Meeting friends for an informal casual evening of tapas and wine is well-honed tradition in Spain and Portugal, where folks gather noisily at bars and homes and share stories over small plates of bite-sized goodies and glasses of wine. This time-honored entertainment translates seamlessly into at-home celebrations, leaving plenty of time for the host and hostess to enjoy their guests.

"It's sort of a lifestyle that's easier than setting up a big, formal meal," says Chris Dennett, co-owner with Danni Arzner of Elements Tapas Bar & Lounge in Medford. "It's less labor intensive and many people like to eat and enjoy each other's company without the constraints of a sit-down, organized dinner."

At its most simple, all that's needed for a successful tapas party is a central table set with side plates, great food, fun people and enough wine to loosen things up without losing control. Dishes can be served all at once to promote an atmosphere of convivial grazing. Conversely, hosts may prefer presenting tapas in courses, offering smartly-paired wines with each food grouping.

Either way, focus on creating small portions made from good, local ingredients. "You don't have to go specifically Spanish with it — you can have a Rogue Valley-sourced menu," Dennett says. At Elements, diners enjoy albondigas — a trio of lamb meatballs, one which is stuffed with Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese.

More Pacific Northwest flavor comes in the form of the bar's most-ordered item: Panko Halibut. "There's nothing in that dish that's specifically Spanish other than the aioli," says Dennett. "It's Alaskan fish, Japanese bread crumbs and Parmesan. If you go to a tapas bar in Spain, that's what it's about — regional food prepared well."

Other great and low-maintenance nibblies to offer with wine include baguette slices, cheese, fruit, mousse or pate, almonds and truffles for dessert. "These are all simple things that allow you to enjoy your party and not have to work your party," says Denise Daehler-Piotter, co-owner of Liquid Assets Wine Bar in Ashland.

Wine is as important to a tapas party as the food. "It's an exciting, sexy and can be an intellectual beverage," says Daehler-Piotter. "It's fun to look at the label (often a piece of art on its own); fun to talk about the wine, what you like, don't like; talk about the

varietal, where it's from, etc., which stimulates all kinds of other conversations about travel, food, good restaurants, favorite bottle of wine, you name it."

Guests can bring wines to share based on a theme of country of origin or varietal, suggests Daehler-Piotter. If doing this, introduce a per bottle cost to gather wines of a similar caliber. Another option is for the host to carefully choose the pours that pair best with the food. In any case, guests will enjoy a greater range of tastes if wine is offered in two-ounce pours rather than full glasses.

"I also think it's nice to have someone to pour wine to keep consumption in check and to make sure it goes all the way around," suggests Daehler-Piotter.

Calling tapas "post-modern entertaining," Dennett opines that not only do busy schedules fit well with this style, today's architecture does, too. As more homeowners opt for open floor plans, kitchens have become greater focal points and "areas of conglomeration."

Keep the décor as simple as the menu, using unscented candles and low light for a gentle ambiance and cut or potted flowers that can be sent home with guests for an elegant accent. Wooden, granite and marble slabs make lovely, rustic serving platters and richly colored and textured fabrics add an Old World sensibility to this otherwise sophisticated affair.

"As we become more of a casual and social society," says Dennett, "it becomes more of an interest to approach entertaining that way."

Simple, delicious, elegant and fun, treating guests to a tapas and wine party will likely become an evening of conviviality both imitated and repeated.

Serves 10 to 12 as part of a menu of several tapas

Four best-quality fillet mignon steaks, preferably from local, grass-fed beef, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Olive oil
Italian herbs
Salt and pepper

Place beef in large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with herbs, salt and pepper. Mix well. Marinate one to 12 hours. Just before serving, preheat broiler and place top oven rack four or five inches from heat source. Arrange beef cubes on broiler pan and broil about seven minutes total, stirring and flipping cubes every few minutes. Serve in a beautiful bowl or platter alongside other tapas. Pair with a full-bodied red wine such as Merlot, Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon.

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