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PARTY PLANS

5 Easy Courses

July 22, 1998|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My friends Allan Warnick and Rex Arrasmith don't cook. They either eat out or eat very simply at home--and I mean very simply, as in bowl of cereal or toast and jam or the occasional very daring tortilla and cheese.

Thus, they manage to have an enviably equipped and sparkling kitchen where grease never spatters, pasta water never boils over and the cutting board is as unscratched as the day it first slid into its slot under the counter.

Intermittently, the men have had culinary aspirations. And so the lower cupboards hold state-of-the-art cookware--all of which looks exactly as it does on display at Williams-Sonoma, albeit with fewer fingerprints. Upper cupboards display a small, varied collection of impeccably charming china--eternally unchipped because of complete disuse.

The granite table in the garden has handsome aluminum chairs with pretty custom-made seat cushions, but the only visitors here are tiny blossoms that have drifted down from the wisteria and potato vines overhead.

Such unused bounty is surely against nature, or at least my nature. Clearly, somebody had to start cooking just to get the ball rolling. I talked Rex and Allan into giving a little party. I'd come up with recipes, I promised, that would be quick and easy enough for men who never cooked--should they ever be tempted to attempt entertaining on their own.

I proposed a summer meal, light and full of seasonal summer ingredients--tomatoes, summer fruit, fresh herbs--to be eaten at mid-day or early twilight when their spectacular garden could be fully seen and appreciated.

Of course, after all of my talk of lightness, the first dish I thought of--and the thought refused go away--was a rich, buttery tomato gratin. It is simply the best recipe for cooked tomatoes I've ever had, and the better the tomato, the more sublime the results. I learned this dish from my friend Lily in New York, who has access all summer long to those great, meaty, wildly flavorful New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes.

I've watched countless times as she slices the tomatoes, dots the butter, pours in the cream, smooths over the bread crumbs--never once measuring. She does not care if one time the tomatoes are soupy and another time the sauce is thick with bread crumbs.

Indeed, the varying water content of tomatoes alone can cause such disparate results. Still, none of this matters: soupy or merely moist, this gratin is sensational.

Once assembled, it disappears into the oven for up to an hour, giving the cooks ample time to assemble the rest of the meal. When everything else is table-ready, out comes the king of all tomato dishes.

Because the gratin is so rich, I tried to make everything else light and simple. I drew inspiration from Allan and Rex's garden: Thanks to the lemon tree and a preternaturally healthy rosemary bush, I came up with citrus-marinated albacore on rosemary skewers. I also drew inspiration from recalling dishes that Rex and Allan especially liked in the restaurants we'd visited. I could not hope to re-create Spago chef Lee Hefter's multilayered salad with beets and sauteed goat cheese with hazelnuts, but I came up with simple hors d'oeuvres I dubbed Beet Oreos. I just layered slices of roasted beets with soft goat cheese and, once they'd chilled and firmed up, cut them into quarters and stuck them, carefully, with toothpicks so we could have them as finger food without any pinkened fingertips.

I originally planned and tried a gelatin made with freshly squeezed orange juice and thick peach slices, but with the tomatoes and the citrus-marinated fish, the meal was growing too acidic.

Then, inspired by Allan's adoration for the watermelon gelatin dessert at L'Arancino and by the serendipity of finding watermelon juice in my nearby supermarket, I opted for a soft-pink melon mold, which is a great deal more delicate and subtle than the orange. It's a great seed-free way to enjoy summer's biggest fruit. I added a quick tossed green-leaf salad to the menu for contrasting color.

For dessert, I remembered a fruit focaccia I had at yet another restaurant, the long-gone and much missed little coffeehouse-cafe called Axe in Santa Monica. I remembered a chewy crust, fresh and juicy summer fruits and whole sprigs of rosemary. The rosemary, olive oil and fruit carry through other flavors in the meal. And in this dish, as in the tomato gratin, summer fruits were baked in hot ovens in a way that condensed and heightened the flavors. Plus, each tart has the depth of color and voluptuousness of a small still-life oil painting.

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