The countdown has started: New Year's Eve is 10 days away and you still don't have a plan. Every babysitter on your list is booked, as are your favorite restaurants. If you decide at the last minute to sign up for an expensive hotel package, will it live up to its billing? Will the traffic be horrible if you try to go to the festivities on the Mall? What are you doing New Year's Eve?

Your friends are probably in the same fix. Why not gather a bunch of them and spend this once-in-a-lifetime evening with people you know and love, eating a delicious and relatively inexpensive meal? Buy some really fine wines, pop some Champagne and go potluck for Dec. 31.

Here's a plan for five couples to pull together during the next 10 days, but you can adjust it to suit the number in your group. And even if these are your best friends, people have different expectations, so decide how much everyone should spend on food and then set a minimum on a bottle of wine. I recommend $50 to $75 per couple for food and $25 minimum for wine.

Now, how do you decide what to cook? My suggestion: End the century with an all-American meal and try to distribute the work evenly.

Couple 1 is the host and hostess. They have to clean the house and put flowers on the table, so their cooking workload shouldn't be too heavy. They might like to start the evening with perfectly made Manhattans stored in the freezer and served icy cold. Pitchers of martinis and gimlets seem American as well. The host couple would also be responsible for hors d'oeuvres: country ham on sweet potato biscuits, jumbo shrimp with cocktail sauce and baby crab cakes with a Cajun tartar sauce. And at the end of the meal they can resume responsibilities with brandied espresso and a store-bought dessert.

Now, to the main dish. Because this is the biggest expense, assign this and this alone to Couple 2. Beef tenderloin is always a treat. Stuff it with oysters and lemon-garlic butter and you have something extraordinary called Carpetbag Steak. I like the flavor and the history of this dish--I saw it listed on a 19th-century menu for Delmonico's, the famous New York restaurant.

With the main course determined, other choices are easy. Since this is an all-American dinner, let's assign Couple 3 a New England lobster chowder and one side dish to go with the beef--for example, roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

Continuing the theme, Couple 4 can take on New Orleans Shrimp Remoulade and another side dish--perhaps a melange of wild mushrooms or steamed green beans.

Couple 5? Their task will be California Salad to follow the main course. That means mesclun greens topped with rounds of goat cheese and chopped walnuts dressed with raspberry vinaigrette. Then they can move on to the cheese course; after all, it's going to be a long night! One way to create a refreshing break is to serve Port Wine Grapes, seedless red grapes that are removed from the stem and frozen solid. At serving time they are placed in a martini glass and an ounce or two of really good port is poured over them. They pair well with wedges of Saint Andre and Blue d'Auvergne cheeses.

Dessert should be an extravaganza purchased at the best pastry shop the hosts can find. It doesn't need to be large in volume, but variety would be good. Oh, and Couple 1: You'd better order the pastries today because many of the best shops will be inundated.

New England Lobster Chowder

(10 servings)

This recipe uses an old New England technique of thickening chowder with oyster cracker crumbs and is adapted from Mary Margaret McBride's cookbook "Harvest of American Cooking" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1956)

3 lobsters, about 1 pound each

3 cups light (table) cream or half-and-half

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

2 cups diced, cooked white potatoes

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup shredded carrot

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 cup oyster cracker crumbs (may substitute saltine crackers)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon minced chives

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place a colander in the sink.

Carefully add the lobsters to the pot and cook for 8 minutes. Using long-handled tongs, carefully transfer the lobsters to the colander; rinse with cold water until the lobsters are cool enough to handle.

Remove the meat from the claws and tail of each lobster; discard the tomalley and reserve the shells. Dice the meat. Set aside.

Using a mallet, break the shells into small pieces.

In a large pot over high heat, bring the shells and enough water to cover to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain the mixture; discard the shells. Set the stock aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the light cream or half-and-half and the heavy cream to a simmer. Add the potatoes and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally.

In a skillet over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the carrot and bell pepper and cook until the vegetables are softened, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir the vegetable mixture into the cream mixture and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally. Return the skillet to medium heat, add the remaining 6 tablespoons of the butter and heat until melted. Stir the cracker crumbs into the butter. Slowly whisk about half of the cream mixture into the crumb mixture and simmer, whisking constantly, until the mixture becomes thick and smooth.

Pour the cream-crumb mixture into the remaining cream mixture and bring to a simmer. Add 2 cups of the lobster stock, salt and pepper to taste and the chives. Bring the chowder to a simmer, stir in the lobster and serve immediately.

Per serving: 644 calories, 38 gm protein, 27 gm carbohydrates, 43 gm fat, 248 mg cholesterol, 25 gm saturated fat, 1,050 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

New Orleans-Style Shrimp Remoulade

(10 servings)

Although Paul Prudhomme adds a few extra steps and seasonings to his shrimp boil, this simplified version leaves you with a few extra hours to primp prior to the party.

Soaking the shrimp in ice water for 1 hour prior to cooking results in incredibly plump, juicy and crisp shellfish. And try to make the remoulade sauce at least 2 days ahead of time so the flavors have time to meld. Prudhomme suggests serving the sauced shrimp wrapped in lettuce leaves with tomato wedges, black olives and parsley.

For the remoulade sauce:

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup minced celery

1/2 cup minced scallions, white and tender green parts

1/2 cup minced onions

1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/4 cup finely grated fresh horseradish (may substitute prepared horseradish)

3 tablespoons Creole mustard (may substitute hot brown mustard)

3 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce

1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon salt

For the shrimp:

2 pounds large shrimp

6 cups water

1 cup white wine

1 cup clam juice

Old Bay seasoning or freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

For the remoulade: In a food processor or blender, process the mayonnaise, celery, scallions, onion, parsley and lemon juice and zest just until combined. Add the horseradish, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire, hot pepper sauce, garlic, paprika and salt and pulse to combine. Transfer the remoulade to a small bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate (if possible, for at least 2 days).

For the shrimp: Place the shrimp in a large pot of ice water; set aside to soak for 1 hour.

In a large pot over high heat, bring the water, wine, clam juice and Old Bay seasoning or pepper to taste, if using, to a boil. Add the shrimp and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Drain the shrimp; discard the cooking liquid. Spread the shrimp in a single layer in a baking pan. Set aside to cool slightly. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through, at least 2 hours.

To serve, toss together the remoulade sauce and shrimp in a large bowl. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 307 calories, 22 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 1,247 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Carpetbag Steak

(10 servings)

Carpetbag steak is a dish whose origins are, depending on whom you ask, American or Australian. Either way, it is a tradition worth carrying on. This version is roasted, not grilled, for ease of preparation. Don't let the large amount of butter frighten you; the majority of it runs off during the roasting process.

4 pounds center-cut beef tenderloin, trimmed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 clove garlic, mashed to a paste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Zest from 1 lemon

1/4 cup minced fresh parsley 1/2 cup canola oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, beaten

3 cups finely crushed saltine cracker crumbs

2 pints small oysters, drained and patted dry

Kitchen string

Place the beef on a baking sheet.

Using a very sharp knife held parallel to the work surface, cut the tenderloin almost in half horizontally, being careful to cut only 3/4 of the way through the tenderloin. Pull back the top half of the beef so it opens like a book. Using a meat pounder or rolling pin, pound the beef to an even thickness, being careful not to disconnect the 2 halves. Season the beef with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate.

In a food processor or blender, combine 1/4 pound of the butter with the garlic, lemon juice and zest, parsley and about 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Pulse until thoroughly combined. Transfer to a small bowl; set aside.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the remaining 1/4 pound butter. Add all but 2 tablespoons of the oil.

Place the flour, eggs and cracker crumbs in individual bowls.

Dip 4 of the oysters at a time in the flour; shake off any excess flour. Dip the floured oysters in the beaten egg; allow any excess to drip off. Coat the oysters with the cracker crumbs.

Immediately transfer the oysters to the hot skillet and fry, turning, until golden on both sides. Do not overcook. Transfer the oysters to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining oysters, frying them 4 at a time. Set aside to cool.

Remove the beef from the refrigerator. Spread the garlic butter over both halves on the inside of the cut tenderloin.

Place the fried oysters on the right half of the tenderloin. Fold the left half of the tenderloin back over the right half. Using kitchen string, tie the tenderloin in 5 places.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet ready.

In a Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet over high heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the tenderloin and sear on all sides until brown.

Transfer the beef to the baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes for rare. Remove the kitchen string and set aside to rest for 5 minutes. Then cut into 1-inch slices and serve immediately.

Per serving: 700 calories, 41 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 53 gm fat, 228 mg cholesterol, 21 gm saturated fat, 361 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

California Salad

(10 servings)

1/2 cup frozen raspberries, thawed and mashed with juices

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1/2 cup rice vinegar (may substitute other mild vinegar)

1/2 cup walnut oil

1 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped

1 pound goat cheese log

8 to 10 cups mixed greens

In a medium bowl, whisk together the raspberries, sugar, salt, pepper and vinegar. Then strain and discard the solids.

Slowly add the walnut oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Pour the dressing into a glass jar with a tight lid; set aside.

Place the walnuts in a shallow dish. Roll the whole goat cheese log in the chopped walnuts and then cut into 10 rounds.

Divide the greens evenly among 10 plates. Place 1 goat cheese round in the center of each plate. Shake the jar of raspberry dressing. Drizzle the dressing over the salads. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 387 calories, 13 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 32 gm fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 452 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Port Wine Grapes

(10 servings)

This extremely easy-to-prepare dessert optimally should be paired with a platter of mixed cheeses.

6 cups (about 2 1/2 pounds) large seedless red grapes

2 cups ruby or tawny port, chilled

Place the grapes on a baking sheet and transfer the sheet to the freezer until chilled through, at least 60 minutes. (May chill for up to 2 days.)

Place 10 martini glasses or Champagne saucers in the freezer. To serve, divide the grapes evenly among the frosted glasses. Drizzle the grapes with the port. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 144 calories, 1 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 4 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Joyce Dodson Piotrowski is a caterering manager and freelance writer in Virginia.