The nouvelle style

Smaller, simpler, more spontaneous. That's the way a growing number of hosts and guests describe home entertaining, 1982-style.

Working women, short on time for leisurely planning and elaborate cooking, find themselves with a choice: Scale down or skip it. Gone, for many, are frequent or formal dinner parties. Replacing them are suppers, buffets, brunches , dessert parties, cookouts, picnics - anything that involves less work, less time, and often less money.

Evidence of thisnouvellem entertaining surfaces in unexpected places. Gourmet magazine, never one to skimp on ingredients or preparation time, two years ago acknowledged readers' changing lives by adding a column devoted to ''Cuisine Courante'' - literally, ''cooking on the run.''

AndW,m that self-styled arbiter of what's In and Out among the beautiful people, recently bestowed its imperious blessing on what it calls ''honest foods ,'' defining them as light, fresh, and basic. ''Paring down, less flamboyance in presentation, and a return to pure, simple, honest dishes are the hallmarks of dining today,'' W says. ''Priorities are lightness and freshness in basic dishes - grilled fish, meat loaf, soups, vegetables, and salads. The emphasis is on simple, well-prepared foods.''

All of which may be cause for modest rejoicing. Party, after all, is not synonymous with production. Nor is graciousness dependent on an elegant table, an elaborate menu, or a spotless house.

This new-style entertaining, born of necessity and nurtured on the run, offers warmth without pretentiousness, sociability without straining pocketbooks or people. Less time in the kitchen also means more time with guests - the whole point of any social gathering.

Even children are beneficiaries. Working parents, eager for more time with their offspring, now often make entertaining a family affair. Instead of being banished to an upstairs TV or an early bedtime during adult parties, children are learning firsthand the pleasures of sharing food and hospitality with friends.

Whether the occasion is a family party after a tennis match or a weekend cookout, menus are usually simple and cooked ahead. ''With families you make a lot of food, and you make it casual,'' says Mary Brinton of Carmel, Calif. For such events she favors tacos, chili, chicken curry, or spaghetti, ''which kids always love.''

Still, even simple gatherings require preparation - time that must be carved out of already full schedules. In her short story, ''Weekend,'' British novelist Fay Weldon hints at the challenge facing working women on both sides of the Atlantic. Describing one mother's post-work, pre-party juggling act she writes:

''Cook! Ah cook. People love to come to Martin and Martha's dinners. Work it out in your head in the lunch-hour. If you get in at 6:12, you can seal the meat while you beat the egg white while you feed the cat while you lay the table while you string the beans while you set out the cheese. . . .''

Hardly a routine for amateurs! Yet with a little organization and planning it is possible. A sense of humor helps, of course. So does a willingness to settle for less than perfection.

Michael Smith, a London restaurateur (the English Garden and Walton's) and food critic of Britain's Homes and Gardens magazine, makes a persuasive case for simplicity as he describes well-meaning but overzealous hostesses. ''I do think women overreach themselves,'' he says. ''There's nothing worse than this woman who is leaping up and down during a dinner party,'' trying to do everything. ''They jump up and down, flogging themselves. They're too nervous, and the man at the other end of the table is nervous.''

His solution: Find your style - what you enjoy doing and can handle easily - and stick with it. ''If your idea of a good meal is steak and baked potato, do it,'' he says. ''If your idea is to do a kitchen meal, do it.''

Despite his impressive culinary credentials, Mr. Smith keeps his own entertaining simple. ''I never do more than two courses,'' he claims. ''The first course is on the table when guests sit down.''

How else to simplify?

Some hosts and hostesses resort to semantics - using little tricks to scale down their own expectations and make the event seem low-key. One working mother explains: ''I never say, 'We're giving a dinner party Saturday.' Instead, it's 'We're inviting a few friends to come for supper.' It sounds much more manageable that way.''

Wordplay works in other ways, too, making the once-mundane sound festive and elegant. What an earlier generation called a ''potluck group'' has become, in some circles, a ''gourmet dinner club.'' The principle remains the same: The host or hostess provides the main dish, and everyone else brings appetizers, salads, vegetables, dessert. The difference is in the planning. Instead of ending up with a random, heavy menu - four noodle casseroles, say, or three impossibly rich desserts - dishes are chosen to complement one another. This culinary job-sharing lets time-short working people enjoy a social gathering, yet leaves no one breathless or overburdened.

Other busy families rely on spontaneity, extending a spur-of-the-moment invitation when time or a well-stocked larder permits. Guests enjoy these impromptu occasions as much as the hosts do, a California woman finds, adding: ''Nothing is expected and everything is appreciated.''

This come-as-you-are, take-us-as-we-are approach gets to the core of what entertaining is all about: opening hearts and homes to others, caring more about the pleasure of their company than about every flawless detail. The trick, of course, is to seize the moment and extend an invitation, remembering that a generous spirit of conversation and companionship will linger in a guest's memory long after details of the menu, the centerpiece, or the setting have faded.

As Michael Smith sums up: ''After all, people are the most important thing, aren't they?''

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