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Summer 2011 Host's Guide: Tapas Under the Stars

Michalene Busico

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A balmy evening on the patio, with sparkling Spanish bites.

When John Rivera Sedlar, chef and owner of Rivera and Playa in Los Angeles, created a tapas menu for a warm summer night, he began by envisioning that time of year in Southern California, when the golden twilight seems to linger for hours. "Dining al fresco is a very, very sensual experience, especially on hot summer evenings," he says. "So the flavors should really spark."

View the CocktailsIndeed, his menu is like a lively party guest—nothing shy or quiet about it. These are authentically Spanish tapas, some drawn directly from Sedlar’s childhood years in Spain, others from a lifetime of exploring the roots of Latin cooking. Each dish is served in a playful way, and flavors are "sparking" everywhere: sharp citrus and Spanish vinegar, hot chiles and pungent olive oil, salty Marcona almonds and exotic spices, crust-crackling bread and bone-dry white wine.

Sedlar is best known as a creative force behind what he christened "Modern Southwest Cuisine" (he also codified it in a book with that title). But he is also a historian at heart, who founded Museum Tamal, a Latin food museum, and recently reimagined Rivera restaurant as an exploration of Latin cooking, offering separate menus for Spanish, South American, and Mexican cuisines. And, of course, he’s cooking in Los Angeles, the place he considers the "culmination" of 3,000 years of Latin cuisine.

View the  Wine ListHis tapas party begins with chilled watermelon gazpacho, enlivened with serrano chile and orange juice, and sipped from demitasse cups. A beet salad—layered with Moorish spices, Xeres vinegar, and blue cheese—is arrayed in small bowls so that guests can help themselves. Skewers of snails and artichoke hearts arrive on a passed tray. Squash blossoms—battered and fried, and served with a brilliant saffron aioli—are rushed to the party the moment they are ready. Crunchy crostini piled with fava beans and Iberico ham are set out in platters from the beginning to the end of the evening.

"A mixture of passed canapés and set-out courses makes it more social," says Sedlar, who’s given to decorating his plates with witty images and sayings.

"People like food that is very tactile, grabbing things from a small stack, using those little utensils or actually holding the skewer as they are talking," he says. "Those things keep the evening going. It’s not so bad if one of the beets rolls off the dish, or you slurp a little bit, or you try to catch something that falls off a fork. That’s wonderful. That’s a great way to get through life. That’s fun."

The CHEF SAYS
“When I entertain outdoors, I like to set up different seating areas around the yard and around the fire, and some standing areas with cocktail tables and crispy-crunchy snacks, too. These things add fun, and so does food with a lot of chiles and spiciness. Just watch someone eat something and say how hot it is, and then laugh and eat more and more of it.”

MENU & RECIPE

Tapas Under the Stars
By John Sedlar
Rivera and Playa, Los Angeles

Watermelon gazpacho
Grilled piquillo peppers stuffed with chorizo & cheese
Skewers of grilled artichokes & snails
Serrano ham with fava beans on toast crisps
Squash blossom tempura with orange-saffron aioli
Beets with blue cheese & Moorish spices
Catalunyan chocolate torte with Marcona almond ice cream & citrus-caramel sauce

Watermelon Gazpacho
2½ c. ripe watermelon diced into ½-inch cubes
1 large cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and cubed
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 serrano chile pepper, seeded and deveined
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups orange juice
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 limes, juiced
6 sprigs cilantro
Set aside about ½ c. of the diced watermelon and the cilantro. In a blender process all the remaining ingredients until smooth; season with salt and white pepper. Keep gazpacho refrigerated until ready to serve. Divide the soup into 6 bowls and top with a spoonful of the watermelon and a sprig of cilantro. Serves 6.