Careful planning and easy recipes are the ingredients for terrific parties

EASY ELEGANCE

February 23, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

No excuses. If you've given up entertaining because you feel too stressed, too busy or too poor, you've just run out of rationalizations.

"People can entertain, even after work, if they do some advance planning and choose recipes where most of the steps can be done ahead of time," says Lisa A. Hooper, editor of "The Southern Living Complete Do-Ahead Cookbook" (Oxmoor House, 1991).

An after-work dinner party can be an enjoyable break in the week's routine for the guests and the hostess. Careful planning, including the selection of an easily assembled, economical menu makes that possible.

Planning also avoids the dreaded "jack-in-the-box syndrome," where the harried hostess spends most of the evening racing back and forth between her guests and the kitchen.

"Once everyone is seated for dinner, they should stay down, including the hostess," says Alma Drill, author of "Dinner Parties Your Mother Never Gave" (Potomac Press, 1991). And Ms. Drill has this important piece of advice: The guests will not relax and have a good time unless the hostess can relax and have a good time.

"Spending as much time as possible with your guests should be your No. 1 priority," she says.

One of the biggest mistakes harried hostesses make is attempting to make each dish more extravagant than the last.

Ideally, each dinner party should have only one "star," says Ms. Drill. A go-for-broke entree, such as a seafood casserole, will be what guests remember -- not the store-bought rolls, plain salad or from-a-mix cake.

This philosophy also allows a hostess to take control of her budget. "Decide which dish will give you maximum impact and fill in with less expensive items," Ms. Drill says. Skip pricey shrimp cocktail, for example, and serve an equally elegant but cheaper shrimp dip.

Many recipes can be adapted to after-work entertaining. Look for recipes that can be broken down into separate do-ahead steps. A stir-fry would be perfect, says Ms. Hooper. All veggies can be chopped the night before and stored in plastic bags. Meat can be cubed and marinated overnight.

Combination dishes are a great time- and money-saver, says Ms. Drill. Stretch chicken or turkey, for example, by slicing it thin and tossing with a pasta salad. Add some bite-size vegetables and you've got a great one-dish meal, she says. An added bonus: There is only one dish to wash instead of three.

Some recipes cannot be adapted to make-ahead standards. A fragile cream sauce, for example, won't work because it is essential that it be made at the last minute.

Don't choose recipes that require a stopwatch. Let guests enjoy their cocktails instead of rushing them because the entree will be ruined unless it's eaten at precisely 7:30 p.m., Ms. Hooper says. Stews, a pot of chili, or other dishes that can be kept warm without too much trouble are a good choice. Save the souffles for another time.

Dishes that cook without close attention, such as casseroles, are another option. Incorporate the baking time into your schedule. If a casserole takes 30 minutes to bake, heat the oven and simply pop the dish into the oven about half-an-hour before dinner should be on the table. This kind of flexible timing allows a hostess to socialize with her guests, and it can save her sanity if a guest is kept late at the office or caught in a traffic jam.

Appetizers can also buy a hostess time, keeping the guests quietly entertained until a straggler shows up.

The best hors d'oeuvres tease the palate without spoiling the appetite. One or two simple starters, prepared ahead of time and served at room temperature, are ideal. Appetizers should be bite-size and require nothing more elaborate than fingers and cocktail napkins.

Ms. Hooper says her favorite no-fuss appetizer can be kept on hand for any party. She likes to serve goat cheese and roasted red peppers, available at many supermarkets, in separate bowls along with a plate of crackers.

How many appetizers to serve is a sticky subject. Unless the cocktail hour is very extended, plan on allowing about five or six appetizers per guest. If you're serving dips or spreads, for example, keep in mind that one cup will cover 18 to 24 crackers.

A successful after-work dinner party also means eliminating unnecessary chores. Ms. Drill always serves rolls, not loaves of bread, to her guests. "A loaf of bread requires a bread board and a knife -- too much trouble," she says.

And take a cue from television chefs, says Ms. Drill. These professionals have all ingredients washed, chopped and ready to roll. Finishing touches, such as a garnish of minced parsley, should be waiting in the wings. When needed, simply sprinkle it on the dish.

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