Baltimore Sun’s BEST party in 2 weeks

EASY ELEGANCE Careful planning and easy recipes are the ingredients for terrific parties

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No excuses. If you've given up entertaining because you feel too stressed, too busy or too poor, you've just run out of rationalizations.

"People can entertain, even after work, if they do some advance planning and choose recipes where most of the steps can be done ahead of time," says Lisa A. Hooper, editor of "The Southern Living Complete Do-Ahead Cookbook" (Oxmoor House, 1991).

An after-work dinner party can be an enjoyable break in the week's routine for the guests and the hostess. Careful planning, including the selection of an easily assembled, economical menu makes that possible.

Planning also avoids the dreaded "jack-in-the-box syndrome," where the harried hostess spends most of the evening racing back and forth between her guests and the kitchen.

"Once everyone is seated for dinner, they should stay down, including the hostess," says Alma Drill, author of "Dinner Parties Your Mother Never Gave" (Potomac Press, 1991). And Ms. Drill has this important piece of advice: The guests will not relax and have a good time unless the hostess can relax and have a good time.

"Spending as much time as possible with your guests should be your No. 1 priority," she says.

One of the biggest mistakes harried hostesses make is attempting to make each dish more extravagant than the last.

Ideally, each dinner party should have only one "star," says Ms. Drill. A go-for-broke entree, such as a seafood casserole, will be what guests remember -- not the store-bought rolls, plain salad or from-a-mix cake.

This philosophy also allows a hostess to take control of her budget. "Decide which dish will give you maximum impact and fill in with less expensive items," Ms. Drill says. Skip pricey shrimp cocktail, for example, and serve an equally elegant but cheaper shrimp dip.

Many recipes can be adapted to after-work entertaining. Look for recipes that can be broken down into separate do-ahead steps. A stir-fry would be perfect, says Ms. Hooper. All veggies can be chopped the night before and stored in plastic bags. Meat can be cubed and marinated overnight.

Combination dishes are a great time- and money-saver, says Ms. Drill. Stretch chicken or turkey, for example, by slicing it thin and tossing with a pasta salad. Add some bite-size vegetables and you've got a great one-dish meal, she says. An added bonus: There is only one dish to wash instead of three.

Some recipes cannot be adapted to make-ahead standards. A fragile cream sauce, for example, won't work because it is essential that it be made at the last minute.

Don't choose recipes that require a stopwatch. Let guests enjoy their cocktails instead of rushing them because the entree will be ruined unless it's eaten at precisely 7:30 p.m., Ms. Hooper says. Stews, a pot of chili, or other dishes that can be kept warm without too much trouble are a good choice. Save the souffles for another time.

Dishes that cook without close attention, such as casseroles, are another option. Incorporate the baking time into your schedule. If a casserole takes 30 minutes to bake, heat the oven and simply pop the dish into the oven about half-an-hour before dinner should be on the table. This kind of flexible timing allows a hostess to socialize with her guests, and it can save her sanity if a guest is kept late at the office or caught in a traffic jam.

Appetizers can also buy a hostess time, keeping the guests quietly entertained until a straggler shows up.

The best hors d'oeuvres tease the palate without spoiling the appetite. One or two simple starters, prepared ahead of time and served at room temperature, are ideal. Appetizers should be bite-size and require nothing more elaborate than fingers and cocktail napkins.

Ms. Hooper says her favorite no-fuss appetizer can be kept on hand for any party. She likes to serve goat cheese and roasted red peppers, available at many supermarkets, in separate bowls along with a plate of crackers.

How many appetizers to serve is a sticky subject. Unless the cocktail hour is very extended, plan on allowing about five or six appetizers per guest. If you're serving dips or spreads, for example, keep in mind that one cup will cover 18 to 24 crackers.

A successful after-work dinner party also means eliminating unnecessary chores. Ms. Drill always serves rolls, not loaves of bread, to her guests. "A loaf of bread requires a bread board and a knife -- too much trouble," she says.

And take a cue from television chefs, says Ms. Drill. These professionals have all ingredients washed, chopped and ready to roll. Finishing touches, such as a garnish of minced parsley, should be waiting in the wings. When needed, simply sprinkle it on the dish.

Wine or cocktails can make a big dent in a small budget. Ms. Drill suggests spotlighting just one beverage. An inexpensive bottle of white wine becomes the height of sophistication if presented in an ice bucket. Place it prominently in the room, surround it with glasses and appetizers, and Ms. Drill says she can practically guarantee guests will choose that to drink.

Brownies, cakes or other sweets that can be baked ahead of time are a perfect finish. A store-bought dessert is fine if spruced up a bit with a garnish of berries or homemade whipped cream. Ms. Hooper shared this tip: Fresh whipped cream can be made ahead of time and will keep for hours if 1/4 teaspoon of light-colored corn syrup is beaten with the 8-ounce carton of whipping cream. Store in the refrigerator.

Our elegant menu for six is perfect for after-work entertaining. Almost all work can be done ahead of time, and only the entree and a vegetable, if you choose to serve one, require any last minute attention.

And this is one party that won't break the bank. The entree, an elegant puff-pastry package, uses small chicken breast halves and stretches them with a boxed rice mix. Flavorful cheese spread, sandwiched between the chicken and the pastry, adds a sophisticated touch. We used two packages of cheese spread, but use just one if watching the budget is important.

The entree can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead of time. Make the rice 48 hours ahead of time, if desired. Allow about one hour to assemble the six packets. Go easy on the seasoning; the rice mix and cheese spread will probably supply all the herbs and spices needed.

Two fancy appetizers, mushroom pate and sophisticated shrimp dip, are designed to be served with crackers at room temperature. Both dips can be prepared 48 hours in advance. If the shrimp dip is too pricey for your pocketbook, simply substitute another appetizer, such as a spinach dip.

Skip the commonplace cheese platter for at least one evening. Cheese plays an important part in the entree, and it is best not to repeat flavors.

On the night of the party, simply pull both appetizers from the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature. That will take about 10 minutes.

At the same time, begin heating your oven to 400 degrees. Pop the entree in the oven about 30 minutes before you plan to serve dinner.

A homemade mustard-based dressing provides a luxurious touch for pennies. Best of all, it can be made up to one week ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Shake it before serving.

Use your microwave to prepare a fresh vegetable to complete the meal. Clean and chop the veggies the night before and store them in the refrigerator in the microwave-safe container.

Dessert couldn't be simpler. A very light strawberry-based dessert can be made the night before and frozen in individual parfait glasses. If your freezer is packed solid, prepare the strawberry mixture and store in the refrigerator. Immediately before serving, place mixture and egg whites in bowl and whip until frothy. This will only take a few minutes. Be sure to save six of the most attractive strawberries for garnish.

Mushroom pate

Makes a scant 3/4 cup.

1 shallot or green onion, minced

1/2 pound mushrooms, finely chopped

4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, divided

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 teaspoon Tabasco

salt to taste

chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Saute shallot and mushrooms in two tablespoons of butter. Cook over low to medium-low heat for 30 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. If mushrooms are cooking too quickly, lower heat. Alternatively, if mushrooms are cooking too slowly, increase heat.

Chill. Add lemon juice, walnuts, Tabasco and remaining butter. Add salt to taste. Transfer mixture to small crock and refrigerate. Before serving, let come to room temperature, about 10 minutes. Smooth surface and sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving. Serve with crackers.

Recipe from "The New Carry-Out Cuisine" by Phyllis Meras (Houghton Mifflin, 1986).

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This elegant shrimp dip is a far cry from rubbery cocktail-sauce based dips.

Sophisticated shrimp dip

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

2 scallions, finely minced

1 clove garlic, finely minced

olive oil

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/4 to 1/2 cup Parmesan and pepper salad dressing (Old Family Recipe's Parmesan Pepper is good.)

1 5-ounce package frozen cooked small shrimp, thawed according to package directions

freshly ground black pepper

about 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Saute scallions and garlic in olive oil until lightly browned. Drain and set aside. Mix together cream cheese and salad dressing; add more dressing if needed to create a creamy dip. Add remaining ingredients, stirring carefully to keep shrimp whole.

Company chicken

1 6-ounce box long grain and wild rice mix

1 17 1/4 -ounce package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed

2 4-ounce containers cheese spread, such as Rondele-brand black pepper-flavor or Alouette-brand French onion

6 small skinned and boned chicken breast halves, about 3 to 4 ounces each

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 egg, beaten

Prepare rice as directed on package; mixture should be dry. Unfold pastry sheets and roll each sheet into a 15-by-16-inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Cut each sheet into fourths.

Spread six of the pastry pieces with softened cheese spread, coming within an inch or so of the edges. Set remaining two pieces aside.

Pound chicken breasts to an even thickness. Chicken breasts should fit comfortably onto pastry pieces. Trim chicken if necessary.

Saute chicken breasts in olive oil until barely cooked through. Pat dry with paper towel. Place one chicken breast in center of each pastry. Top with 1/2 cup cooked rice. Lightly moisten pastry edges with water. Fold corners into center, pressing edges together to make a secure bundle. Place each bundle seam side down on a lightly greased baking sheet.

If you like, cut remaining pastry pieces into long, narrow strips, about 1/4 inch wide. Twist two strips together and place crosswise over chicken bundles, trimming and reserving excess braid. Braid two additional strips and place lengthwise over bundle, trimming and tucking ends under. Repeat procedure with remaining strips. Piece strips together by dipping ends lightly in water, if necessary. Cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours ahead of time.

Before baking, combine egg and one tablespoon water; brush over pastry bundles. Bake at 400 degrees on lower oven rack 30 minutes or until bundles are golden brown and warm through.

Recipe adapted from "Southern Living 1991 Annual Recipes," edited by Jean Wickstrom Liles (Oxmoor House, 1991).

Fresh salad with Dijon dressing

Mixed green salad, about 1/2 cup per person

1/2 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

2 teaspoons dried whole basil

1 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Combine olive oil and remaining ingredients. Refrigerate, covered, for up to one week. Shake vigorously before serving.

Recipe from "The Southern Living Complete Do-Ahead Cookbook," edited by Ann H. Harvey (Oxmoor House, 1991).

Strawberry surprise

3 cups strawberries, reserve 6 for garnish

3/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons orange liqueur, such as Cointreau, optional

2 tablespoons chocolate syrup

few drops lemon juice

5 egg whites at room temperature

Puree all ingredients but egg whites in a blender. Transfer to large deep bowl and add egg whites.

Beat mixture at high speed with an electric mixer for 10 to 15 minutes or until mixture is stiff enough to hold its shape.

Carefully scoop into parfait glasses. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and freeze up to 24 hours before serving. Alternatively, prepare the strawberry mixture the night before and beat with egg whites immediately before serving. Recipe will take only a few minutes to prepare.

Decorate each glass with strawberry.

Recipe from "Parties Mother Never Gave" by Alma Drill (Potomac Valley Press, 1991, $14.95).

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