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Despite taking nine years of French in school, and despite the fact that I don't know more than just a lick of Spanish, I probably eat Spanish-influenced food in the summer far more often than that from any other country.

That's because of the tapas invasion.

Tapas are "small plate" appetizers with a Spanish flair, and are great for summer entertaining. They are served either hot or cold and can be as simple as a plate of olives with cheese and some kind of meat - such as Andalusian sausage - or they can be elaborate, such as hot goat cheese tarts topped with tomato, or fried squid served with herb and lemon aioli.

With food prices soaring, tapas are a terrific way to serve guests great food while watching portion control and costs.

Last week, I may have professed my love for tiny food in the form of sliders, but this week, I profess my love for small plates in general.

But there's another reason I tout these treats from Espana: You'll have a chance to eat about 30 different types of tapas this Friday the 13th at Lake Missoula Cellars.

That's because the Montana Chef's Association will be honoring 2008 Chef of the Year, University of Montana's College of Technology director, Thomas Campbell.

Campbell has turned this foodie branch of UM into a flourishing culinary arts program that rivals many other better-known programs around the country.

Each year, the program grows by a few students. Soon, Missoula will have enough graduates pouring out of COT that area gourmands will be tickled pink with the caliber of talent flooding the fine dining market.

The event, also a fundraiser for the MCA's Culinary Student Scholarship Fund, will begin at 6 p.m. at Lake Missoula Cellars, located just across from Big Sky Brewing.

Tickets are $75 and are available by going to Chef's Association Web site at www.acfmontanachefs.org, or by calling 244-0158

Money raised at the event, which includes a silent auction with "foodie-friendly" local dining opportunities, will provide tuition for five or six students in COT's culinary arts program.

So why tapas?

I asked Campbell that very same thing.

He told me that a trip to Spain five years ago was a big part of the inspiration. It's where he met American cookbook author Janet Mendel.

The tapas he'll serve Friday, are inspired by her new book, "My Kitchen in Spain."

Campbell traveled throughout southern Spain with Mendel while she researched her book. During that time, she collected more than 200 authentic recipes.

Since Mendel is fluent in Spanish and lived in Spain for many years, she also knew area locals well - everyone from goat herders, to artisan cheese and sausage makers, to local chefs in and around Mejas, on the hillsides above Flongorella.

"We went to see the goat herder who milks the goats' milk, then traced the milk to the village where an artisan cheese maker was," Campbell said.

The pair traipsed through olive groves to watch the process of extracting olive oil, and visited two sisters up to their armpits in pig blood, who made some of the region's best Spanish mortisa (blood sausage).

Through their travels, Mendel and Campbell were able to experience a wide variety of the local food in "ventas" (country restaurants). In particular, he said, one stuck out in his memory.

"It was an outdoor restaurant where 200 or 300 people would congregate on benches surrounded by a perimeter of food and beverage kiosks," he said. Like a dim sum restaurant, the cooks and servers would walk around the patio carrying plates of food for diners to select what they wanted for the meal.

"That's how I'm going to run the dinner," said Campbell.

And here's just a sampling to wet your whistle:

Goat's Cheese with Tarragon and Garlic Marinade, Sun-dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts, Potato Wedges with Shallots and Rosemary, Clams in Tomato and Garlic Sauce, Fiery Bell Peppers with Cheese, Lamb Skewers with Lemon, Spareribs in Paprika Sauce, Moroccan Chicken Kabobs, Spinach and Mushroom Tortilla, Crab Tartlets, Orange and Fennel Salad, and Baby Leek and Asparagus Salad.

I don't know about you, but after hearing that, I fear I may snack on my own arm.

I thought I was giving Campbell a hot tip when I told him that I'd spent the better part of a day in a neat little store in Seattle just below the Pike Place Market on Western.

As soon as the name "Spanish Table" passed my lips, Campbell had already

said it.

"I used to work right down the street," he said. "I love that place."

For authentic Spanish paella pans - from 12 to 40 inches - go to www.spanishtable.com. Locally, DeeDee's World Foods Market had one the last time I was in, plus a lot of Spanish cheeses and meats for your next tapas party.

If you've never done tapas, buy a ticket to this worthy, tasty event, eat a bellyful of these small plates and pick up one of Mendel's books on Spanish cooking.

Besides "My Kitchen in Spain," Mendel also wrote "Cooking From the Heart of Spain: Food of LaMancha."

Chef of the Year Tom Campbell provides the following recipe for Spinach and Mushroom Tortilla (in Spain, a tortilla is an egg dish akin to an omelette).

Spinach and Mushroom Tortilla

2 tablespoons Spanish olive oil

3 shallots, finely chopped

12 ounces mushrooms, sliced

10 ounces fresh spinach leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

2 ounces toasted slivered almonds

5 eggs

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 tablespoons cold water

3 ounces Manchego cheese, grated

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add shallots and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for an additional 4 minutes. Add spinach, and then increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring for 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce heat, season, and stir in almonds. Beat eggs with parsley, water, salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture into skillet and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until underside is set. Lift edge of tortilla occasionally to let the uncooked egg run beneath. Preheat the broiler to high. Sprinkle grated cheese over tortilla and cook under broiler for 3 minutes. Serve warm.

Lori Grannis can be reached at 524-5251 or llgrannis@missoulian.com.

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