How a Trip to Spain Changed the Way I Eat Forever

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

To me the concept of grazing is irresistible: consuming less of more. It’s also liberating; it frees us as cooks from the pressure of a main course, alleviates the expectations of what comes first, second, and what goes on the side. It’s about consciously eating small portions of multiple dishes made with thought and intent, embracing the notion of the seasons, and being inspired what’s ripe and most flavorful at the moment.

It’s a concept that has become the norm for me and my husband. Grazing is eating the way we want to, not the way we’ve been conditioned. And for us, it’s a habit resulting from a few weeks spent getting lost down cobblestone streets in the south of Spain.

The Trip to Spain That Changed the Way I Eat Forever

Ken and I landed in Seville on an unexpectedly chilly November afternoon. A taxi that rumbled along the curvy cobblestone streets delivered us to our hotel, an old mansion right in the center of the town where, winding our way up an ornate and deeply polished wood staircase, we found ourselves in a high-beamed room with embroidered cotton sheets on the bed and wide clay tiles on the floor.

Opening the window, we were met with a horizon line of rooftops, stucco in every color from putty to persimmon. The crisp air wafted in, carrying with it the scent of Seville oranges and helping us bat back the fatigue that lurked behind our eyes.

After a quick shower and a change of clothes to revive ourselves, we set out in search of that odd-houred meal travelers always seem to need: the one too late to be lunch but far too early to qualify as dinner, especially in a country where they don’t even leave the house before 8 in the evening. Finally, after many twists and turns, wandering the narrow alleyways that constituted streets, we found our way to a bar.

(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

Amber-colored hams with glossy black hooves dangled from a rack above, and a thick potato-filled tortilla, slices already missing, sat on the counter beckoning us to stay a while. With glasses of woodsy red wine before us we ordered a half ración of the local Ibérico ham, a slice of the tortilla, and a dish of gambas al ajillo — sweet, garlicky, smoky shrimp that arrived in a low terra-cotta dish, the olive oil still bubbling like liquid gold. With a basket of warm bread for sopping and a dish of buttery green olives before us, this was the post-flight, pre-adventure, midday grazing meal we needed.

As though under a spell we both fell deeply, wholeheartedly in love with tapas, so much so that we ate nothing else — not a single full meal — the entire time.

Drifting from Seville to Granada, over to Ronda, up to Cordoba, and back to Seville we continued to indulge in tapas of every manner for the duration of our trip. Lunch and dinner both became excuses for a glass of wine topped with a pan con tomate or alongside a bocadillo (a Spanish sandwich); a long afternoon walk warranted a small dish of grilled octopus or a plate of sliced chorizo and Manchego with a bowl of olives.

As though under a spell we both fell deeply, wholeheartedly in love with tapas, so much so that we ate nothing else — not a single full meal — the entire time. So giddy over the breadth of individual bites at our disposal, so enchanted were we by this natural rhythm of consumption, that when we got home, our entire style of eating changed.

Suddenly we were both happier and more comfortable nibbling on a plate of cheese, sharing a dish of seared padron peppers or steamed mussels, and chatting over a slice of grilled bread than eating a huge bowl of pasta or a steak. And it stuck.

10 Tapas You Should Eat in Spain

If you are lucky enough to make a trip to Spain this summer, here are 10 tapas you should try.

  • Jamón Iberico
  • Tortilla
  • Pan con tomate
  • Gambas al ajillo
  • Boquerones
  • Padron peppers
  • Sevillano olives
  • Fried squid
  • Manchego cheese
  • Sherry (okay, not tapas, but you should still taste it)
(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

What Grazing Looks Like at Home in the United States

Certainly all these years later we still sit down to a pizza or a bowl of pasta on a weeknight, enjoy a roast chicken or grilled steak on Friday evening, but more often than not we can be found dishing up bits and pieces to graze on, pulling paper-wrapped cheeses and charcuterie from the fridge to scatter on a board and opening a jar of sun-dried tomatoes or a can of sardines to top slices of crusty bread.

This is our laziest grazing, when it’s just the two of us, but when friends come over we do step it up by serving small cups of cassoulet alongside chard-and-onion topped toasts, a communal Nicoise salad for everyone to dip into at once, or a platter of baby lamb chops, some roasted tomatoes, and a bowl of eggplant mousse to slather on pita.

It can be rustic and simple or more complex and refined depending on what we’re in the mood for — all that matters is enough variation to be enticing and to keep the meal meandering.

Do you graze at home? What’s your favorite mini-meal?

About Suzanne Lenzer

(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

Suzanne Lenzer is a New York City-based food stylist and writer. Her styling has appeared in magazines, on television, and in over two dozen cookbooks. She is the author of Truly, Madly Pizza and her new book, Graze: Inspiration for Small Plates and Meandering Meals hits bookstores July 11, 2017.