Happiness reigns when tasty foods pour onto the plates

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There's an old adage about bridal showers -- they seldom come in drizzles, always cloudbursts. You can go 25 years without attending or giving one, but then when it rains, it pours -- everyone gets married at the same time.

For me, the last two years have been a deluge. Between my children, nieces, nephews and friend's children, I've given six showers and two weddings. (This doesn't include the showers I've orchestrated behind the scenes; according to Emily Post, it's improper for immediate members of the bride's family to sponsor a shower.)

There haven't been many changes in showers since I got married, over a quarter of a century ago. Luncheons with all women guests are still the most common, but brunches, afternoon teas, dinners, dessert and couples parties are also popular.

Besides the built-in motif of love and romance, it's fun to plan a shower around a theme that can be carried out with colorful decorations, centerpieces and favors. (For theme and decoration ideas, see below.) To add to the merriment, be sure to include two or three games. (For game ideas, see below.)

Fortunately, with all the wedding excitement, decorations, opening gifts and game playing, the food need not be expensive or elaborate. In planning a luncheon menu, I strive for variety and simplicity, choosing dishes that offer a pleasing array of colors and a tempting assortment of flavors and textures.

The trio of salads -- seafood tortelloni with lime vinaigrette, jade chicken salad with peanut dressing, and wild rice salad with asparagus and leeks -- meet all these criteria. Additionally, they easily expand for any size crowd, can be prepared ahead, and are low in fat and economical. Each is substantial enough to be a complete meal with rolls and butter to round out the menu.

For a small gathering of eight to 10 guests, you may wish to choose one or two of the salads and dish up the plates in the kitchen. For larger groups, it's simpler to set up a buffet and let guests sit around tables or hold plates in their laps. If you have more than one hostess, divide up the recipes and let each one make a salad.

When served alone, each salad is enough for eight to 10 persons. But, when the three are served together, they will feed 24 to 30. Each of the recipes can be doubled or tripled, if desired.

Fresh tortelloni, large-size stuffed pasta (note it's spelled with an "O"; the smaller size tortellini is spelled with an "I"), can be found in the refrigerator section of most supermarkets, but tortellini will also work well. To reduce the fat, I've replaced some of the oil in the dressing with the seafood poaching liquid -- and liked it even better. The completed salad is best made a day ahead and refrigerated overnight; even the shrimp and scallops taste better when marinated in the vinaigrette.

Part of the dressing in the jade chicken salad is used to marinate chicken breasts, which are then grilled or broiled. For small gatherings, you can serve the sliced chicken hot over chilled greens. However, for large parties, it's easier to refrigerate it overnight and serve at room temperature. If you're really short on time, purchase cooked chicken and shred it, but don't marinate it. Reserve the 1/2 cup marinade for another use. You may be surprised to see packaged ramen noodles sprinkled atop the salad. Baked until crisp and golden, you'll find they add marvelous crunch to any Oriental dish.

Wild rice salad, the lightest of the three with no meat or fish, is chock-full of asparagus, leeks, sugar snap peas and sweet tangerines or oranges. To retain the bright green color and crunch of frozen sugar snap peas, defrost them at room temperature for several hours or in the refrigerator overnight rather than in the microwave. They will taste every bit as good as fresh without having the work of trimming and blanching them.

A frozen bombe, contrasting colors of ice cream, yogurt or sherbet, layered in a plastic-wrap lined bowl and served with a selection of fruit and fudge sauces, makes an easy and impressive grand finale.

Even if you don't know anyone getting married now, save this column. Chances are you will give several bridal showers in the next 25 years.

And then, one thing leads to another. Next month I will be cooking for my oldest daughter's baby shower. But that's another story.

Jade chicken salad with peanut dressing

Makes 8 to 10 main dish servings.

THE CHICKEN SALAD:

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 package (3 ounces) ramen noodles, crumbled with fingers (reserve seasoning packet for another use)

1 head romaine lettuce, cut into bite-size pieces (about 8 cups)

1/2 head Napa cabbage, cut into bite-size pieces (about 4 cups)

6 green onions, sliced (about 3/4 cup)

1 can (8 ounces) water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped

4 plum tomatoes, chopped into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 small hothouse cucumber, chopped into 1/2 -inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)

THE PEANUT DRESSING:

1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger

3/4 cup soy sauce

6 tablespoons sugar

6 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

9 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 tablespoons chunky peanut butter

To make the dressing, combine ginger, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and oil in glass jar or medium bowl. Cut off all fat from chicken, and place breasts in a large plastic zipper bag. Pour 1/2 cup of the dressing over chicken. Whisk peanut butter into remaining dressing. (The dressing may be refrigerated up to two days, if desired. Bring to room temperature before using.)

Marinate chicken in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours. Remove chicken from marinade and blot dry with paper towels; discard marinade. Grill chicken over hot coals or broil in shallow roasting pan lined with heavy foil, 3 to 4 inches from flame, for 3 to 6 minutes per side or until browned and cooked through. The timing will vary with the size of the breasts. (The chicken may be cooled and refrigerated overnight, if desired.)

Crumble ramen noodles with fingers. Bake at 350 degrees on baking sheet until golden, about 10 minutes. (The noodles may be held in a sealed container at room temperature for two days.)

Up to 1 hour before serving, combine lettuce, cabbage, green onions, water chestnuts, cucumber and tomatoes in large bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Before serving, line salad plates or platter with Napa cabbage leaves. Slice chicken into thin slices. Add to salad and toss with as much of the peanut dressing as needed. Spoon onto leaves and sprinkle with noodles.

Seafood tortelloni salad with lime vinaigrette

Makes 8 main dish servings.

Fresh tortelloni are found in the refrigerator section of most supermarkets. Toss them with scallops and shrimp, marinate for several hours or overnight in a zesty lime vinaigrette, and you have a splendid main dish salad waiting to be served. The seafood poaching liquid replaces much of the oil in the dressing.

THE SEAFOOD:

1 cup dry white wine or imported dry vermouth

3/4 pound scallops, Eastern or bay if available

3/4 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

6 medium plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

6 green onions, sliced (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup chopped cilantro (lightly packed)

about 2 pounds (27 to 32 ounces) fresh refrigerated cheese or spinach tortelloni

red cabbage or radicchio leaves for garnish

THE LIME VINAIGRETTE:

2 large cloves garlic, peeled

1 medium pickled jalapeno (or to taste), quartered

6 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/2 cup olive oil

4 tablespoons reserved poaching liquid

Bring wine to a boil in a medium skillet. Add scallops and cook, turning, over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until opaque; do not overcook. Remove with slotted spoon to large bowl. Add shrimp and simmer, turning, until they turn pink; remove to scallops. Reserve 4 tablespoons of the poaching liquid. If scallops are large, cut them into quarters. Add tomatoes, green onions and cilantro; toss.

To make vinaigrette, process garlic and jalapeno in food processor with the metal blade until minced. Add lime juice, olive oil and poaching liquid. Process to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If you desire a hotter vinaigrette, mince another jalapeno and add to dressing. (The dressing may be refrigerated up to two days, if desired).

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add tortelloni and cook as directed on package until tender to the bite. Drain well and add to seafood. Pour vinaigrette over and toss gently. Cover; refrigerate at least one hour or preferably overnight. Bring to room temperature 1 hour before serving.

Before serving, line large platter or salad plates with cabbage or radicchio leaves and spoon salad onto leaves.

Wild rice salad with asparagus and leeks

Makes 8 main dish servings.

THE SALAD:

8 ounces uncooked wild rice (2 cups)

4 leeks, quartered and sliced (about 2 1/2 cups)

1 pound thin asparagus spears

2 medium golden tomatoes or yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 tangerines or small oranges, peeled, quartered and sliced (about 1 cup)

1 box (10 ounces) sugar snap peas, defrosted and patted dry

1 jar (7 ounces) roasted red peppers, drained and julienned

Boston or butter lettuce leaves for garnish

1 tangerine or small orange, quartered and sliced for garnish

THE TANGERINE AND WALNUT VINAIGRETTE:

1 cup tangerine or orange juice

6 tablespoons red wine vinegar

6 tablespoons walnut oil

1 1/2 teaspoons dried tarragon, crumbled

salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and drain rice. Place in a medium saucepan with 5 1/2 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered until rice is tender to the bite, but still crunchy, about 45 to 60 minutes, adding more water if necessary. If all water is not absorbed, drain off excess. (The rice may be refrigerated up to two days.)

Break tough stems off asparagus. Pour 1/4 cup water into a large skillet and bring to a boil. Add leeks. Layer asparagus atop leeks and salt lightly. Cover and cook over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until vegetables are crisp tender; do not overcook. Drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking; drain again.

To make the vinaigrette, stir juice, vinegar, oil and tarragon together in a medium bowl; season to taste.

In a large bowl, toss rice with leeks, tomatoes, peppers, chopped tangerine and 1 cup of the vinaigrette. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight for the flavors to blend. (The rice mixture, remaining dressing, and asparagus and leeks may be refrigerated separately overnight, if desired.)

About 30 minutes before serving, place sugar snap peas and asparagus in shallow dish and pour remaining dressing over to marinate.

Line salad plates or large platter with lettuce leaves. Toss sugar snap peas into salad. Spoon onto lettuce and garnish with

asparagus and remaining tangerine or orange, peeled, halved and sliced.

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