-- "New Year's Eve parties should be elegant, not casual," a husky voice stated emphatically.
I was in the beauty shop, my neck strained back into the sink, getting shampooed and eavesdropping on a nearby conversation. "It's a night of celebration," the woman continued authoritatively, "and people want to get dressed up." I visualized a new cocktail dress hanging in the closet.
The prospective hostess disagreed. "I just want to give a party," she responded, "nothing fancy. I want to prepare a one-dish casserole that will be easy to serve and can be reheated for staggered guests." Good reasoning, I thought, nodding enthusiastically and getting my hair pulled in the process.
"But why plan your party around those who won't be spending the entire evening?" bellowed the bass voice. "New Year's Eve doesn't come around often and it calls for something special."
"But lasagna and chicken Marengo are my never-fail, time-proven party dishes and they're so informal," countered the skeptical hostess, hesitantly. "Perhaps I shouldn't have a party after all."
If the shampoo girl hadn't been holding down my head, I would have popped up and said something I'd been sorry for. Instead, I bit my lip and contemplated a solution.
New Year's Eve get-togethers are unlike other gatherings throughout the year (especially if you're over 30 and married). They are the sole occasion where you encourage your guests to stay past midnight. To accomplish this, the festivities consist of two functions in one -- an elongated cocktail party and a dinner party.
In the past, I believed that New Year's Eve could be celebraed in one of two ways -- either with a sophisticated, elegant affair or with an informal colorful bash. But who made the rule that it must be one way or the other?
In keeping with the '90s lifestyle, why not mix formal hors d'oeuvres with a casual dinner and let people wear what they please?
For an extended cocktail party with 12 guests, a good rule of thumb is to serve a variety of four hors d'oeuvres, adding another selection for six to eight people. If dinner will follow, allow about six hors d'oeuvres per person.
You will want to include a selection of hot and cold appetizers such as petit pancake puffs with caviar, zucchini sausage squares, roasted tomato salsa and a creamy smoked salmon spread with sliced cucumbers and bread rounds. The pancake puffs, cloudlike gems that bake in miniature muffin cups, fall slightly as they cool, making a perfect indentation for a swirl of caviar. Zucchini sausage squares offer the advantages of all appetizer squares: They are easy to make, easy to cut and easy to serve. Both of these dishes can be made, baked and frozen ahead. They reheat quickly, minimizing your time in the kitchen, and taste almost as good at room temperature.
The smoked salmon spread is smooth, oniony and a fragile pale pink in hue. It can be packed into a mold or formed by hand -- try shaping into an hourglass or a clock face. Broiling the tomatoes for the salsa maintains its flavors for several weeks in the refrigerator. Both of these appetizers are perfect party partners, since once served they be be left unattended.
For dinner, I concur with the hostess who wanted to make an easy one-dish entree like chili, baked pasta or a hearty casserole. One or two salads, marinated or hot vegetables, rolls and butter will round out the menu nicely.
Since I love to bake, I make miniature, bite-size desserts that can be frozen ahead and artfully arranged on a table with coffee. If baking is not your forte, however, or you haven't the time, accept generous guests' offers to bring sweets or buy an assortment of cookies and pastries.
By the time I finally retrieved my head from the sink, the two women were gone. But hopefully the uncertain hostess will read this column, heed my advice and proceed with her New Year's Eve party -- her way.
Petit pancake puffs with caviar
Makes 36 pancake puffs.
1 pint small curd regular or low-fat cottage cheese
1 tablespoon regular or low-fat sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter or margarine
1/2 cup buttermilk biscuit mix (such as Bisquick)
1/2 pint regular or low-fat sour cream
L 4 to 6 ounces red or black caviar, lumpfish or whitefish roe
To make pancake puffs, in food processor fitted with the metal blade or with electric mixer, mix cottage cheese, sour cream, vanilla, sugar and butter or margarine until blended. Mix in eggs 1 at a time. Mix in biscuit mix until incorporated.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray miniature muffin cups (1 1/2 inches in diameter) with non-stick vegetable coating. Spoon batter into cups, filling 3/4 full. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Remove from oven, immediately go around edges with a knife and remove from pans.
Note: The puffs may be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen. Do not defrost before reheating.