Amherst Magazine

Eating Their Research

By Nina M. Scott

The art of Spanish cooking: Seniors Nicole Starrett (far right), Megan Clower and Steve Severson chat about Spain and Spanish food with their “Culture of Tapas” professors, Nina Scott and Jim Maraniss.

Tapas, those delicious little snacks common throughout Spain, have become increasingly popular in the United States. But even though I have served tapas for years, I was unprepared when three Amherst students asked me to create a course about them.

Megan Clower ’12, Steve Severson ’12 and Nicole Starrett ’12 had all studied in Spain in the fall of 2010, the latter two in Madrid and Megan in Seville. While there, they immersed themselves in the tapas culture. Tapas are typically enjoyed in the early evening, as most Spanish households and restaurants don’t serve dinner until 10:30 p.m. or later. Standing at the counters of the tapas bars (tascas, in Spanish), sipping small glasses of wine, sherry or beer and nibbling on all manner of delectables while engaging in animated conversation is one of the best vocabulary builders imaginable.

All three students were nostalgic for the good times they had enjoyed prowling the tascas of Madrid or Seville, and they wanted to research these tascas further. As there was no course in the catalog on this topic, it had to be in an independent-study format. I have taught other classes on food and culture. However, I am a Latin Americanist, and they wanted to work on Spanish culture. The solution: pull in Professor of Spanish Jim Maraniss, a specialist in Spanish Renaissance literature.

Because the students would earn academic credit, Jim and I insisted on components in literature and art; the students took over for the third part of the course, which focused on preparing the tapas. Their final papers pulled all of these threads together, with recipes and photographs.

The root of the word tapa is the verb tapar, which means “to cover.” In earlier times, when inns were more rustic, people who ordered wine covered their glasses with slices of bread to keep out dust and flies. This evolved into the current custom, in which drinks are typically accompanied by a small white plate bearing a complimentary tapa: olives, salted almonds, chunks of chorizo sausage or squares of Tortilla Española, the potato-and-onion omelet that is Spain’s signature dish.

Megan, Steve and Nicole focused on three regions they loved: Andalusia in the south, Madrid in the center and Galicia in the north. They researched, shopped and prepared their favorite tapas for a gathering of faculty and senior Spanish majors—and found that while tapas are small, making them isn’t necessarily a small undertaking. The students searched local markets for Spanish sausage, cheese, ham and baby octopus. They were stunned by the amount of olive oil needed to deep-fry croquettes, meatballs, potatoes and other ingredients and discovered how challenging it was to share stove space while preparing their tapas in sizzling frying pans. They also learned that cooking takes time: five hours to prepare their six dishes.

But it was worth it. The spread they created was nothing short of amazing.

Severson, Scott and Clower

The course, “The Culture of Tapas,” highlighted the way food reflects culture and history. Nicole’s Tarta de Santiago, for instance, a heavenly almond cake with flavors of orange and lemon, was dusted with powdered sugar in a design that featured the Cross of Santiago, reflecting the fact that Santiago de Compostela has been the site of Christian pilgrimages for centuries (it was recently featured in the film The Way). I pointed out that the flavors of citrus and almond most likely came from Spain’s Islamic past and that Jewish Passover cakes often use eggs for lightness. The cake, we decided, was a perfect example of the coexistence of Spain’s three founding cultures.

The Spanish department’s enthusiasm for tapas is not limited to Spain, by the way. Earlier in the fall, teaching assistant Chelo Cifuentes ’11 organized a tasting of his native Guatemalan tapas, including killer chilaquiles that disappeared within minutes.

Here are some of the dishes that were featured in class. The fried goat cheese and Tarta de Santiago are adapted from Claudia Roden’s book The Food of Spain. The chilaquiles recipe came from Chelo’s mother in Guatemala City.

Steve’s Patatas Bravas
2 pounds potatoes, peeled, cubed, washed and dried with paper towels
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon flour
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon hot paprika
Olive oil

Heat about an inch of oil in a skillet and fry the potato cubes until golden. (The potatoes should be well bathed in the oil but not covered by it.)  Drain and keep hot.

Meanwhile, fry the tomatoes in a little more oil—about 3 tablespoons; add seasonings, stir well and pour over the potatoes. Serve immediately.


Megan’s Fried Goat Cheese with Honey
Firm goat cheese, sliced about 1/3-inch thick
Fine matzo meal or fine bread crumbs
2 or more large egg yolks, lightly beaten
Olive oil

Heat a thin layer of olive oil to medium hot, preferably in a nonstick skillet.

As the oil is heating (watch it carefully), place the egg yolks and matzo meal on shallow plates. Dip each slice of goat cheese first in egg, then in matzo meal, and fry briefly until golden on both sides.

Drain on paper towels and drizzle with honey before serving.


Nicole’s Tarta de Santiago
½ pound blanched, ground almonds
6 large eggs, separated
1¼ cups superfine sugar
Grated rinds of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
4 drops almond extract
Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 11-inch springform pan.

With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until they are lemon-colored. Fold in the rinds, salt, almonds and almond extract.

In another bowl, using clean beaters, whip the egg whites until stiff, then fold them carefully into the yolk mixture.

Transfer the batter to the prepared springform pan and bake for 40 minutes. Let cool before turning out of the pan. Place a paper cutout of the Cross of Santiago on the cake and dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar, then remove the template before serving.


Chelo’s Chilaquiles
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Chicken stock or water
12 stale corn tortillas
Canola oil
½ onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jar salsa verde
1 to 2 cups cream
1 pound grated Cheddar cheese

Poach the chicken breasts in the chicken stock or water, along with the sliced onion, minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste, on medium-low heat until just cooked. Drain, cool and shred the chicken, reserving the broth.

Cut the tortillas into wide strips and fry in hot oil until they are crisp but not brown. Drain on paper towels.

Mix the salsa verde with enough cream and chicken broth to suit your taste, making sure the sauce is not too thin.

Grease a large, shallow baking dish and line with the following layers: tortilla strips, chicken, sauce and cheese, repeating until the ingredients are gone (about three layers of each in all), ending with cheese.

Bake about 20 minutes or until the layers have heated through and the cheese has melted.

Nina M. Scott is a visiting professor and chair of the Spanish department. This spring she taught “Food: Power, Identity, Memory.” This article is adapted from one that first appeared in the Northampton-based Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Photos by Rob Mattson