Key ingredient for a calm host: food made ahead


Last week I found my calendar marked with several social events. One evening there was a casual dinner party at the home of friends, and on Saturday I was invited to a luncheon held by a half-dozen professional women who share an interest in cooking. Sunday night we had asked another couple to come for supper before we all watched a show on television.

At the dinner party, I noticed how calm our hosts appeared during the cocktail hour when everyone nibbled on a platter of cheeses. This attitude continued throughout supper: lentil soup, stewed Moroccan chicken and couscous. Oranges scented with rum and spices and almond cookies ended the meal.

At the potluck lunch, the women were relaxed, and none disappeared into the kitchen for long. Their spread included a garlic and cucumber yogurt dip with crackers, a pesto and cheese terrine accompanied by Italian bread, lamb-stuffed phyllo triangles, a seafood stew and bread pudding.

The hosts at both gatherings were not hassled while entertaining, and I quickly figured out why. Most of the dishes were prepared in advance and needed only to be reheated or garnished at the last minute.

Why not follow suit with my Sunday night menu, I thought? A new recipe for tomato saffron sauce would garnish baked cod fillets. All that would be necessary when guests arrived would be to pop the fish in the oven for 10 minutes and reheat the sauce. For sides, a rice pilaf, assembled ahead, would need a quick heating, and some salad greens could be tossed with a vinaigrette dressing prepared the day before. Fresh fruit and cookies (baked ahead, naturally) seemed like an ideal finale.

Baked Cod With Tomato Saffron Sauce

Serves 6

6 cod fillets or other firm-fleshed white fish, about 6 ounces each (about 2 1/4 pounds total)

5 to 6 tablespoons olive oil, or more if needed

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Tomato Saffron Sauce (recipe follows)

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Arrange rack in center of oven. Oil a shallow baking dish generously with olive oil. Place fillets in a single layer in the pan and drizzle with enough remaining olive oil to moisten evenly. Season generously with salt and pepper. (The fillets can be prepared to this point an hour ahead; keep refrigerated and bring to room temperature 15 minutes before baking.)

Bake fish in preheated 450-degree oven until flesh is opaque and flakes easily when pierced with a knife, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and, with a wide metal spatula, transfer fillets to a serving platter.

Ladle some of the warm Tomato Saffron Sauce over each. Sprinkle fish with parsley and serve immediately.

Tomato Saffron Sauce

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped carrots

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

one 28-ounce can Italian style tomatoes, drained well and chopped

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups dry white wine

3/4 cup heavy or whipping cream

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until hot. Add carrots and onion and saute, stirring, until softened slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, saffron, hot red pepper flakes, salt and wine. Cook, stirring often, until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 minutes or longer. Add the cream and cook, stirring, a minute more. Taste and add more salt if needed. (Sauce can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat, stirring, over medium heat when needed.)

Note: This tomato saffron sauce is also delicious with sauteed scallops or tossed with cooked pasta such as spaghetti or linguine.

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