How does a single person who works (or double persons who both work) entertain during the week when guests might beat them to the door?
With ruffles and flurries and no fun at all unless they have the sense to plan meals that can be prepared almost entirely in advance. Here are two -- one is less work but more expensive; the other is cheaper but more work. Such is the way of the world.
Steak, baked potatoes and salad may be a cliche, but who cares. Start the evening with a cheap champagne -- Andre and Jacque Bonet both make decent ones for under $5 -- flavored with a small bit of cassis, just enough to make the champagne glow faintly pink.For nibbling, put out a bowl of unsalted, roasted cashews.
In the morning, before you leave for work, set the table, chill the champagne, put out the nuts, wash watercress for the salad, wrap it in a clean dishtowel, then in a plastic bag and refrigerate the whole thing. Also slice mushrooms and let them marinate, covered, in salad dressing. Wash the baked potatoes. Go to work.
In the evening, while you nibble on cashews and sip champagne, bake the potatoes. Just before they're done, spread each side of the steak with cracked peppercorns and whop them into place with the side of a cleaver.
Pull the potatoes out, put the oven on broil and put in the steak. While it is cooking (it's better rare), toss together the watercress and mushrooms. When the steak is done, slice it on the diagonal and serve it decorated with leftover watercress. For dessert, give everyone a scoop of vanilla and of coffee ice cream, topped with a jigger or so of Kahlua and then the remaining champagne (hide it, if you have to, so there'll be a bit left over. It makes the nicest, fizziest sauce).
The try-harder meal is onion soup, served with pate, French bread, and a salad of romaine lettuce, julienne endive and cherry tomatoes. For dessert, baked apples.
The soup, a Julia Child recipe, is made the night before. Thinly slice five large onions and saute them in three tablespoons of butter and one of olive oil. Cook, covered, over low heat for 15 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat and brown the onions, stirring to keep them from burning (about half an hour). Stir in three tablespoons flour, and let brown a few minutes, then pour in two quarts of boiling beef stock (homemade or from extract). Add 1/2 cup dry vermouth, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer, partially covered, for 40 minutes.
While the soup is cooking, toast slices of French bread to put in the bottom of the soup bowls, and grate cheese to top them with, plus enough extra to serve on the side.
Make your salad dressing, cut the endive into thin strips, wash the romaine and the cherry tomatoes and then bag and refrigerate all the salad ingredients. a
Either buy pate or make one from chicken livers (almost every cookbook offers a recipe). To make this otherwise texturally bland pate more interesting, fold in chopped pistachios before chilling.
Although you don't want to core the apples until the last minute, you can prepare the filling ahead of time. Crumble two amaretti di Saronna cookies and mix with a tablespoon or more of butter for each apple. Wrap the mixture in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Before leaving for work, set the table, arrange flowers, etc.
That evening you have only to reheat the soup (add three tablespoons of coghac just before serving it), put toast and cheese in the bottom of each bowl, and toss the salad.
Just before putting dinner on the table, heat the oven to 325 degrees, core the apples, stuff them with the amaretti mixture, and top each apple with a tablespoon of marmalad. Bake for 30-40 minutes. They should be ready when you are.