Have people over without tying yourself in a knot


Stop entertaining and just have people over.

That's the advice of Pam Anderson, author of the new book Perfect Recipes for Having People Over (Houghton Mifflin Co.). She says the philosophy makes it more fun and less stressful.

Good advice now that we're settling into the fall season with the holidays just ahead.

"The word `entertain' makes most people cringe" - and implies a big production with fancy food, hours of preparation and a house and garden that's in perfect shape, Anderson adds. If you're just inviting people over for a casual gathering, don't obsess - pick things up around the house, put them in stacks and pull a few towering weeds out of the garden.

"Plan a realistic menu - one that you might really have time to shop for and make," says the former caterer.

"Remember that most people cook so infrequently that any home-cooked meal is special.

"Relax. It's not about you - it's about bringing people together."

This cookbook, like Anderson's three previous ones, was an outgrowth of her own experiences. The wife of an Episcopal priest, she finds it's no longer a big ordeal to have people over.

"The food has to be good, but you don't have to slave away and try to impress people," notes the food columnist and cooking instructor.

Out of necessity (with a full-time job, two young children and numerous activities), Anderson changed the way she cooked, without lowering her standards, more than 20 years ago. "Great food doesn't have to be difficult." Her menus are simple and flexible now, her parties mostly spur-of-the moment, casual affairs.

To appeal to today's busy lifestyles, Anderson uses easily available ingredients along with some convenience items like rotisserie chicken, bagged lettuces, canned beans, canned tomatoes, chicken broth in cans or cartons, packaged ladyfingers, frozen corn, shredded cheeses and frozen puff pastry.

"There is no reason not to use things that make your life easier," adds event planner/caterer Randy Fuhrman, owner of Randy Fuhrman Events in Burbank, Calif.

"That doesn't mean the food can't be incredibly fabulous without having 35 ingredients and steps."

A store like Trader Joe's (which has seven Maryland locations, including Towson, Pikesville and Annapolis) is a great place to pick up potstickers, spanikopita, Armenian breads, hummus, various olive tapenades, ginger and other salad dressings, desserts like finger cookies and egg white meringues (top with lemon curd mixed with whipping cream and fresh berries) and much more, Fuhrman suggests.

He makes a terrific but simple-to-assemble salad by combining apricot Stilton cheese with assorted greens, candied pecans or walnuts, dried cherries and bottled raspberry vinaigrette dressing mixed with balsamic vinegar.

Anderson views recipes as guides and has made the 200 in the book user-friendly. She offers several options for shortcuts, varying flavors, when and what to serve with them, make-ahead dishes and how to handle leftovers.

"I take legitimate shortcuts and give people lots of flexibility and permission to do what they need to do," she says. However, be aware that ingredients, humidity, altitudes, equipment, pots and pans, and cooks' skills vary.

"My mission in life, whether helping people make the perfect brownie or the ultimate muffin or teaching people to cook without a book on weeknights or having people over - is to empower and inspire the cook and get people in the kitchen as often as possible because I think what happens around the dinner table is really important."

Natalie Haughton writes for the Los Angeles Daily News.

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