As easy and breezy as the Family Cook likes to keep her cooking duties most of the time, every once in a while she's caught in a bind. The boss is coming to dinner. Or the parents-in-law. Or the new neighbors. The people down the street who spend their vacations at adult cooking camps in France. The high-school chum who grew up to be a restaurant critic.
When it's necessary to impress, but one is completely without the talent, technique or time to do so, remember the Family Cook's Rule:
It doesn't have to be hard, it just has to look hard.
What people really want to know is that you went to some trouble. They don't have to know what kind of trouble or how much. We are lucky to live in good times for this kind of thing.
Women are no longer expected to have a staff of servants or to spend their whole lives in the kitchen, so we're a little bit off the hook. And the legion of single parents and baby boom working moms has created a wonderful market for gourmet carryout. Now, you wouldn't want to serve carryout prepared dishes on a Saturday night (especially not in a small town), but such stores can be used for support as sources of fresh pasta and weird vegetables.
In order for simple food to be impressive, it has to taste good, good, good. It's been my experience that real butter and heavy cream make everything taste good. And even if you don't lavish these devilishly unhealthy items on your family all week, don't be afraid to serve them to guests you want to impress. Their health is their own responsibility, not yours.
Speaking of which, you wouldn't want to overdo the sauces either, or the guests will feel sick, sick, sick. I remember once going to dinner at the home of an eager young bride who was halfway through her French cooking class. The meat had a bearnaise, the asparagus had a hollandaise, the potatoes were baked in cream, eggs and bacon, and nobody could even taste the dessert. Every good dish swathed in rich cream sauce deserves a side dish with just a squeeze of lemon.
The other thing you want to remember, of course, is not to make everything on the plate the same color. You wouldn't serve creamed chicken with white rice, cauliflower and white asparagus unless you were trying to make some kind of statement.
Having stated the necessary, ponderous rules, here are more directives on how to whip up an impressive dinner party without breaking your neck trying:
1. If time is limited, spend it on cooking, not cleaning. Just dim the lights.
2. In designing the menu, remember the theme: "Simple, not boring." Round up some vegetables your guests haven't heard of. Dropping the phrase "It's jicama. Your first?" over the crudite's is more powerfully impressive than making a beef wellington.
3. Presentation is more impressive than lots of complicated cooking. Carve your vegetables, garnish your platters, serve your bread wrapped in pretty napkins inside painted wicker baskets.
4. The number of dishes served is more impressive than the amount of time and trouble each took to make or the number of courses. Three courses is ideal for a simple, impressive party. But the main course should consist of a meat plus three side dishes.
5. It is now possible to serve drinks without any hors d'oeuvres at all. But unless you are genuinely European, you will look genuinely chintzy. Serve either one type of exquisitely composed canape' on a silver tray -- toast with caviar -- or a variety of easy things: canned stuffed grape leaves, marinated mozzarella lumps from the deli, water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and broiled, baked brie with almonds, mushrooms stuffed with herbed soft cheese. Do not serve cheese and crackers. This indicates you went to no trouble at all.
6. Do not serve a salad. Nobody notices salads or appreciates them, and they are not easy. Cook a vegetable instead.
7. Serve an exotic variation of whatever. Use green pasta instead of white, or a mixture of both. Use wild rice instead of plain.
7. If there is a sauce, put it in a sauce boat and pass it around. It creates extra hoopla without extra trouble.
9. Invest in the best loaf of bread in town and serve it with expensive creamed, unsalted butter. Pretending you are a butter snob goes over big.
10. Although serving more than one vegetable is a plus, serving more than one dessert is a sign of insecurity.
11. Constantly shifting the guests is a dynamite ploy. Try to have separate sites for cocktails, dinner and coffee.
12. With cordials, pass a little silver tray full of hideously expensive mints.
And here are three of the easiest, most impressive recipes around. CHICKEN BREASTS IN SOUR CREAM-ALMOND SAUCE (6 servings)
6 whole chicken breasts, halved, boned and skinned
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons shredded almonds
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup grated gruye re cheese
Rice or noodles for serving
Saute' the chicken in butter until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side; remove from the skillet. Add the onion and garlic, cook and stir for 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomato paste and flour to skillet, stir until blended and smooth. Gradually add the chicken stock and sherry, cook and stir until smooth and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Return the chicken to the skillet. Add the almonds, tarragon, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes or until tender. Arrange the chicken in a shallow baking dish. Stir the sour cream into sauce and pour over chicken. Sprinkle with grated cheese and brown under broiler. Serve with rice or noodles. From "San Francisco a la Carte" (Doubleday). VEGETABLES JULIENNE SAUTE (6 servings)
2 yellow squash
3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Parsley for garnish
Peel the carrots, cut off the ends and discard, then cut into lengths that will fit the feed tube of your food processor. (Alternately, julienne by hand.) Process the carrots, using a julienne blade, then boil them for 1 minute in salted water; drain.
Cut the ends off the zucchini and yellow squash, cut and julienne in the same way.
Melt the butter in a skillet, add carrots and toss for 30 seconds, then add the rest of the vegetables and toss until heated through and thoroughly coated with butter. Season to taste, put in serving bowl and garnish with parsley. MOCHA ICE CREAM BOMBE (6 servings)
1 quart coffee ice cream
1 pint chocolate ice cream
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons cre me de cacao
1 ounce semisweet chocolate, chopped
Hot fudge sauce for serving
Place a 7-cup ice cream mold in freezer. Take coffee ice cream out of freezer and put in refrigerator for 20 minutes until slightly softened. Stir coffee ice cream until smooth and spread into mold, leaving a well in center. Place in freezer for 1 hour until firm. Remove mold, smooth the chocolate ice cream into the well and up the sides to make another well.
Whip cream with confectioners' sugar until stiff. Fold in cre me de cacao, then chopped chocolate. Spoon in center of mold.
Freeze for 3 hours or until firm.
To remove bombe from mold, place a warm damp cloth over mold for 10 seconds. Run a knife around edge. Place a plate on bottom of mold and invert. Lift off mold. Serve with hot fudge sauce.