Years ago, the single male host had one of two choices when it came to solo entertaining: He could either enlist the services of a respectable restaurant for an evening of fine food and atmosphere, or, provided his accommodations were suitable enough, requisition the talents of a woman friend. The man of yore limited his culinary involvement to little more than tending bar and, depending on the season, carving fowl or grilling steak.

But times have changed and roles have been reversed. There are plenty of women around who don't know a gratin from a grotton, and as many men who do. Likewise, the fallen souffl,e and the curdled hollandaise are problems encountered by both sexes these days. Indeed, single men have discovered it pays to be able o execute a good meal.

Perhaps no one knew how to do that as well as the late James Beard, dean of the food world and a lifelong bachelor, who spent most of his years entertaining others. A masterful host, Beard was adept at combining exciting personalities around the dining table and at using his entire house to entertain. And it wasn't just his meals that set the tone for a good party. "Certainly there's magic to entertainment when you have God in the room," a longtime associate recently recalled.

Beard's rules for a party were simple. "Cook the thing you do best," he was known to tell his audience. And if that meant serving pot roast, so be it. The cooking legend despised pretentiousness. Like the gastronome Curnonsky, who declared that food should taste of itself, Beard wholeheartedly believed food should also look

He also thought that whatever could be done ahead of time should be. Hence his fondness for casseroles -- in fact, anything that could be made the day before a party and popped in the oven the next day was suitable entertainment fare.

And he spent time with his guests, something the last- minute saut,e-or wok-stirrer would find maddening. Once the guests arrived, Beard reasoned, it was time to stop cooking. Final touches were best left to salads and such, at which point Beard entreated his guests to join him in the kitchen.