Tips on how to make entertaining easier


December 10, 2003|By Adrienne Saunders | Adrienne Saunders,SUN STAFF

Planning a holiday party does not have to leave you shackled to the stove. To get out of the kitchen and enjoy the party requires just a little know-how from a party professional.

Nicole Aloni's Cooking for Company (the Berkeley Publishing Group, 2003, $18.95) is a survival guide and quick-reference manual for home entertaining that makes crowd-friendly cooking a less formidable task.

A veteran caterer, Aloni offers timesaving tips and preparation shortcuts to make entertaining easier for the home chef. Plus, she provides variations on the recipes to give serving and flavor options as well as vegetarian preparations. The alternatives for these master recipes give you more recipes for your money and make this book a valuable addition to your entertaining collection.

Aloni encourages the use of prepared foods bought at the supermarket or deli, but the book also contains some impressive, and complex, dishes. By preparing ahead, you have steps that break down into parts that are easier when completed in advance, leaving heat and serve as the only steps needed for party day.

Combining store-bought courses with pre-made home dishes allows hosts to spend the evening with their guests rather than the food. Aloni also provides event-specific menus for occasions of varying formality, size and theme, including holidays.

Green information boxes scattered throughout the chapters expand on a particular ingredient, such as mushrooms and creme fraiche, or cooking method, such as grilling pizza and roasting veggies, and advice for successful party and menu planning. Beverage suggestions accompany the party menus and include a range of easy-to-find wines. A few simple cocktail recipes are included in the last chapter.

Aloni's hot shrimp dip has a mushroom-and-artichoke variation, for shellfish-averse and vegetarian guests, that was cleaned from the bowl within a few minutes of serving at a recent Sunday football gathering.

Topped with sourdough-bread cubes and bubbling with creamy, rich mushroom flavor, this versatile dish will warm your party guests before dinner. This dish cooks very quickly, so make sure everything is chopped and grated before you begin.

Make it up to a day in advance and follow the final step just before serving. Place a foil- or parchment-lined baking sheet underneath the dish to protect your oven during final heating, as the dip may bubble over.

Mushroom-and-Artichoke-Heart Dip

Makes about 4 cups

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

3 cups chopped fresh shiitake or white button mushrooms

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided use)

1/3 cup minced shallots

3 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons dry white wine

1 cup drained canned artichoke hearts, sliced in quarters

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1/2 cup chopped green onions (white and green parts)

2/3 cup half-and-half

8 ounces cream cheese

4 ounces fontina or white cheddar, grated

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (divided use)

1 teaspoon red chile flakes

2 teaspoons dried thyme

1/4 cup fresh lemon or lime juice

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

freshly ground coarse black pepper, to taste

2 slices sourdough bread, cubed

Cover dried mushrooms with 1/2 cup boiling water until softened, about 30 minutes. Drain and reserve the liquid. Chop the porcinis and fresh mushrooms.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a saute pan to bubbling. Add the shallots and saute to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes. Add all of the mushrooms and saute, stirring, until the mushrooms are soft and golden, about 8 minutes. Add the reserved porcini liquor, wine and artichokes and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to loosen all of the pan juices. Set aside.

Combine the basil and green onions in a bowl.

Heat the half-and-half in a saucepan over medium heat until hot, but not boiling. Whisk in the cream cheese in chunks until well-blended. Add the fontina cheese and 1/4 cup of the parmesan cheese by handfuls, whisking until thoroughly melted. Add the chile flakes, thyme, half of the green-onion mixture and all of the cooked mushroom mixture. Whisk to blend and simmer gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a 1/2 -quart baking/serving dish.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sprinkle the top with sourdough cubes, then the remaining parmesan cheese and drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes until browned and bubbling. Serve sprinkled with remaining green-onion mixture.

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