t know what hit them – they will love it.
So, I did one of these last some time back for eleven people. The cost of the ingredients came to around £90 and I was on my feet from eight in the morning when I put my dough on, till the early hours when I finished washing up. The day after I was shattered, but everyone had a great time. Here is what I dished up, more or less:
- Toasts with olive oil and roasted veg
- Mini spare ribs
- Cold tomatoes stuffed with onion, olives and grated Manchego
- Long thin pickled peppers
- Warm olives with warm olive oil, lemon and goats cheese
- Deep-fried sprats till crunchy
- chicken kebabs – little ones in the middle of huge wooden skewers. It's about the look, remember
- Tortilla with potato and peppers
- Roasted dates wrapped in pancetta
- Potatoes deep fried and served with a tomato sauce and homemade mayonnaise
- Baked quails eggs with serrano ham and cheese
- Sardine fillets cooked on toasts with lemon, olive oil and chilli
- Tiny Meatballs (found in EVERY tapas bar)
- Plate full of marinated anchovies
- Big bowl of olives
- Squid stuffed with rice and tuna
- Peppers stuffed with salmon and potato (traditionally done with salt cod, but the salmon was cheap)
- Bowl of dates, nuts and chillis
- Baby closed mushrooms fried with sherry
- Rice cooked with saffron and herbs served in paper cupcake cases
- Chorizo cooked in a little wine
- grilled mackerel fillets
- Peppers and Serrano ham tossed in hot oil and lots of oregano
And a couple of more I forget now that I made up as I went along.
The Spanish have a saying, “Me casa es su casa.” My house is your house. Prove it by giving your guests an evening they will remember.