SOPHISTICATION on SHORT NOTICE Entertaining ideas for a season of easy eating

November 07, 1993|By JOE SURKIEWICZ

Sunday morning. The phone rings. Guess who's in town?

You'd love to have your old friends over to toast the holidays . . . but there's no time to run to the grocery store, and that the gourmet carryout down the street isn't open. You have to cook. But what?

Holiday season scenarios such as this one are the stuff of nightmares. For unprepared hosts, last-minute entertaining even has a name: desperation cooking.

Relax. Armed with a strategy -- and a stock of ready-to-go savories that lend you the clout of a good caterer -- anyone can handle short-notice entertaining with aplomb.

A little planning will guarantee that your last-minute holiday get-togethers get raves. Just take some tips from these experienced hosts and hostesses.

Healthful holidays

Question: What's the easiest way to spark the holiday spirit when a crowd drops in.

Answer: Create a warm, cheering holiday drink that fills your home with the heady aroma of cloves and cinnamon.

"Around the holidays I keep a big bottle of cranberry and [another of] pineapple juice on hand," says Ruth Glick, an author of cookbooks and romance novels.

"When people are coming I mix [the juices] together with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks to make a mulled punch. The proportions aren't important -- just combine them in a big pot on the stove."

Appetizers present the greatest challenge to conscientious hosts, says Ms. Glick, whose latest cookbook, "Skinny One-Pot Meals," will be published in January. How do you put out a guilt-free spread that's easy to prepare?

"My shtick is low-fat cooking, so feeding people around the holidays is a problem," she confides. "That's because most appetizers and snacks are high in fat. So I use low-fat cream

cheese mixed with fruit for a quick dip. Apricots, for example, give a nutty taste."

The Columbia resident offers another quick, healthful snack suggestion that will please a crowd: Mix low-fat cream cheese and ricotta cheese together, then swirl in chutney to create a dip with pizazz. It's good with chips, she says, and adds, "Reduced-fat chips that actually taste like potato chips are available at health food stores."

Fresh from the oven

Everyone loves home-baked goodies during the holidays. But forget about baking from scratch when friends visit on short notice. Plan ahead -- then run to your freezer when guests are on the way.

"Brownies keep very well when frozen," says Nancy Baggett, author of "The Cookie Book" and "Dream Desserts." "So I double the recipe and make two batches. Line the pan with foil and you can lift the slab right out, then freeze it. I think brownies taste better after they've been frozen."

Fresh-baked cookies are fast and easy to fix for an unexpected crowd -- if you freeze the batter ahead of time.

"I always keep small portions of an interesting cookie batter rolled up into a shape like a fat hot dog and stored in the freezer," says Barry Fleischmann, owner of the Innovative Gourmet, a catering firm in Owings Mills. "When it's half thawed you can slice the roll with a knife and the cookies bake very easily."

Quick breads also are easy to make ahead of time.

"They freeze and keep better than muffins," says Ms. Baggett, who lives in Ellicott City. "Cranberry and orange are a really nice ,, combination for holiday quick breads. Sometimes I throw in raisins or add grated lemon zest."

Pizazz, pronto

L During the hectic holiday season, elegance needs to be easy.

"When guests drop in, I take a loaf of french bread out of the freezer, slice it long-ways, and put on some goat or feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and chives, then stick it under the broiler," says Diane Neas, a restaurant consultant in Kingsville. "Then I make up a garnish plate with whatever I find in my refrigerator's produce keeper. It's a flash kind of a thing."

For beverage, Nancy Baggett recommends a kir punch: In a large punch bowl, combine two-thirds chilled wine and one-third 7-Up, then add creme de cassis to taste. To keep the punch chilled and undiluted by ice, try freezing some of the 7-Up in plastic cups (or an ice-cube tray) ahead of time; float the cubes in the punch bowl.

Comfit comfort

To put an original spin on traditional holiday meals, serve a homemade salsa on the side.

"Any kind of vegetable or fruit can make a salsa or comfit that goes with just about anything," says Ami Taubenfeld, owner of Great Occasions, a Baltimore catering firm. "You just need good olive oil, lemons, limes, a nice collection of fresh herbs. You can turn any combination of fresh vegetables or fruits into a nice marmalade or relish."

At Hanukkah get-togethers, she suggests, liven up traditional potato latkes.

"Substitute shredded carrot or zucchini for some of the potatoes," Ms. Taubenfeld recommends. "You can also serve an herbed sour cream as an accompaniment, or add brown sugar or fresh dill to the sour cream."

For guests who don't drink alcohol and for designated drivers, set up a tempting selection of sparkling waters.

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