When entertaining guests, many cooks like to have a meal planned that is predictable but delicious, requiring nothing more than turning on the oven and setting a timer, heating a soup, or tossing a salad. This kind of meal lets the cook relax and enjoy the company of her guests. Sound good?
Elizabeth Schneider Colchie, known as Susie to her friends, has written a wonderful book full of such meals, appropriately titled ''Ready When You Are: Made-Ahead Meals for Entertaining'' (Crown, $15.95).
The title is not meant to imply that the meals are initially easy to make. It takes time and care to assemble many of the dishes, but they are ones that can be reheated successfully, or that even improve in flavor when prepared ahead.
A genuine follower of the seasons, Ms. Colchie has arranged her book accordingly. In the section on summer, there is a menu to celebrate the last meal eaten outdoors; in winter, two informal meals for chilly times.
Interspersed among these menus are recipes for three dishes from one leg of lamb, an ice cream party for all ages, and small, simple, but delicious breakfasts.
Ms. Colchie is a very knowledgeable food writer and co-author of ''Better Than Store-Bought,'' a wonderful cookbook that gives recipes for things like graham crackers and mango chutney.
''Food that is made ahead is different,'' Ms. Colchie explained during a recent interview, ''because a dish that is perfect when it is prepared is likely to change in taste and texture after a day or two.''
There are some recipes in her new book that she calls ''convertible'' - they can be cooked once for two different meals. For example, a recipe for Peaches in Vanilla Syrup tells the cook to poach 16 peaches in a light vanilla-flavored syrup.
Then, half of the peaches are chilled and served as is, for a simple dessert, while the other half are pureed with the syrup and frozen to make peach sherbet, perfect for summertime.
When fresh asparagus and fresh peas are both available, pick up a bunch of each for Susie Colchie's Chilled Spring Green Soup. Chilled Spring Green Soup 1 pound asparagus 3 cups water 3 tablespoons long-grain white rice 1 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped 1 celery stalk with leaves, chopped 2 tablespoons light vegetable oil 1 pound fresh peas in the pod, shelled, making about 1 cup 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon sugar White pepper Grated nutmeg About 1/2 cup milk About 1/4 cup heavy cream Lemon juice Minced fresh basil and chives
Break off any heavy, woody bottom parts of the asparagus stalks and discard them. Cut asparagus into slices, reserving the 8 prettiest tips. Bring 3 cups water to a boil and drop in tips. Boil for a few minutes, until barely tender.
Scoop out tips, reserve water in pot; cool in ice water. Dry and refrigerate, wrapped, until serving time.
Add rice to water; cover and simmer until very soft while you prepare rest of soup.
In larger pot cook onion and celery in oil until they are well softened, about 10 minutes, stirring often.
Add asparagus and peas and stir over high heat for about 2 minutes. Add salt, sugar, rice, and water in which it cooked. Cover and simmer until all vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.
Press mixture in batches through the medium disk of a food mill to remove fibers. Puree soup in blender or processor until very smooth, again working in batches.
Stir enough milk into puree to make a somewhat too thick soup. Season with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Chill, covered.
Stir in enough cream for the desired consistency and flavor. Season with lemon juice, salt, and white pepper. Divide among 4 chilled bowls.
Into each bowl sprinkle a small amount of basil and chives. Float 2 asparagus tips on each and serve.