It ought to be easy when it's just friends. When you've invited your best pals over for dinner, it seems as though you should be able to relax.
But it's not that way anymore. If your friends are like most people these days, one's on a low-cholesterol diet and another is trying to lose weight. Everyone in your crowd is probably either health-conscious or weight-conscious, on a special diet or allergic to something. So your normal urges -- to fix something calorie-laden and sure-fire delicious -- are thwarted.
It's a mean quirk of nature that in foods the fat molecules carry the flavors. It's not for nothing that traditional French chefs saute in butter and drench things in heavy cream. Not only do these things taste good on their own, but they also enhance the flavors of all the other ingredients they're mixed with. And that's why all your old standbys for company -- like the recipes of the great chefs -- are probably high in fat.
"In some ways low-fat entertaining is more challenging than high-cholesterol entertain- ing. It's easy, after all, to please a lot of people with a rich chocolate cake or a creamy mousse," writes Martha Rose Shulman in "Entertaining Light" (Bantam, hardcover, $25).
Yet low-fat doesn't have to be boring. Ms. Shulman, an award-winning food writer who lives in Paris, has filled her latest cookbook -- as well as at least a half-dozen others she has written over the past 10 years -- with hundreds of recipes that are tasty as well as low in fat. And she's found that her guests often prefer lighter foods. Nobody, she writes, "wakes up with a 'food hangover.' "
She finds inspiration for her menus from many cuisines but primarily those of the Mediterranean region and Mexico -- foods rich in garlic, tomatoes and fresh herbs.
In her recipes she doesn't eliminate all oil and butters, but she does keep them to an absolute minimum. She uses nonstick frying pans and sautes over low heat, sometimes with a combination of oil and water.
Salads, vegetables and breads are included in every meal. In the salad dressings, yogurt often replaces the oil. And in sauces, the base is usually pureed vegetables or yogurt.
For an entree, she might grill swordfish and cover it in tomato salsa or make a light asparagus and herb lasagna. In another menu she might bake white fish fillets and sauce them with tomatoes and tapenade. In still another she roasts chicken with rosemary and morels, then removes the skin before serving to keep the fat content down.
A baked whole fish -- either sea trout or salmon -- is the center for one of her most dramatic menus, often served in the dish it's baked in. She balances the naturally strong flavor of the fish with a fresh tossed salad of curly endive and walnuts. It's not only a complement in flavor but in color as well.
Spaghetti squash makes a terrific gratin to go with the fish. The strands of the spaghetti blend with the milk and egg mixture to make a dish that seems almost like a kugel, she explains. For another meal, maybe a luncheon, this dish is substantial enough stand alone as an entree.
A wild rice pilaf blends the naturally nutty flavor of the wild rice with that of wild mushrooms.
For dessert, her recipe is for baked apples with whiskey and honey, a dish she says is incredibly simple to make and can be assembled hours ahead of time. "These apples become tart and slightly caramelized on the outside as they bake. Whiskey and honey go together nicely to add even more tang to the dish."