A small-plates buffet lets you prepare dishes ahead of time, so you can entertain with ease and continental charm.

Who would have thought that a small plate set atop a glass of wine would turn into an international phenomenon? Tapas, the plural of tapa-meaning "cover"-is a custom that began nearly 200 years ago in Spain. At the time, smart bar owners realized that if they put savory food on the little plates, their patrons would drink more.

The popularity of tapas spread much farther than Spain. You can find small plates served all around the Mediterranean. In France, they're called hors d'oeuvres; in Italy, antipasti. In Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt, they use the word meze; and in Morocco, mukabalatt. Even Venice has its own custom of cicheti, the local equivalent of tapas and meze.

In every Mediterranean country, people love to meet with friends after work for a drink and to unwind, but they wouldn't think of imbibing without having a bite to eat. Small plates of food provide light yet satisfying accompaniments to the local drink, be it wine, sherry, pastis, prosecco, ouzo, or raki. Little nibbles stave off hunger, whet the appetite, and bring immediate gratification. This civilized custom allows people time to sit back, relax, and forget the stresses of daily life.

What started as a simple cover has developed into a dizzying array of flavorful, healthful, and colorful dishes. The variety can be staggering, which makes tapas ideal for entertaining at home. And don't think that everything has to come straight from the oven or frying pan at the last moment. Some dishes can be made in advance and reheated before serving. Even better, tapas are often served at room temperature, to be consumed at leisure. So relax, join your guests, and enjoy the Mediterranean charm of tapas.

A Tapas Menu
Your tapas offerings may include refined dishes, but they can also feature something as simple as a plate of olives. Consider assembling a platter of delectable ready-to-eat foods, which will save you time and still satisfy guests. Here are suggestions:

  • Cured olives-niçoise, picholine, lucques (France), kalamata (Greece), and manzanilla (Spain), to name a few-are tasty party snacks. Gourmet and international markets offer the widest choices.
  • Include a selection of cheeses. As with any cheese board, present a wide variety that ranges from soft to hard textures and from mild to strong flavors (for instance, goat cheese, Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and gorgonzola). Ask your cheese merchant for advice; he should steer you away from cheeses that might be popular but are not at peak quality, and encourage you to sample new varieties.
  • Provide an assortment of cured hams and sausages, such as sopressata, prosciutto, and serrano ham.
  • Offer a crudités medley to enjoy with tapas-style dips, such as Classic Tzatziki.