Host your own Oscar party

I grew up in a theatrical family, so Oscar night was always a big event. All Mom's acting friends would make their dramatic entrances; they'd ooh and aah over the decorations, including a 3-foot-tall gold Styrofoam Oscar given to us by a florist friend. Dad would hand out lists of the nominees so all could make their predictions and keep track of the winners.

This year, 37 cities across the United States will host "official" Oscar parties to raise money for local charities. If you're not in one of the official sites, why not host your own party? The Academy Awards website at www.oscar.com offers information about the nominees, memorable quotes, and trivia to make your own quiz. The 73rd Annual Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday, March 25, starting at 8 p.m. on the East Coast, and 5 p.m. on the West.

What the website doesn't offer is a menu - which is the focal point of a good party, of course. Much like a theatrical production, a party menu needs an overture, an arresting beginning, a substantial middle, a satisfying end - and a few sweet and spicy surprises along the way.

The menu suggested here provides all these things. Each item represents one of the five best-picture nominees, plus a few other films. With the exception of "Chocolat," the other films don't feature much in the way of foods. But a little innovation has presented some alternatives. Use the recipes as inspiration for your own meal, and let your imagination go wild.

While "Gladiator" doesn't feature pasta, modern gladiators - like the ones who'll come to your party - will no doubt enjoy Gladiator Pasta. All the quantities and ingredients are adjustable to suit your personal taste. This dish is often called "trash pasta" in my home because just about anything can go in or out of it.

"Traffic" gets my vote for Best Picture, even though the subject matter requires a strong stomach. You shouldn't need the same for my High-Traffic Guacamole, if you choose the salsa you're used to. The name refers to the popularity of the dish, not to any illegal activity.

"Chocolat's" nomination is a great excuse to serve as many chocolate things as you like. Use the hot chocolate recipe provided or your favorite mix. Add in a pinch or two of ground red chilies, as Juliette Binoche's character does in the film.

I like the hot stuff - ground habanero - but sweet anchos or smoky chipotles also add depth and warmth to the chocolate. Cayenne pepper is probably the most widely available ground chili. Don't use prepared "chili powder" or chili mixes, as they include other ingredients like cumin powder. What you're after is really powdered chilies, not chili powder.

Does the thought of adding ground chilies to chocolate seem strange? If you've ever tasted Mexican mole (MO-lay) sauce, you've already had this delicious combination.

For "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," give yourself a break and either send out for Chinese food, or pick up a package of fortune cookies to nibble on.

And to represent the film "Erin Brockovich"?The most obvious and simplest choice is bottled water.

For dessert you might try making your own Jackson Pollock design on a cake, in tribute to the movie "Pollock." Cover the cake with vanilla or chocolate icing, then use contrasting icing to splatter, splash, or smudge your own design.

Just mix a half-teaspoon of milk to a few tablespoons of prepared icing. The icing should dribble off a spoon easily, but still hold a soft shape. Add a few drops of food coloring to vanilla icing to make different colors, if desired.

If all this cooking seems daunting, as a last resort, you can get a takeout order of French fries and "Stephen Soderberghers," after the director of "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic."

'Castaway' Crab Dip

I 6-ounce can crab meat, drained

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 ounces Neufchatel or cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tablespoon lemon juice, or to taste

1 scallion, chopped

Dash of Tabasco (optional)

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Serve with crackers or celery sticks.

High-Traffic Guacamole

1 ripe avocado

1/3 cup bottled picante sauce, your choice of mild, medium, or hot

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1-1/2 tablespoons plain yogurt

Few dashes salt

Few dashes Tabasco sauce (optional)

Mash avocado with a fork; add all ingredients and stir. Serve with corn chips.

Hot, Hot Chocolat

2 cups milk

1 cinnamon stick

2 to 3 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon vanilla

Dash salt

Pinch of ground dried chilies: ancho, chipotle, habanero, or cayenne

Whipped cream (optional)

In a heavy saucepan, heat the milk with the cinnamon stick and chocolate over low heat. Stir until chocolate melts. Add ground cinnamon, salt, and vanilla. Whisk until foamy. Pour into cups. Stir in a pinch of powdered chili. Top with whipped cream if desired.

Makes 2 to 3 servings

'Gladiator' Pasta

Olive oil (enough to just cover the bottom of a skillet)

3 cloves garlic, crushed, or more to taste

Crushed red pepper flakes

1 pound spaghetti

2 medium fresh tomatoes, skinned and diced

3 tablespoons capers, minced

1/2 cup sliced pimentos or roasted red peppers

4 or 5 anchovies, minced (optional)

1 4.5-ounce can chopped black olives or 1/3 cup chopped Kalamata olives

4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

2 to 3 tablespoons lightly roasted pine nuts (optional)

Grated Pecorina or Romano cheese

Red pepper sauce, or Tabasco

In a large skillet cook the oil, garlic, and a few shakes of red pepper over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes.

Add the capers, pimentos or peppers, anchovies, and olives; cook a few more minutes. Add parsley, and pine nuts. If using red pepper sauce, add a few shakes. Sprinkle with Romano or pecorino cheese.

Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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