Blending fresh ingredients and prepared foods for instant dinner party

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Dinner parties took on an entirely new meaning after the birth of our son.

With a busy 2-year-old now seemingly in charge of the house, even just thinking about pulling together a lavish dinner for friends makes me tired.

But slowly my wife and I have discovered that parenthood need not mean the end of adult conversation. And the secret to postpartum parties is neither takeout nor shipping junior off to his grandparents.

The tricks include using a handful of fresh ingredients to breathe vibrancy into purchased items, keeping cooking to an absolute minimum, and plan for lots of small bites instead of one large (and complicated) dish.

This entire meal can be on the table in about 30 minutes. And that means we have time to tuck our son into bed, set the table, prep the food and still not be rushing around as our guests arrive.

For this party I usually go Mediterranean because it's easy to find quality prepared foods. It also helps that many of the items are best served room temperature.

There is no centerpiece dish in this menu. The idea is to fill the table with lots of starter-style foods and a few bottles of wine, then let people nibble and drink.

I usually begin with a bowl of purchased hummus, which I top with a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of smoked paprika and a squirt of lemon juice. This is accompanied by a selection of flatbreads and crackers.

For something green, I have a bowl of purchased tabbouleh, a flavorful mix of grains, parsley, onion, garlic and tomatoes. If the flavor is a bit dull, I liven it up with salt, lemon juice and a bit of olive oil.

Next is the feta platter, which is deceptively simple to assemble but offers wonderfully complex flavors. Just set a block of feta on a platter, drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with pine nuts and fresh oregano.

Be sure to let the feta cheese come to room temperature before making this; the flavors are much better. Serve it with slices of baguette (toasted, if you have time).

Finally, I arrange a platter full of dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves. I buy these in a 70-count can at a local Greek market for about $12. Sprinkled with pepper, fresh dill, lemon zest and lemon juice, they are delicious.

If you're so inclined, a platter of cured meats and a bowl of mixed, herbed olives would round out the meal nicely.

For drinking, I usually put out some my "house" wine, $5 bottles of a South African cab-merlot blend that drinks like something triple the price.

Meals such as this are how I assure my childless friends that having little ones doesn't mean the end of adult fun, but it does require that you rethink how you have it.

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FETA WITH PINE NUTS AND HONEY

(Start to finish: 10 minutes)

1/2-pound block feta cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

1/3 cup honey

1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves, washed and patted dry

Place the feta cheese at the center of a large serving plate or platter. Drizzle honey over the feta, allowing it to run down the sides of the cheese.

Sprinkle the ground nuts over the top of the cheese, then scatter oregano leaves over and around it. Serve with cracker, baguette slices or flatbread.

Makes 4 servings.

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DOLMADES

(Start to finish: 5 minutes)

16 dolmades

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon

Arrange the dolmades on a serving platter. Sprinkle them with the dill, then season to taste with pepper. At this point, the dolmades can be covered and refrigerated until ready to serve. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.

Use a fine grater to zest the lemon, sprinkling the zest over the dolmades. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the dolmades.

Makes 4 servings.


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