Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Part II : Be a Guest at Your Own Dinner Party

You - again.

This time we're going to throw a vegetarian dinner party. Since you're probably glowing from having created last weeks fool proof carnivore dinner, you are ready to meet the needs of a changing world. This menu is also trés simple, but with the added bonus of being politically correct and unabashedly healthy. For those of you affirmed vegetarians, there aren't always easy and interesting dishes to serve at dinner parties. Oh sure, there is always pasta, but if I am served one more dish of Pasta Primavera or Pasta Salad, I'm going to go postal. I've assembled some delectable recipes that will serve a party of six hulking vegetarians with the added possibility of swaying some meat eaters into the fast-growing veggie contingency.

Before you begin, I suggest you refer to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Part I for suggestions on pre-cooking preparations - i.e., cleaning house, etc. I swear these details will make the whole dinner party experience valium free. You can also mix and match appetizers, desserts and soups. Remember though, we are working in a meat-free environment this week, so the steak must be left behind.

You need to start off with something to nibble on when the guests first arrive. The main reason to offer up food right away is to nip the perfunctory dinner party questions in the bud: "When are we going to eat? What’s for dinner?" I don't care if Ms. Manners herself is your guest of honor, even the most mannered individual will find a surreptitious way of asking the aforementioned questions. Cut them off at the path with a few sumptuous appetizers so that their mouths are full and they can't ask questions, and if they do, the questions will probably be for the recipes for these simple yet delicious dips. Just slice up a few fresh baguettes to go with them and add some olives and nuts if you are so inclined. Remember though, we don't want the guests to be full in the first fifteen minutes. That’s no fun.

Arugula Pesto

* 2 cups arugula, washed and dried, tough stems removed
* 3 TBS pine nuts (walnuts will also work) lightly toasted
* 1 clove garlic, chopped
* 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
* 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a blender or food processor combine arugula, nuts, garlic and then puree. Slowly add oil. Turn motor off. Stir in cheese , add salt and pepper to taste. Make the morning before you use it.

White Bean Dip

* 2 cans great northern or cannelini beans, drained
* 2 cloves garlic, chopped
* 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
* Fresh thyme for garnish

In a blender or food processor, combine beans and garlic, puree. Slowly add oil. Turn motor off. Salt and pepper to taste. Can be made up to 2 days in advance. Store in refrigerator in airtight container. Bring to room temperature before serving and garnish with thyme.

Sun Dried Tomato Pesto

* 1 1/2 cups sun dried tomatoes
* 1 clove garlic, chopped
* 3 TBS pine nuts (walnuts will work here as well) lightly toasted
* 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a blender or food processor, combine tomatoes, nuts and garlic. Slowly add oil. Turn motor off. Add salt and pepper to taste. Can be made up to two days in advance.

Since it’s still summer, I’m sticking with a cold soup. Gazpacho is always a great option, but the red variety is too common and expected. This green version is unexpected, yet it falls within the two major criteria for this meal (besides being vegetarian): it’s unbelievably simple and unbelievably fabulous tasting.

Green Goddess Gazpacho

* 1 1/4 cup cilantro
* 1 1/4 cup italian parsley
* 2/4 cup basil
* 1 serrano chili, coarsely chopped
* 1 TBS extra-virgin olive oil
* 1 scallion, sliced
* 2 TBS chives, chopped
* 4 tomatillos, husks removed and cut into tiny dice
* 1 avocado, peeled and cut into tiny dice
* 1 Granny Smith apple, cut into tiny dice
* 1 lemon
* 1/2 English cucumber, chopped into tiny dice

In a food processor or blender, combine the herbs, chili and three cups of water and blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the oil. Strain through a sieve, over a bowl and then season with salt and pepper. This mixture can be made up to 2 days in advance. Keep in airtight container until ready. In another bowl, add scallion, chives, tomatillos, avocado, apple and juice from the lemon. Place a portion of the scallion mixture into each of the bowls. Cover with herb puree and garnish with cucumber. Serve cold.

The main course has to be original, delicious, and made in the blink of an eye. Vegetarian meals can be difficult because you can’t just place a slab of meat on a barbecue and call it dinner. But, you can take a slab of fish and with the help of some paper, you can create a meal that will transcend all others. This technique, called en papillote by the French, just means you steam food in their own juices by making a tent out of kitchen parchment paper. It’s very easy, and when you cut open your little packets, your dinner gets will collectively "ooh" and "ahh" over the presentation and then subsequently faint from the fabulous taste.

Fish and Vegetables in Parchment Paper

* 6 white fish fillets (preferably red snapper, tilapia, catfish or seabass )
* 2 small onions, sliced thin
* 3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
* 6 new potatoes, sliced thin
* 1/2 lb string beans, washed , ends trimmed
* 3 small zucchini, sliced thin
* 3 small summer squash, sliced thin
* 1/4 lb shiitake mushrooms, sliced thin
* 3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
* 2 lemons
* assorted fresh herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary, Italian parsley, chives, tarragon, oregano - any combination will do - just go easy on the rosemary)
* Parchment Paper

Cut six pieces of parchment paper, 24 inches long. Fold each paper in half and lay open. About two inches in from the crease, place 1/6 of the onions in a line. Place fish fillet on top of onions. Overlap 1/6 of potatoes of squash/zucchini on either side of the fish. Place 1/6 of mushrooms, garlic and string beans on top of fish to cover. Drizzle with 1/2 TBS of oil and a squeeze from the lemon. Sprinkle with the salt and cover the fish with the other side of the parchment paper. Seal package by folding the bottom end of the paper over the top end of the paper. The end result should resemble a Calzone - just make sure the folds are tight enough to seal package and leave enough room for fish to breathe. Repeat five more times with remaining ingredients. All the vegetables and herbs can be prepared the morning of your dinner party and the packages assembled about 30- 40 minutes before you’re ready to eat.

Preheat oven to 450°.

Place packets on baking trays and bake in oven for approximately 20 minutes. You can check one fillet after about 15 minutes to estimate remaining cooking time - make that open package yours so the guests get the perfect ones. Serve the remaining packages closed and let the guests open them up at the table. They can slide the contents onto the plate. It’s quite fun.

You’ll want to serve a grain with this main course, and my choice for ease and taste and impressiveness is Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa). Quinoa is an ancient Incan grain (said to have fed the Gods) that has become relatively ubiquitous in the last year or so - even supermarkets now carry it. But it is still not mainstream like rice. It’s phenomenally easy to cook and goes very well with the fish packets. Once the fish is in the oven, you can put the quinoa on so they both finish cooking at the same time.

Grain of the Gods

* 1 cup quinoa, rinsed a few times in a strainer
* 2 cups vegetable broth (canned or from a bullion is fine)
* pinch salt

Place quinoa, salt, broth in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes until all of the liquid is absorbed.

** You must rinse the quinoa first or it will taste bitter. You can substitute plain old water for the vegetable broth but then you will get plain old quinoa which does not taste nearly as delicious.

You can also serve a salad, or sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and topped with basil on the side, if you think your crowd will still be hungry. Both can be made way in advance.

So by now, everyone is falling all over themselves to praise your culinary prowess and every hair on your head is still in place. But wait, there’s more. There has to be more. You need to finish with something sweet. Last week’s piece included a wonderfully easy fruit crisp, which by the way can include substitutions from any season. Since you’ve already used your oven, and since it’s still August it may be hot, I’m going to offer up a very easy solution to a delicious meal - a make your own sundae finale.

Purchase (or make, if you really have to) a variety of plain ice-creams and sorbets. My suggestions would be vanilla and chocolate ice-cream or yogurt and lemon and raspberry sorbet. Serve with a large bowl of washed fresh berries and or cut up mangos, nectarines and kiwi. You can also have bowls of toasted almonds, pecans and walnuts that you lightly toasted the night before and kept sealed in an airtight container. The piece de resistance is hot fudge - made from chocolate that you slowly melt in a pan along with a little butter, vanilla and sugar. But we don’t need to do that do we? If you don’t already know how to make it - just buy it, and decant it. I won’t tell, I promise. Just get rid of the evidence. Bring all the ingredients to the table and let everyone go to town. People love do-it-yourself stuff.

So there. Everyone is now fawning all over you and begging you to open your own restaurant. You even toy with the idea because this dinner party has been so easy - especially since you were part of the fun the entire time. But don’t open your own restaurant quite so soon, because you most certainly wouldn’t be able to come to dinner with your guests.