Editor's note: This is the second installment in a two-part series on Leonora, the restaurant in The Sebastian in Vail.
Last week, I took you behind the scenes on opening night of The Sebastian in Vail's sleek new restaurant, Leonora, on Dec. 1. Two days later, I returned to work for Executive Chef Sergio Howland as he and his team prepared tapas for their first event, a cocktail party for 100 in the hotel's ballroom. The concept of tapas - small plates - is intriguing and seemed the perfect information to share with you for holiday entertaining and well beyond.
I'm on a crusade to simplify my culinary life. Crusade might be hyperbole, but my experiences in restaurant kitchens this past year, most recently with Howland, proved to me that dynamite dining experiences at home don't necessarily require days of prepping and cooking. Tapas are a delicious way to simplify.
In this supersized era, it's a little surprising that tapas are such a hit. Limited only by imagination and availability of products, tapas are the harried entertainer's salvation. Although tapas were once mostly gratis and served with a glass of wine or beer much like community nut bowls on bars and cocktail tables today, more elaborate and, of course, more expensive tapas are emerging from chefs' unbridled culinary creativity.
Granada, Spain, is home to some of the world's most famous tapas bars. But for something a little closer to home for apres ski, one need not look further than Leonora for delicious, creative tapas. Making tapas with Howland and, later, chatting with him about his recipes unleashed a flood of fascinating ideas. Here are just a few to chew on.
We learned last week that ceviche's "mother sauce" is tigre de leche (tiger's milk). This week, we look at the mother sauce for many of Howland's tapas, romesco. The unlimited versions of this nut-based flavor bomb sauce from Spain's Catalan region are great foundations for a myriad of tapas with seafood and vegetables.
Howland's version includes grilled red peppers, white onions, garlic and tomatoes - the latter being also roasted - peeled and toasted almonds and hazelnuts, toasted pine nuts, macadamia and cashews, basil leaves, toasted and rehydrated guajillo chile peppers, grilled focaccia bread (as a thickener), grated Grana Padano cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. Of course, not just any olive oil will do for Catalonian purists. It must be el aceite espanoles bueno (the good Spanish oil). Not French. Not Italian. Spanish. Easy enough to prep; incredibly simple to make. Just blend all ingredients in a food processor - or a robot coupe if you're lucky enough to have this culinary contraption at home.
The sauce is great for a myriad of tapas. One of Howland's specialties is romesco with crispy shrimp "cigarettes": shrimp wrapped in basil leaves and thin crepes. But simple grilled or breaded shrimp are perfect with the sauce. Even spread on toasted rustic bread, romesco can be a flavor delight.
Salsa verde is another delicious, easy and versatile sauce. On my second night with Howland's team, they created delicious tapas by placing grilled flank steak skewers on salsa verde and then drizzling with citrus vinaigrette. To make the salsa, blanch in salted water and then plunge into ice water, drain and dry, two parts parsley, one part each cilantro, tarragon and basil. Once again, grab your trusty robot coupe or food processor to blend the greens with toasted and ground cilantro, mustard and cumin seeds, capers, lemon zest and juice and, of course, extra-virgin olive oil. Whether it's grilled flank steak, chicken or shrimp, you'll find this sauce creates delicious tapas.
Another of Howland's favorites is Manchego - a sheep's milk cheese from the La Mancha region of Spain - and quince paste. Finding the quince paste is the hardest part of this tapa, but I found it at Murray's Cheese at Avon City Market, along with the cheese. Young Manchego (6 months old) is the best, as it has a creamier texture and is easier to work with. It's a bit pricey, but a little goes a long way.
Chef Jeremy Ray put me to work assembling this tapa. The quince paste and cheese had already been cut into perfect half-inch by half-inch strips. I placed the quince over the cheese, laid it on its side and cut half-inch pieces to form cubes of quince and cheese. My cubes were, in fact, a variety of geometric shapes, but at least they all had right angles. Ray assured me it was ok because Howland doesn't like everything to be perfect. Random, neat and pleasing to the eye is the key. Too perfect and it draws the diner's eye to any imperfection instead of taking in the entire dish. Remember, the eyes are an important sense for enjoying food.
It's good to have a wet towel handy to wipe the paste from the knife every five or six cuts. With a delicate push of a toothpick (but not so hard as to fracture the cheese), I easily ended up with 100 pieces in no time. I must confess, it did take me longer to do this at Leonora, given these would be served to their guests. But when I made them at home, chick-chack, I was done quickly. This was a huge hit, and you and your guests will enjoy it, too. As it melts in your mouth and bathes your taste buds, you'll experience the delicious union of sweet, somewhat citrusy quince and creamy, but somewhat sharp, Manchego. Pair this with a glass of Albarino, a crisp Spanish white of increasing popularity in America, Portuguese Vinho Verde or even Roero Arneis to get that Spanish-Italian thing going.
Other tapas ideas can easily come from combining sweet and acidic tastes, such as skewers of watermelon and tomatoes separated by basil or mint leaves, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Let your imagination run next time you're in the produce department at your favorite store.
Leonora is not all about savory. She has a sweet side, too. Pastry Chef Dale DeSimone is a Philadelphia native who comes to the Sebastian from the Savoy London. He creates delicious sweets in his pastry kitchen - affectionately known as "the dungeon" - two floors below the main kitchen. Usually, I refrain from indulging when I'm working, but who could resist the temptations DeSimone laid out before me? Regardless, the sugar high from his decadent chocolate truffles gave me an extra energy boost to get through service.
DeSimone transforms pedestrian rice into a royal treat in his signature dish, vanilla risotto with blood orange and chocolate cremeaux. Pleasing to both the palate and the eyes. My favorite is his formulation of lemon meringue pie. The addition of lemongrass and the side scoop of his pistachio gelato give this American favorite an oriental twist. Any of DeSimone's confections provides a great finale.
So now you've seen all Leonora can do for your epicurean yearnings. Tapas, ceviches, creative a la carte dishes and delectable desserts. It's all there. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of Howland's team of talented chefs and staff at Leonora, if only for a moment. Hopefully, you've enjoyed it, too.
For more information on the recipes discussed above, visit www.facebook.com/vailvalley
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/
vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.