Elizabeth James, a busy food stylist who spends her days making foods such as McDonald's hamburgers look luscious for advertising, is a master at juggling a fascinating career and an active social life. When preparing a dinner party, she's likely to drop by a favorite take-out spot and pick up a few prepared basics. Once home, she adds the "James touch" to her purchases, changing the evening's menu from mere gourmet to super gourmet.
A recent demonstration by this culinary expert revealed how she does it. After a long day at a photo session--and after a few quick stops on the way home--James presented dinner guests with a superb meal that looked as though it had taken hours to prepare. It probably had, but the time involved wasn't hers. On the day she shared her easy entertaining ideas she let a nearby Cheese & Pasta shop do the majority of the preparation and spent the few moments she had to spare making the takeout foods look spectacular.
The items she selected were picked for color as well as flavor. To start the evening, James chose a pate and cornichons to serve with well-chilled Champagne. Then she served an basil-laced tomato-and-mozzarella cheese appetizer as a first course. "I bought both the pate and the first course at Cheese & Pasta," James said, but she completely redesigned the presentation of the appetizer, giving it a more appealing appearance.
With the stuffed chicken breast, her main course, she added fresh asparagus. "I also picked up some creme fraiche and fresh raspberries to enhance the poached pears with raspberry sauce I selected for dessert."
At home, James quickly mixed together some orange juice, tart orange marmalade and a hint of soy sauce to make a glaze for the chicken breasts as she reheated them. While the chicken was warming, she blended some of the creme fraiche into the raspberry sauce for the pears, to lighten it a bit, and let that chill until time for dessert.
"The chicken breasts were stuffed with brandy-flavored rice with pecans and oranges and came with an orange sauce to be served as an accompaniment. Since the food is good to begin with, what I really do is to concern myself with the presentation," James said.
For additional color--and flavor--James added an Indonesian-style roasted pepper-and-zucchini salad as a side dish. A Chardonnay complemented the main part of the meal beautifully.
Dessert and coffee were served in the living room so everyone could relax comfortably.
Although making food look its most appealing is second nature to food stylist James, her plan for easy entertaining can be adapted by anyone. Essentially the only requirements are finding a takeout specialty shop you like and trust and then buying menu items that, with just a few extra touches, will add the touches that make a good meal an exciting one. It's a great way to entertain in the quiet of your home. It's also a wonderful way to reward yourself with an elegant meal for one after an arduous day at work.
"Come to think of it," said James, "I guess I eat this way a lot. After all, when I've spent the whole day cooking, that's the last thing I want to do when I get home."
PRODUCED BY ROBIN TUCKER / FOOD STYLIST: ELIZABETH JAMES / TABLEWARE FROM BULLOCK'S WILSHIRE / TABLE FROM ULTIMA 2000, LOS ANGELES / HAIR AND MAKEUP: ERICA BIELECKI