It's Party Time ... and the cooking is easy A game plan of recipes and tips to help you score a culinary victory

July 08, 1998|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,Newsday

As summer's warm weather and long days lead inexorably to parties, so parties lead to varying degrees of terror. Whether it's a bridal or baby shower, a graduation celebration, a retirement party, a first Communion or a confirmation, even a confident cook may quake at the prospect of preparing a meal for a small crowd.

But giving a party needn't be a traumatic event. We've talked to a variety of party-givers to construct a master menu that's easy to prepare and designed to appeal to a broad range of guests. Our menu serves 25, but it can be easily multiplied or divided to suit your guest list. And we've developed a set of specific instructions for customizing the menu for your particular party.

First, let's review the basics of party-menu planning. Go for a buffet. Unless you have servants (or exceedingly cooperative children), this is the best way to get food to your guests. You can set up everything except dessert and coffee before your guests arrive, and all you'll have to do during the party is replenish the platters. For all but the most intimate events, Barbara Sheridan, who runs the cooking school Look Who's Cooking, suggests hiring one person - a neighborhood teen-ager, your mother, anybody - to help.

Stick to recipes that can be made ahead and that you've prepared with success in the past; don't experiment.

Serve no more than two dishes that need to be kept hot. Recipes designed to be served at room temperature are much more buffet-friendly, and there's a limit to the number of chafing dishes that one buffet table can accommodate. Don't be afraid to integrate store-bought items into your repertoire. If the local gourmet shop makes a divine pasta salad, is it worth it to knock yourself out making one from scratch? On our master menu we've indicated store-bought alternatives for every course. Have some hors d'oeuvre-type items - cheese, crackers, crudites - on the buffet so your guests can have something to nosh the moment they arrive.

On the entree front, unless your guests are unusually like-minded, serve at least one light meat (chicken or fish) and one red meat. Caterer Joe Farahat said salmon is as popular as chicken and buying an already-poached salmon couldn't be easier. For the red meat, Farahat has found that beef engenders fewer objections than lamb or pork. Lean cuts of meat work better at room temperature - no unappealing congealed fat. Beef tenderloin and less extravagant flank steak are two cuts that work hot, cold or in between.

Round out the meal with a starch side dish that can do double duty as a vegetarian entree. Caterers Scott Schneider and Eddie Chwalisz said vegetarians will appreciate a hearty pasta or grain-based dish rather than potato salad. You'll also need a vegetable and a tossed salad with dressing on the side.

Every caterer we talked to promised that a bountiful selection of breads (and a good bread knife) is sure to please.

If you're an accomplished baker, a party is the perfect opportunity to dazzle your guests with a show-stopping dessert. For the rest of us, however, a homemade dessert can be needlessly stress-inducing. Find a good bakery and buy a selection of individual desserts - cookies, tartlets, biscotti, rugelach, etc. Most of the caterers cautioned against one big occasion cake because your guests will always include a contingent that doesn't like carrot cake, chocolate cake or even yellow cake. And always serve a selection of fruit.

How to customize the festivities

* Bridal shower/baby shower: Showers are generally daytime events at which the guests are predominantly female. Not to perpetuate any stereotypes of women's inconsistency but ... every caterer we talked to said that women (a) want a lighter meal and (b) expect an extravagant dessert. What this means for you, the party thrower, is to settle on a chicken or fish entree and up the quantity of salad. You may want to dispense with the bountiful bread basket and just offer some grissini, the slim Italian bread sticks. Providing a platter of tortillas will enable your guests to construct their own wraps.

And then go nuts with dessert: Barbara Sheridan suggests dainty treats such as tartlets, petits fours, truffles, etc. Fresh fruit will satisfy guests who decide to stick to their diets.

* Graduation party: Your kid's graduating, so make sure you serve food that his or her friends will enjoy. Why not serve your kid's favorite food? Sheridan said that pizza and Mexican food (nachos, quesadillas) are usually a hit with teens, so you could order some of those to complement your buffet.

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