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Entertaining Oneself

May 14, 1999

Throwing a party? Specialty food shop owner and cookbook author Ina Garten offers a suggestion: Invite yourself.

Garten, who was signing her book, "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter, 1999, $32.50) at Mission San Juan Capistrano on Monday, says the host is too often stuck in the kitchen and unable to enjoy the party.

Entertaining, she says, is "not a competitive sport. It's about hanging out with friends. When I'm at a party and the hostess is in the kitchen, I feel guilty. And when she's with us and relaxed and having fun, it changes the dynamics of the party."

Garten adds that she thinks parties should be "like recess for everyone. Someone should not be Cinderella working in the kitchen all night."

How can a host have a party and not stress out? Garten offers this advice, culled from 20 years of running her gourmet food shop, Barefoot Contessa, in East Hampton, N.Y.:

* The simpler the food, the more fun at the party. "I used to think it had to be like Julia Child's 'The Art of French Cooking,' where every dish involved three or four recipes. I would spend a week making a Saturday night dinner for six and spend all day Sunday lying on the sofa [recuperating]. I had to let go of the notion that my friends would have more fun if I spent all afternoon cooking. Now, I can put a dinner together in a few hours."

* A menu should have only one complicated dish. "I've been cooking for years, and I still wonder if the chicken's done. It's hard to know what's going on in the middle. I want to do that for just one dish; two is pushing it. I don't want to do that for 10 dishes.

"Instead, I'll prepare a roast chicken and serve it with a simple salad, a dessert of fresh berries and shortbread. But don't make the shortbread. Go to the bakery."

* Pre-assembly is key. "Platters of fresh fruit or grilled vegetables may look complicated, but they're not, and they feel like a party. They can be arranged beforehand. It's about assembly, not cooking. I shop for delicious items and serve them 'as is.' "

A Greek platter can have stuffed grape leaves, vegetables and hummus, she says. A dessert platter can have an assortment of colorful lemon and pecan bars, brownies, cookies and slices of lemon cake from the bakery. "Add strawberries and figs," she says.

* Chose a time that has less social pressure. "I try to invite people over for something other than Saturday night dinner. That's a daunting time; it's three courses and a whole to-do, and guests tend to stay longer. I like Sunday breakfast better, serving raspberry corn muffins or simple croissants. I mix up the batter beforehand and have fresh fruit on a platter. Draw a table out to the garden, and you're ready. Guests stay for a few hours then they're on their way.

"I also love Sunday brunch, where it's just soup, salad, a fruit and cheese platter and a few cookies. Sunday brunch has a nice energy to it. People have finished their work, have read the paper and still have Sunday night ahead of them. It's less exhausting to entertain because less is expected than a Saturday night dinner."

At Monday's reception, mission supporters received coffee, maple-oatmeal scones, a copy of Garten's cookbook and her thoughts.

The event, sponsored by Friends of the Mission and Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, also promoted Romance of the Bells, a fund-raiser gala Oct. 2 to raise awareness and funds for the restoration of the mission's Old Stone Church.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, 31522 Camino Capistrano. (949) 248-2048.

Garten's book is available at bookstores. Her store's Web site is http:www.barefootcontessa.com.

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