BOSTON — PASTA, potluck, and picnics: These are a few of a single entertainer's favorite things.
"Whenever I have friends come over, undoubtedly they get some sort of pasta dish because it's easy," says Pam Alexander, a financial analyst at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich.
Like Ms. Alexander, many solo hosts are taking advantage of the recent shift in tone - from the elaborate, self-conscious 1980s to the comfortable casual '90s.
"The idea of entertaining people is really to have [them] over as friends and for conversation, and to not think of cooking as a competitive sport," says New York chef Michele Urvater, author of "Monday to Friday Cookbook" (Workman Publishing, 1991).
No longer are perfect place settings and four-course meals a must. In fact, the dishes don't even have to match.
"Matching is bad," declares Michael McLaughlin, author of the new book "Cooking for the Weekend: Food for the Best of Times" (Simon & Schuster, pp. 333, $25). Mr. McLaughlin, who deliberately mismatches his kitchenwares, says that having people over for a good meal is more important than having "the perfect equipment to do it."
Those in the culinary industry would advise singles to keep things relaxed and simple when entertaining. Among other things, they say, it gives those guests who often eat out a break from elaborate restaurant cuisine.
"Today the most personal way you can entertain is to serve people the food you eat on an everyday basis," says Julee Rosso, co-author of the Silver Palate Cookbooks and author of "Great Good Food: Luscious Lower-fat Cooking" (Crown/Turtle Bay Books, pp. 574, $19 paper, $29 cloth).
For many people living on their own, a lack of time, kitchen space, and tools can make weekday meals, let alone entertaining, a challenge. The key to planning for guests is to think modestly, say those with experience.
"Start with something simple," says Ms. Urvater, "something you are familiar with and that you like very much, something that tastes wonderful - it can be as simple as pasta."
According to Urvater, an effortless way to dress up pasta is to simply buy it in different colors. When it's the main course, Urvater suggests serving a salad first and then finishing with either a homemade or store-bought dessert. She encourages entertainers to choose menus that include at least one store-bought item, "where somebody else does the cooking."
Some singles opt to have somebody else do all the cooking. Mark Sheft, who entertained more frequently before he started Harvard Law School last year, recalls that he often had picnics with purchased items. "I was willing to pay more for convenience," he says, "so I would buy prepared food or food from these specialty stores rather than having to take the time and do it myself."
But there are still plenty of menu ideas for the single entertainer who would like to personally prepare what is served. McLaughlin says that great meals consist of foods that the host and the guests don't get enough of: "It could be a meatloaf, it could be club sandwiches, or it could be a pot of chili. It doesn't have to be 14 courses."
He also suggests having people over at nontraditional times - Saturday lunch or Sunday brunch - as an alternative to an evening meal and the menu expectations that can go with it.
When entertaining does call for a more sophisticated menu, a good choice for singles is salmon, says chef Lora Brody. Ms. Brody, author of "The Kitchen Survival Guide," (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992) and the forthcoming "The Entertaining Survival Guide," suggests a side of smoked salmon served on toast as an appetizer or grilled as a main dish. Tuna and swordfish also make good main courses for grilling, she says.
She also provides an idea for a no-hassle appetizer: a cheese course. Go to a gourmet cheese store and ask for their suggestions, she advises. "Then buy some beautiful grapes and [other kinds of] fruit and walnuts and have that along with it."
New ideas can also come from guests. Potluck has become increasingly popular among solo cooks; it helps not only to ease the load, but also to fill the table with interesting, often original, dishes.
Office assistant and part-time student Molly Shreve is a fan of potluck entertaining. "One of the things that draws me and my friends together is food," says Ms. Shreve, a resident of Sacramento, Calif. She and her friends, who usually cook on a grill, each bring their "specialties" to their gatherings. These have produced "big hits" such as Shreve's original barbecued artichokes and a friend's cornish game hen with apricot and kiwi sauce.
Regardless of which method of entertaining is chosen, experts agree the most important step is planning. Think of what you can do in advance, Urvater says. Tasks like setting the table, making the dressing for the salad, or other cooking can all be done during the week or the night before.
Singles who need extra hands in the kitchen will take comfort in McLaughlin's advice: "Ask for help."
"Guests mean volunteers to me," McLaughlin explains, "and when people are interested in food, and when people have more kitchen skills across the board than they used to have, most of them don't mind pitching in and giving you a hand."