Secrets to Simple Entertaining

Dining rooms may have become endangered species in our homes -- along with butler's pantries and libraries -- but entertaining needn't depend on formality any longer.

Keeping it simple makes it possible for everyone, from the novice to the veteran, to do it in style and, more importantly, to do it often. Says my sister-in-law Gail, who had five parties at her beautiful, but snug, Hoboken, New Jersey, apartment last weekend (including lunch and dinner on Saturday for different guests!), "the more you do it, the easier it gets."

Every affair needn't be an extravaganza. There are many styles, including sit-down dinners, buffets and kitchen parties. Try a wine tasting party instead of the more traditional cocktail-hors d'oeuvres regime, have an old-fashioned Sunday dinner at 4pm instead of a more predictable Saturday night meal, or invite friends for an informal brunch on the lawn.

We each have a style. Each style has its idiosyncrasies. Know them. Respect them. Flaunt them. Here are eight suggestions to get you started.

• If you're not a great cook, choose recipes or menus that feel familiar and focus on some other aspect of the event (tabletop, flowers, conversation).

• Don't overextend the cocktail hour, or your evening will lose focus. Keep it to no more than 30 minutes from the time your last guest arrives, or one hour total.

• Limit the kinds of hors d'oeuvres you serve to no more than three, or you'll befuddle the appetite.

• Buy great bread.

• Inject a surprise to liven things up. Champagne sorbet or a trou normand (swig of Calvados) at mid-meal, a spectacular piece of cheese with fruit before dessert, or two separate dessert courses all give the evening a lift.

• Don't invite guests to another room for dessert and coffee. You'll dissolve the "social glue" that's holding your party together.

• If you don't want to make dessert, buy it, and garnish it in a special way.

And don't forget that the way a meal is served is a fascinating variable in entertaining, for the very same menu can feel formal or casual depending on how dishes are presented. Menus can be plated in the kitchen and placed directly on the table. Home entertaining is usually agreeable to family-style service, where platters are placed directly on the table and passed from guest to guest. Think about incorporating more than one style into a meal. It provides choreographic interest for the guests and alleviates bottlenecks in the kitchen.

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