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Flip-flop party a casual dining delight

SANTA ANA, Calif. - Come hungry and wear flip-flops. Sounds like a great summer dinner party theme, doesn't it?

The sandals shout casual comfort, a signal to guests to lighten up and enjoy a gathering that's as much fun as the dress code.

I can remember when hosting a dinner party meant days of work. Fussy food, fine china and candles. A pressed tablecloth and starched napkins. A parade of shiny sterling silverware. Crystal goblets.

But entertaining has become a lot more casual. I've had a lot of fun at my daughters' dinner parties and marveled at how relaxed and informal everything is. From the food to the attire, there's a laid-back atmosphere.

No one, especially the hostess, seems worried about anything except good-but-easy-to-make food and laughter.

Most of the action is in the back yard. The tablecloth is pretty, but may be paper. The glasses are pretty, but may be plastic. The dogs romp on the grass while well-orchestrated playlists set an upbeat musical backdrop.

So, I say, it's on with the thongs (oops, that's what we used to call flip-flops before the word became the name of an item of intimate apparel). So on with the zories (yes, we used to call them that, too, as well as "go-aheads"). And onto a menu that focuses on flip-flop "casualization."

OK, I am a cook and a food writer, so every course I've planned is more or less homemade (even if that means just seeding fruit and pouring booze on it, or augmenting a bowl of olives with a tangerine-perked vinaigrette).

But pick and choose what you like, and augment the menu with store-bought fare if desired. For starters, choose from a list of five easy appetizers. Sure, you can ask your guests to bring appetizers, but these are so simple, you just may want to "make" one or two.

To accompany the hors d'oeuvres, set up a bar where guests can pour their own wine or water, open a beer, or whip up summery cocktails called Watermelon Gin Fizzies (or Watermelon Fizzies - mocktails without the gin.

The fixings for the cocktails include ice, a bowl of lime wedges, a pitcher of pureed watermelon, a smaller pitcher of fresh lime juice, and bottles of gin and ginger ale. Provide a spoon (or straws) for stirring and a card with the recipe.

Next, a first course that sizzles with vibrant flavors (but doesn't create a lot of work for the cook), Grill-Roasted Clam Linguine. The olive oil-based sauce can be prepared in advance and takes only 4 or 5 minutes to whip up. The sauce, designed to bring out the best in the clams and pasta, is enriched with garlic, lemon zest, dry white wine and fresh parsley. And a pinch of dried red chili flakes. M-m-mm.

Generally, clam linguine requires a humungous pot of boiling water to cook the clams. It's a process that can make the kitchen feel like a Turkish bathhouse, filling the cook's nostrils with steam and heart with dread.

In this recipe the littleneck clams, bless their little hearts, are cooked on the barbecue until they pop open, Meanwhile, on the stove, the linguine cooks to an al dente tenderness. The drained pasta rests on a big platter, topped with clams and made-ahead sauce. Mixed green salad can accompany the meat in the next course, or can be presented on its own. If you want to make the salad servings portable, portion it out in plastic glasses.

Toss a mixture of baby greens with your favorite dressing. One idea is to liven up a store-bought blue cheese salad dressing with additional crumbled blue cheese and some minced fresh parsley or basil. If desired, top off each serving with a few tiny tomatoes or small wedges of plums or pluots, for color and a sweet-tart bonus.

Next, grill some flavorful lamb chops. Over the past several years, it has become fashionable to serve lamb chops as finger food, using the rib bone as a handle.

To create a clean bone, ask the butcher to "french" them, which is a technique to scrape the away-from-the-meat portion of the bone to remove fat and sinew (think of how the clean bone tips look on a fancy rack of lamb).

The easiest lamb-grilling approach is to buy a prepared rub and massage the chops on all sides with it (before grilling). There are scads of dry rubs available. In the supermarket, they are often stocked in the butcher/meat/poultry department as well as with the spices or with the barbecue sauces. Recently I scouted out two at my local super that I thought worked well, Organic Garlic Pepper Seasoning from Aromatica and Emeril's Steak Rub.

Or, for a slightly more time-consuming method (and less portable chop), try a recipe from Food Network grill-star Bobby Flay. Season the chops with salt and pepper, and grill them along with a couple of halved oranges. The chops are served with a tangy orange-mint yogurt sauce on the side. The caramelized orange halves are cut in half and squeezed over the lamb.

And for the finale (one of my favorite easy summer desserts), tiny melons cut in half and seeded, then loaded with sweet wine such as Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. Well chilled, the melon halves are served with sturdy spoons for scooping out melon and wine. Explain to guests that each strategic bite should include both melon and wine. You can pass crisp cookies; I like ones with nuts for a crunchy contrast.

Wiggle your toes in those flip-flops. Life is good. And so is the casual-entertaining trend.

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GRILL-ROASTED CLAM LINGUINE

Yield: 4 main-course servings or 6 to 8 first-course servings; can be

doubled

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, chopped

1 ½ teaspoons finely grated lemon peel (zest, colored portion only); divided use

¾ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 1/3 cups Sauvignon Blanc or other non-oaky white wine

2 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 canned anchovy fillets, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley; divided use

Coarse salt, such as kosher salt

4 dozen small clams, such as littleneck, scrubbed

12 ounces dried linguine

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Coarse salt to taste

Garnish: lemon wedges and tiny tomatoes

Procedure:

1. Heat olive oil in medium, deep saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic, ¾ teaspoon lemon peel, and dried red pepper flakes; cook until garlic softens, about 3 minutes. Add wine and increase heat to medium high.

Boil until mixture reduces to about 1 cup, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon juice, anchovies, 1 tablespoon parsley and remaining ¾ teaspoon lemon peel. Season with coarse salt.

The sauce can me made ahead to this point 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm before using.

2. Prepare barbecue (high heat). Arrange clams on grill rack in single layer. Cover grill. Cook 5 minutes. Uncover and cook without turning until clams open. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet as they open, retaining juices in shells if possible, about 5 minutes longer (discard any clams that do NOT open).

3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of salted water until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain pasta and toss with a generous tablespoon of sauce; season generously with freshly-ground black pepper. Divide between bowls (4 if main course, 6 to 8 small bowls if first course). Arrange clams with juices on pasta. Stir sauce and spoon sauce on top. Sprinkle remaining parsley on top. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Garnish with lemon wedges and tiny tomatoes.

Nutritional information (per first course serving): Calories 214 (32 percent from fat), protein 14.8 g, carbohydrates 20.1 g, fat 7.7 g (saturated 4.5 g), cholesterol 67mg, sodium 578 mg, fiber 1.9 g

Source: adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

WATERMELON GIN FIZZIES

These delicious cocktails can become mocktails by simply omitting the gin and adding more ginger ale.

Yield: 4 cocktails

5 cups diced watermelon

6 ounces gin

8 tablespoons fresh lime juice

About 1 1/3 cups ginger ale

Garnish: lime wedges or slices

Procedure:

1. Puree watermelon in blender (this will take some coaxing and patience - stop machine as needed and stir contents).

2. Place puree in 4 large, ice-filled glasses. To each glass, add 1 ½ ounces gin, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice and about 1/3 cup ginger ale. Stir.

3. Garnish with lime wedges or slices.

Nutritional information (per cocktail with gin): Calories 232 (less than 3 percent from fat), protein 1.2 g, carbohydrates 56.7 g, fat 0.1 g (saturated 0 g), cholesterol 0 mg, sodium 47 mg, fiber 0.8 g

Source: adapted from Eating Well magazine

GRILLED LAMB CHOPS WITH ORANGE-MINT YOGURT SAUCE AND GRILLED ORANGES

The easiest approach for grilled lamb chops is to season the meat with your favorite prepared rub; then grill chops until nicely caramelized outside and juicy inside, about 2 to 4 minutes on each side (see grilling procedure in Step #2 – grilling times vary depending on fire and desired degree of doneness). If you're feeling more ambitious, here's a more complicated, but still easy-to-prepare recipe from Food Network star Bobby Flay. The yogurt sauce can be prepared several hours in advance and refrigerated.

Yield: 4 servings; can be doubled to serve 8

For Sauce:

1 cup thick yogurt; see cook's notes

2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel (zest, colored portion only)

¼ cup fresh orange juice

4 large cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For Chops:

12 (4-ounce) lamb chops, rib chops preferred, bones "frenched" (fat and sinew removed from top of bones to make them easy to hold as finger food)

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 orange, halved

Garnish: Chopped fresh mint leaves

Cook's notes: To make thick yogurt, line strainer with paper towel. Place whole milk yogurt on paper towel (1 ¼ cups yogurt yields about 1 cup thick yogurt). Set over bowl to catch liquid that drains off. Refrigerate about 3 to 4 hours.

Procedure:

1. Combine all sauce ingredients; cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

2. Heat grill to high. Brush chops with olive oil on both sides; season with salt and pepper. Grill until lightly charred and crusty, about 3 minutes. Turn chops and reduce heat to medium (or move to a cooler spot on grill). Grill until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes more.

3. At same time, grill orange halves cut side down until heated through, 3 to 5 minutes.

4.Serve chops immediately, garnishing each plate with yogurt sauce and orange quarter (for squeezing over meat) and fresh mint.

Nutritional information (per lamb chop): Calories 720 (60 percent from fat), protein 39 g, carbohydrates 32 g, fat 48 g (saturated 19.0 g), cholesterol 125 mg, sodium 489 mg, fiber 0.4 g

Source: "Boy Meets Grill" by Bobby Flay with Julia Moskin (Scribner, $30)

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