Bringing back the joys of entertaining at home

Less than an hour before an afternoon country party she and her husband were giving for more than 300 guests, Martha Stewart was in her work clothes doing some last-minute raking in the yard.

Preparations were already well under way for the day's festivities at their Westport, Conn., homestead and farm, with helpers readying food, flowers, and beverages.

Mounds of polished vegetables gleamed in baskets and wooden bowls, beautiful ruffled kale adorned serving tables, an impressive display of desserts was arranged in the newly finished country kitchen.

Wood stoves were stoked, and various delicacies including quail, oysters, and Japanese mushrooms were prepared for outdoor grills.

Mrs. Stewart's relaxed but organized approach to what many would consider a monumental event reflects her practiced ease as a hostess and professional caterer.

Her friendly, expressive form of party-giving is explained in her new book, ''Entertaining'' (Clarkson N. Potter, New York, $35), which offers an abundance of recipes and valuable advice for planning gatherings from small midnight suppers to large weddings with all the trimmings.

Mrs. Stewart hopes her book will inspire people to use their imagination to create an atmosphere of caring - to make guests feel comfortable and special. She sees entertaining as an opportunity to express warmth, individuality, and personal taste, not as a requirement to redecorate the home.

In the spirit of the new flexibilty in entertaining, she encourages people to take a fresh look at their homes and consider unusual spaces to set tables or to use as a gathering spot - in front of a fireplace or a sweep of windows, for example.

Martha Stewart is a great advocate of using uncontrived, natural materials for decoration and centerpieces.

In setting a tone or theme for a party, she believes accents are often more important and effective than big statements.

Small touches can set a table apart from the everyday - one special flower from the garden, a country basket brimming with strawberries, a pyramid of perfect, shiny fruit.

''Decorations do not have to be expensive or overdone,'' she says.

This Christmas Mrs. Stewart plans to decorate a live tree indoors for birds, using strings of cranberries, popcorn, and suet balls; then move it outside when the Christmas week is over.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Alexis, specializes in giant gingerbread suns and hangs them in the kitchen windows.

Another favorite holiday decoration is to make a gingerbread ''mansion,'' light it from within, and set it on a table in the hallway.

The holiday season is a perfect opportunity to give a dessert party, because people generally are not watching what they eat, Mrs. Stewart says.

Dessert buffets are an especially good type of party for working people to give, because many desserts can be done in advance.

''They are fun and pretty, and once they are arranged on the table your work is essentially done,'' she says.

''Guests serve themselves, and enjoy tasting all the different kinds.'' She suggests planning the party for late afternoon or late evening and to include dancing if possible.

For any party, Martha Stewart believes it is important to put forth extra effort at the beginning, when guests may feel hesitant and perhaps insecure.

She sometimes invites guests into the kitchen for hors d'oeuvres to help break the ice and make everyone feel at home.

She believes it is important not to segregate guests from the action and to make them feel a part of what is going on.

While she holds to few hard-and-fast rules Mrs. Stewart does believe the host or hostess should never disappear from the party for long periods of time - a menu that requires more than 15 minutes of last-minute preparation is the wrong one, she says.

But above all, Mrs. Stewart believes party-givers should have fun at their own party and feel free to choose table settings and entertain in a way that appeals to them. ''It makes life more interesting,'' she says.

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