A stay-at-home meal with a dining-out feel Plan: The key to a fine dinner is to keep it simple. That means having a menu with little or no last-minute hassles.

March 18, 1998|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

Don't get me wrong -- I adore a lovely dinner out. But hungry hordes hamper intimacy. Besides, jammed eateries can mean inferior food served by a stressed-out staff.

I'd rather stay at home and prepare a menu with a little south-of-the-border fire. A grown-up menu for two, served at a leisurely pace.

The key is to keep it simple. Very simple. Plan a menu with little or no last-minute hassles. If you like, slip some store-bought, prepared food into the meal -- perhaps an appetizer or a dessert.

Smoked-salmon appetizers, served with a glass of sparkling wine, are a great conversation starter. You can buy smoked salmon or gravlax (salmon cured with salt, sugar and dill) at many supermarkets and warehouse stores, and some bagel shops and gourmet takeouts. It's luxurious but doesn't require much work.

To serve it, toast some thin slices of rustic, country-style bread. First brush slices lightly with olive oil, then place in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until lightly browned in a 350-degree oven, about 4 minutes. Turn and toast on the other side. While the bread cools, drizzle the smoked salmon with a mixture of 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon lime juice. Arrange salmon on toast, and top with a sprinkle of chopped fresh tarragon and a few grinds of black pepper.

The salad can be as simple as mixed greens tossed with a simple oil and vinegar dressing; give it a Mexican touch by garnishing with grated queso fresco (soft white Mexican cheese) and pepitas (roasted and salted pumpkin seeds). Or if you have the time, prepare a romaine and tortilla salad with avocado. It has a vinaigrette with attitude, a tangy topping made with pureed, roasted garlic, tomato and jalapeno.

For the entree, grill or broil marinated chicken breasts. Sliced and fanned out on the plate, these juicy tidbits are served over a fresh tomatillo sauce. Tomatillos look like small green tomatoes covered with a thin, parchment-like covering. They sing with the flavors of citrus, apple and herbs. When they're complemented with fresh chilies, the results are divine.

You can buy a prepared sauce, but a make-at-home version takes only about 20 minutes to prepare. And because the chilies and tomatillos are grilled under the broiler until lightly charred, the homemade sauce has a subtle, smoky flavor. If you want to make it less fiery, use one rather than two chilies. Or use jalapenos instead of serranos; they're milder.

A rice pilaf studded with fresh corn kernels and chopped cilantro tastes delicious with the chicken and tomatillo sauce. As soon as the pilaf has completed its cooking time, stir in corn kernels (either cut off the cob or from a can, drained) and chopped cilantro. It can be prepared in advance and zapped in the microwave just before serving.

Buy dessert if you like, or serve chocolates. Or make a luscious, simplified chocolate pear tart. Instead of making the crust, buy prepared refrigerated pie crusts, the kind that are rolled out and ready to go. To punch up the texture and flavor of the crust, toast and coarsely grind some slivered almonds and roll them into the crust. Ease it into a tart pan with a removable bottom and fill it with fresh pear quarters and a rich chocolate mixture.

As it bakes, the chocolate bubbles between the pears, creating a fudgy filling around the softened fruit. It is delicious served with whipped cream and a decorative drizzle of chocolate sauce. A zigzag pattern creates plate drama, and it's very easy to do. Buy prepared sauce in a squeeze-top bottle and squirt it on top of the tart just before serving.

Here's the game plan for advance preparation:

* One to two days in advance: Read each recipe and decide which shortcuts, if any, you want to make. Write out a shopping list. Buy all groceries. Prepare salad dressing and refrigerate. Prepare rice pilaf, place in microwave-safe container and refrigerate. Chill wines, if serving.

* Eight hours to one day in advance: Wash, dry and drain lettuce. Wrap in paper towels, place in plastic bag and refrigerate in crisper drawer. Toast bread slices for salmon; cool completely and store at room temperature, airtight. Drizzle salmon with lime-oil mixture, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. If making romaine and tortilla salad with avocado, fry the tortillas. Cool and store airtight at room temperature. Prepare marinade for chicken and refrigerate. Prepare tomatillo sauce and refrigerate. Prepare tart. Store at room temperature. Set table. Place dessert plates in a handy location in the kitchen.

* One hour before serving: Marinate chicken in the refrigerator. Place salad dressing next to salad bowl. Place toasts in a single layer on platter; chop tarragon for garnish. Place tomatillo sauce in saucepan on stove. If serving coffee, set up the coffee maker.

* One half-hour before serving: Place salmon on toasts; garnish with tarragon. Grill or broil chicken.

* Ten minutes before serving: Microwave rice until heated

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