Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It’s always fun to check out what America’s best chefs are cooking, but what does that have to do with throwing together a quick little party at home? More than you might think.

All around the country, chefs trained in elaborate, over-the-top, $50-a-person meals are turning their attention to something so quick and easy that we might just be able to do it ourselves. It goes by the name “tapas,” and it’s based on the Spanish cocktail tradition of drinks and little plates or sharing dishes. It’s taking the food world by storm.

In New York, Mario Batali, star of the Food Network and chef of three of the top-rated restaurants in the city, has just unveiled Casa Mono, a 26-seat tapas bar.

A few months ago in Chicago, Paul Kahan, named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs of 1999 for his ingredient-driven new American cuisine at Blackbird, launched Avec, a wine bar serving a menu of pan-Mediterranean little plates.

And on the West Coast, where so many American food trends get their start, Suzanne Goin, executive chef of Lucques, one of the favorite restaurants of movie stars as well as hard-core foodies, has been packing the house for the last year in West Hollywood at A.O.C., a two-story wine and food bar serving wine-friendly little dishes.

Even in Paris, two- and three-star chefs are getting into the act. Alain Ducasse, Alain Dutournier, and Joel Robuchon — also with a branch of L’Atelier in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills development — have all opened little-plate restaurants in the past three years, and Helene Darroze recently launched a little-plates menu on the ground floor of her eponymous restaurant.

It may be that these megawatt chefs are finally not only cooking what they like to eat, but also serving it the way they like to eat it. As Mr. Batali puts it, “Tapas are an inexpensive way to taste a lot of food without having to commit to a 40-bite chew fest of some big main course that bores me to tears a third of the way through.”

However, you don’t have to go to a pricey restaurant to share some wine and a bunch of delicious little dishes with friends.

You can do it at home quickly, easily and, if you organize your friends correctly, inexpensively, too.

Here’s a great way to throw a little-plates party. First, invite about 10 persons, and ask half of them to bring wine. That should be plenty.

Now assign your remaining friends one of the following: cheese, ham, olives, a loaf of crusty bread and some good olive oil to dip it in. Now go ahead and prepare a couple of dishes that everyone can easily share. After all, you have to do something, don’t you?

You might want to follow the example of many chefs on the tapas bandwagon and stick to flavors from the Mediterranean to keep your meal cohesive. You can serve a classic Spanish tapas dish such as tortilla Espanola (potato omelet) or cook just about anything that’s easily shared.

Small shrimp sauteed in garlic and olive oil are perfect. So are sliced grilled sausages. A simple arugula salad might be very refreshing with some of the fattier meats and cheeses. Shaved fennel with lemon and olive oil would work well, too.

If you don’t feel like cooking much, you can even take out some sharing-friendly dishes from your neighborhood prepared-food shop or open a few jars of really good preserved foods such as caponata, marinated artichokes and roasted red peppers. You can basically serve whatever you like.

The whole tapas wave is way too new to have any rules. Anyway, the main point isn’t what you serve but how you serve it. As Mr. Kahan sums it up best, “it’s all about sharing.”

Tortilla Espanola

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

2 large red boiling potatoes, cut in small cubes

1 large onion, chopped

1 teaspoon salt or more to taste

10 eggs

Freshly ground black pepper

Chopped scallion, cilantro and tomato for garnish, if desired

Place heavy 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup olive oil, then potatoes, onion and salt. Cook without letting vegetables brown, until they’re soft, about 45 minutes. Just before vegetables are done, place eggs in large bowl and beat lightly. Drain off any liquid from vegetables, let cool for a few minutes and add vegetables to bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Clean skillet and place over low heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place vegetable-and-egg mixture in pan; cook for 15 minutes. Slide onto plate, place pan on top and flip. Return pan containing egg mixture to low heat.

Cook another 15 minutes. Slide onto serving platter and garnish with chopped scallion, cilantro and tomato, if desired.

Serve warm or at room temperature, sliced into wedges or squares. Makes 10 servings as a tapa.

Grilled shrimp with garlic and citrus

These shrimp are simple and delicious.

1 pounds medium-large shrimp

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 orange, sliced in sixteenths

1 lemon, sliced in sixteenths

1 lime, sliced in sixteenths

Peel shrimp, leaving on the tail and the section right before the tail. Make a shallow cut all the way down the back and pull out the vein. Wash and dry them.

Combine garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add shrimp and toss.

Place shrimp, one at a time, on a medium-hot grill for about two minutes, or until the bottom starts to turn pink. Flip them, being careful not to let them fall through the grill (though, frankly, a few will probably get away).

Cook for another two minutes, or until the other side turns pink. Serve immediately, with the sliced citrus alongside for guests to squeeze on right before eating. Makes 10 servings as a tapa.

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