Holiday feasts can be easy or exotic, catered or home-cooked

These are very good times to entertain. It has probably never been easier to plan a party than right now. The best ingredients are available everywhere -- the delectable sweets, the nostalgic fruits, sophisticated luxuries such as caviar, oysters, and truffles; simple homey family things such as tangerines and raisins and ribbon candy.

Some are imported from faraway lands, others from nearby, but specialty foods are available in abundance this time of year in shopping centers, country markets, and from hundreds of mail-order catalogs.

Live lobsters, smoked salmon, exotic fruits, vegetables, and nuts can be ordered fresh from many companies. There is no limit to canned and specially packaged meats, sweets, candies, condiments, and delicacies of all kinds at all prices, often with attractive and clever tips for cooking and presenting the foods.

Presentation is important in fancy restaurants. The food must look attractive if not fabulous. The same applies when company's coming at home.

But having the best ingredients for the food you'll serve is not enough. An overall party plan must have a sense of harmony. It should be easygoing and comfortable.

It should be a time for visiting with friends, for quiet camaraderie, not just an occasion to impress. And it should be practical.

Practical today means easy and definitely not time consuming. Entertaining has to be planned so the food is either made ahead of time, ordered from a take-out shop, or catered.

Few of us can entertain easily without some kind of assistance.

``Knowing a caterer is the best security blanket there is for entertaining,'' says entertainer and author Letitia Baldridge. ``Your menu is planned with you and your party in mind.'' That's fine for large parties and a budget to cover expenses.

June Gosule, a Boston caterer and cooking teacher, approves of catering, but she says it is also possible to entertain well by making special dishes ahead and freezing them.

The point to remember is to cook in advance food that won't change in appearance and leave the salad and fruits to the last minute so they'll be completely fresh.

She suggests a buffet menu including a Mixed Antipasto Salad, Stuffed Spinach Pasta With Tomato Sauce, Herbed Bread, and a rich, delectable chocolate torte or an elegant chocolate mousse cake purchased at a local shop.

``A mild, spicy filling is made for the spinach pasta, it's rolled up, then it goes into the freezer. Sauce and a topping of shredded cheese are added when heating just before serving,'' she explains.

``The French bread loaf has been sliced all the way through and buttered with herb butter, wrapped in foil, then put into the freezer. It goes in the oven to be heated with the spinach rollups before the party.

``The salad may be a catch-all of what's left in the refrigerator,'' Ms. Gosule continues. ``Cubes of the end pieces of cheese, slices or chunks of any kind of ham or cold cuts, plus olives, pickles, perhaps some sun-dried tomatoes -- all are mixed together with a vinaigrette dressing and allowed to marinate two or three hours. This kind of buffet is very easy especially if you find a really scrumptious dessert from a favorite local bakery.''

When you need a caterer for a large party, the best way to find one is by word of mouth -- from friends who've had good parties, suggests Gosule, who has her own catering business called The Invisible Chef.

``Then when you find the caterer, communicate with her,'' she advises. ``Have the caterer give you a list of dishes and menus. Figure out a budget. If possible, try to work out how many hours the party will take. A tea party or a dinner or reception can usually be planned for a definite length of time, and this is helpful information for the caterer.''

Catering, she says, isn't just a matter of food any more. ``Often it is creating a total concept. Think about whether or not you'll want to rent china, silver, and glassware, centerpieces, colored cloths, or any of the other non-food items that make a party especially nice,'' she says.

Alice Waters, a famous California restaurant owner, likes to cook when she entertains. She says she's so involved with cooking that she's usually grilling away when the guests arrive, and she gets them to help.

``People like to be involved in what's going on -- it puts them at ease,'' she says. ``And besides, if there's a mistake in the cooking, everyone can share the blame.''

Other party planners think the perfect party should have a touch of fantasy.

``When we begin to plan a party, we think of it as a kind of fantasy,'' says entrepreneur Julee Rosso. ``The inspiration might be `a starry night' party with a diagram of the fall sky constellations in the invitation. This party needs some extra jackets or mufflers for guests who want to look for Pegasus or the Big Dipper before coming inside for warming soup, beverages, and hearty appetizers.''

She and her partner, Sheila Lukins, are owners of an elegant New York mail-order food shop. ``We try to be practical as well as whimsical,'' says Ms. Lukins. The two have lots of good party suggestions in their new cookbook, ``The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook'' (Workman, $19.95).

``First,'' says Ms. Rosso, ``we never ever try to entertain more people than we honestly feel comfortable with -- it won't work.''

For dinner parties, she prefers from 6 to 24 people. ``Buffets work well up to 30. Remember that people need not come in pairs -- only Noah's animals. You're not matching guests for life, just giving them dinner. Who cares if there's an extra man or woman?

``We like to serve a wide variety of interesting foods, because it looks lush. Today people eat lightly, but they really taste and appreciate different flavors.

``Always be prepared for an expanded guest list -- just in case. And always be gracious about it,'' Rosso says.

Finally, she gives one hint about what to do if there's a spill or accident. ``If there's a disaster in your kitchen, remember -- you don't have to be a great chef to be a good host. Whatever happens, try to fix it without anyone noticing it. If it's obvious, remember to laugh -- these are your friends.''

The hors d'oeuvre party is the favorite form of entertaining for Martha Stewart, who has written several books about parties. Her popular books have prompted cooking lessons, and she now has three-day seminars at her Connecticut home on ``Elegant Entertaining,'' ``Gift Ideas and Desserts,'' and ``Catering as a Profession.''

Ms. Stewart says gardening has become her avocation, and since cooking and gardening are practically inseparable, she has planned a two-day gardening/cooking seminar for spring.

``Hors d'oeuvres are the most versatile thing for parties,'' she says.``It's one of the easiest ways to entertain at home.''

What is an hor d'oeuvre, exactly?

``They can be almost any kind of food in bite-size tastes which can be picked up and held in the fingers or placed on small plates until eaten,'' Stewart says. ``Sometimes they are served as a substitute for a meal, in which case they are a combination of savory and sweet offerings and do indeed constitute enough in the way of variety and quantity to replace a full meal.''

Judith Olney considers a full, formal tea to be one of the most elegant entertainments possible because it is a good generation-spanning meal.

Both young and old enjoy the mildly spiced and sweet foods, which can be amplified with more hearty fare if hungry people are present.

Judith Olney's book ``Entertainments'' (Barron's, $24.95) includes unique ideas for picnics, luncheons, breakfasts, and many other delightful parties. Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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