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April 24, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

It happens to everyone at some point. You invite friends to dinner, then just can't get excited about what to feed them. Your creativity is in limbo. You procrastinate. The clock moves ahead inexorably and visions of a disastrous evening are beginning to appear. You have to produce something--anything.

Instead of trying to re-create something a professional chef has spent years perfecting, look for an easy out. Don't even think about preparing an exotic main dish; settle for a simple entree. Put the accent in your menu, not on the meat dish but on an interesting side dish or two. Broiled or steamed fish or chicken generously seasoned with some fresh herbs will go well with almost any vegetable. So will lightly sauteed turkey or pork cutlets, or a small broiled steak.

Vegetable side dishes can be as simple and quick to prepare as a snow pea and mushroom stir-fry or they can be wonderful, rich, old-fashioned mixtures redolent with intriguing aromas and flavors.

Search out the recipe for that never-to-be-forgotten old broccoli casserole Aunt Melissa used to make and serve it with baked chicken breasts brushed with tarragon butter. Or try a colorful new treatment for broccoli by combining it with multihued rainbow corkscrew pasta in a rich cheese-laden sauce. You won't find this dish on a spa menu, but almost everyone is entitled to splurge a few calories in a good cause once in a while.

If time--or rather the lack of it--is an important factor, by all means consider stir-frying a combination of compatible vegetables. Marinate some chicken or thinly sliced beef or pork in a teriyaki sauce while you do the brief preparation for a quick stir-fry side dish of Chinese pea pods and water chestnuts. A pretty fruit salad and an elegant dessert from a nearby patisserie will add the perfect extra touches this simple menu needs.

If these suggestions still aren't quite what you're looking for, how about a nice steak broiled just the way you like it, served with a puffy mashed potato casserole and chilled artichokes for a salad? Or some nice thick grilled lamb or pork chops served with cauliflower topped with a spicy chile-cheese sauce and a simple tossed salad? Or . . . well, maybe the easiest way to provide the inspiration you need is to offer the following recipes and let you find a home for them on a menu of your own making. BEETS, ONIONS AND APPLES

2 1/2 pounds fresh beets, about

1 cup rice vinegar

1 tart green apple

1 tablespoon butter

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons water

Salt, white pepper

Cut tops from beets, leaving about 2 inches of stem. Discard tops. Leave roots attached and scrub beets well. Place beets in large saucepan and cover with water. Add 1/4 cup rice vinegar. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer beets until tender, about 45 minutes.

Drain beets, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Run beets under cold water. Slip off skins. Cut off beet tops and roots. Cut beets into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Set aside.

Meanwhile, core apple and cut into thin lengthwise slices. Melt butter in large skillet. Add apple, onion, garlic and ginger. Saute until apple and onion are tender. Stir in remaining 3/4 cup vinegar, sugar and reserved beet liquid. Heat to simmer.

Blend cornstarch and water until smooth. Add to skillet and cook, stirring gently, until mixture thickens and becomes clear. Carefully stir in beets, blending mixture well. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Makes 6 to 8 servings. STIR-FRIED SHREDDED CABBAGE WITH CARROTS

1 pound cabbage


1 carrot

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Discard tough outer leaves and stem of cabbage. Quarter cabbage and cut out core. Cut quarters crosswise into fine shreds as for coleslaw. Place in colander, rinse well in cold water and place in large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, then mix and cover with cold water. Let stand about 1 hour.

When ready to cook, wash and peel carrot. Cut diagonally into thin, long slices about 1/8 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long. Set aside. Place cabbage in colander, rinse with cold water and drain well.

Heat wok or skillet over high heat until hot. Add vegetable oil, swirl and heat a few seconds. Add carrot and stir rapidly until color deepens. Add cabbage and stir vigorously to sear evenly. Add sugar and season to taste with salt. Toss mixture to blend well. Add sesame oil and toss vegetables quickly, just enough to coat well with sesame oil. Spoon into serving dish and serve at once. Makes 4 to 6 servings. POTATO PUFF CASSEROLE

4 large potatoes

3 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon grated onion

Dash hot pepper sauce

1/4 teaspoon black pepper


2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Boil or bake potatoes until tender. Peel and mash until smooth. Add egg yolks, onion, hot pepper sauce and pepper. Season to taste with salt.

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