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November 08, 1987|LEE BAILEY | Bailey is the author of "Good Parties," "City Food" and "Country Weekends."

A friend of mine, whose business it is to keep up with such things, remarked to me recently that she'd noticed that many members of the so-called "baby boom" generation have started unpacking their wedding presents and have begun to entertain at home--some literally for the first time. Their reasons are probably as varied as their personalities, but one could guess that a prime factor is the economic one. Lately, I've heard much grumbling that restaurants seldom give the public enough for all the money they extract. And even if that were not an important factor, the day of the big, noisy eating establishment with its often-arrogant front people apparently is drawing to a close.

Personally, it can't happen too soon to suit me.

So where does that leave a whole generation that was brought up on fast and convenience food at home and eating out for entertainment, a generation that has little real cooking experience? First, it will provide those interested the satisfaction of learning something and of being directly responsible for giving their guests pleasure. But before this new routine can truly take hold and turn into the kind of fun that entertaining at home can be, a few points need clearing up.

My same sage friend also commented that first-timers appear to be very heavy on presentation but rather light on content--or, perhaps more aptly, confused on content. Like much of the prepared food you'd see in specialty shops, what you see in their homes often looks considerably better than it tastes. And, as is the case with restaurant food, what is often attempted is terribly labor-intensive.

Now there's a vast difference between the sort of meal one has in a restaurant and what is appropriate to serve to guests in the home. Much restaurant food is arranged in such a self-consciously artsy manner that you sometime don't know whether to eat it or frame it. All of us--and that includes highly touted chefs as well as you and me--should be allowed our little conceits. And in truth, although the way food is served is part of the show you are paying so dearly for when you eat out, creating the big impression is not the one true way of serving a meal. You should not be intimidated into attempting time-consuming meals in your kitchen, at least for openers. Instead, find and define your own style, not someone else's. It is your own personal taste and way of doing things that can make your entertaining distinctive--and memorable.

Now among the good news is that it is possible for practically everybody to find an individual style and entertain with ease provided that a few (obvious) things are kept in mind. Such as:

Don't overreach. Until you master the basics, don't try to do more than your ability allows you to do with comfort. As mentioned, much of the food in restaurants is too complicated to bother with at home, especially if one is alone--or even with a willing but untrained helper.

It is important to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a marvelous one-dish dinner served with a salad and good wine, followed by a luscious (store-bought, if you like) dessert and coffee.

Hold the fancy little four-course dinner party for that future time when you feel relaxed and confident enough to handle it without strain. Remember that when the strain shows, you are undermining your efforts.

Use your own food preferences as your guide. You like Tex / Mex food? Then learn how to cook it, and forget truffles and creme fraiche . More than that, learn to cook it the way you like it. If you like lots of hot peppers, add them. If you want more cheese, put it in. Be aware, though, that such a personal approach works only after you know what you are doing. Such tinkering will give your dishes your signature, which ultimately will become your style.

Don't depend too heavily on presentation. The best-looking, most expensive table setting in the world will never make up for mediocre food. Excess can come off as pretention. During the shakedown period, err on the side of understatement. Let the food be the star of the occasion, not the way the flowered napkin is arranged in the wine goblet. Plenty of time for that later if such things interest you.

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