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Easy party planning

Fall’s shorter days means longer nights, nights perfect for entertaining. Whether it’s a fancy black-tie bash, an intimate dinner for four or just the guys (or gals) gathering for beer and football, here are tips for pulling that party off right from some of the nation’s foremost experts.

Colin Cowie

“From drab to fab” is Cowie’s motto for fall. The New York-based wedding and event planner, interior designer, author and television personality says you can still make “chic, elegant and tasty” dishes for parties without resorting to expensive or unhealthful ingredients.

Experiment with pastas made of whole wheat or durum wheat flour. He suggests grilling zucchini and corn and combining them with fusilli pasta.

“It’s comfort food without the guilt,” he says.

Use frozen foods to advantage. A whole wheat pizza topped with cheese can take on a fresh look if baked with fresh, chopped tomatoes, mozzarella and jalapeno peppers on top. Or make a “salad” pizza by topping that cheese pie with arugula and sliced prosciutto. Make it a lunch, he says, with a bottle of rose, some cheese and bread.

Don’t forget soup. Spike up a commercially prepared frozen soup with a little white wine and chicken stock. Have a tray of condiments so guests can tailor their soup to their taste.

Cowie suggests offering yogurt, chopped chives or green onions, sliced jalapenos, chopped tomatoes or diced bacon on the side to create a “soup buffet.” “How you serve it makes a difference,” he adds. Cowie likes to pour the hot soup at the table into bowls already garnished with a complementary ingredient, like a crab cake for pea soup. “It’s a way to bring a little drama to the table,” Cowie says.

Patricia Mendez

Tight times don’t have to dampen the party, says Mendez, author of “Easy Entertaining for Beginners.” A resident of Torrance, Calif., she believes a touch of creativity can make anyone entertain frugally without seeming to be pinching pennies. Zip up those football munchies with these easy recipes from Mendez. Purchase a hummus dip; jazz it up with a few drops of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of chopped parsley. Make crab dip. Combine 1 cup mayonnaise, 3 teaspoons horseradish, 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots, 12 ounces crab meat, salt and pepper. Whip up a Mexican-accented cheese fondue. Mix 1/3 cup beer and 2 tablespoons flour in a saucepan. Heat. Add 2 cups Monterey Jack cheese. Melt. Stir in 1 minced jalapeno, 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro. Serve.

Create a “Chili bar” for a casual party. Lay out the usual garnishes and toppings. Beef up the presentation with brats, smoked sausages, hot dogs.

Host a themed pot luck dinner. You can go ethnic, “An Evening in Tuscany” or a Mexican “Family Fiesta,” or choose an ingredient to be the star. Apples, for example, could mean apple martinis, pork tenderloin with baked apples, an apple and blue cheese salad, she says. Provide recipes for the guests.

Ted Allen

Don’t forget the drinks when entertaining this fall, says Allen, who delivered a dozen party ideas when asked for only six. Typical gesture from the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Allen, host of not one but three television series: “Food Detectives” and “Chopped” on the Food Network, and “Uncorked: Wine Made Simple” on public television. He’s also a food writer, cookbook author, and food and wine ambassador for Robert Mondavi Private Selection wines.

Kick off the event with a Champagne cocktail. Here’s how he makes it: Pour a little cassis, kirschwasser, Chambord or another fruity liqueur in the bottom of the glass, fill with sparkling wine. “Add a garnish that makes sense with the liqueur,” Allen says. “One great example, if you can find them, are currants or a little spray of tiny Champagne grapes.”

Always serve some dishes that can be eaten at room temperature.

“That way, you won’t have to worry about running out of precious oven or refrigerator space in the hours leading up to the party,” Allen says. Try this with grilled vegetables, rice salads, pasta salads.

Shop for budget meat cuts to get more flavor at less cost. Allen’s suggestions include pork shoulder, hanger steak and flank steak.

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