- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When I think of dishes that are just perfect for easy entertaining and made for buffet service, this recipe never fails.

The chicken will hold up and taste even better if made a day ahead. There are many versions of this classic Southern Italian dish. This one is particularly zesty with the addition of mushrooms, sweet peppers and pitted black olives.

I like to use chicken breasts, but this also works well with a whole cut-up chicken or just thighs.

Serve this with fusili or rice and marinated green beans for a simple and satisfying buffet. Or serve the chicken as one entree and fill in the buffet with poached salmon, assorted salads and a baked pasta for a crowd.

Chicken cacciatore

6 chicken breast halves, about 1/2 pound each

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 1/2 pounds sliced mushrooms

1 red pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1 yellow pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

4 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups dry red wine

28-ounce can or bottle of favorite marinara sauce

28-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes with juice, pureed

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 teaspoon dried leaf basil

1 teaspoon dried leaf oregano

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup pitted black olives, Kalamata or your choice

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat in a saute pan large enough to fit the chicken. Saute the chicken, about 3 to 4 minutes, turning to evenly brown. (You may have to do this in batches.) Remove to the bowl.

Add the remaining oil and saute the onions about 5 minutes or until softened and lightly browned. Add the mushrooms and peppers, and saute another 3 to 4 minutes or until slightly softened. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.

Pour the red wine into pan. Bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up the browned bits. Add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, herbs, salt, and pepper. Bring to a simmer on medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until the sauce is slightly thickened and no wine taste remains.

Add the reserved chicken and braise on medium heat for about 20 more minutes or until the chicken is opaque and cooked through. Add the balsamic vinegar and olives and cook another 3 minutes or until the olives are heated through. Taste for seasoning.

Place on a platter and serve with penne pasta or rice. Makes 6 servings.

The buffet is a casual, easy style of entertaining that seems especially well suited to summer. Guests particularly enjoy the unstructured feeling that a buffet creates. Here are some tips for hassle-free buffet entertaining:

THE FOOD

You can have an elaborate smorgasbord of dishes, or build the menu around a central dish supported by complementary dishes that won’t overwhelm it.

Choose foods that will not suffer if eaten warm rather than hot, or slightly chilled rather than cold.

If you’re not planning to have your guests sit down at tables, don’t serve foods that need to be cut with a knife. Instead, choose finger food or precut bite-sized food. Remember your guests will already have a full plate of food, a napkin and a wineglass to juggle.

Make up a prep sheet for the meal, including all the shopping information, which day you will prepare the dish, and what it will be served on. Check everything off as you go.

CENTERPIECES

The main centerpiece on the table is the food - especially when it is attractively displayed and garnished with colorful, edible flowers and herb blossoms. Think of it as a still life.

A basket of simply arranged flowers is always welcome, but make sure it is not too tall.

You may want to have small vases of flowering herbs placed next to a dish that features the same herb.

Imagine what the colors of the various dishes will be and what type of arrangement would best complement them.

Baskets of bright vegetables, such as red and golden peppers, orange and red tomatoes, and different shapes of green and yellow squashes make a striking presentation.

Shallow bowls of freshly picked flowers floating in water along with floating candles are also very attractive.

Assorted shapes and sizes of seashells scattered in the center of the table and interspersed with flowers make an unusual arrangement.

BUFFET TABLE

An important point to keep in mind is that there is no “right” way for the table to look. It is a matter of your own personal taste and what feels right to you.

Mixing and matching old and new, complementary - not matching - napkins and tablecloths, dishes and serving pieces will create a warm and informal atmosphere.

PLATES, SILVERWARE

Matching plates are not any more necessary than matching table linens. Alternate the dishes to create an interesting pattern of color.

If you want to invest in a set of buffet plates, I recommend large, plain white plates or clear glass ones because they adapt to any occasion and are inexpensive.

Paper plates are sometimes more appropriate for a casual buffet. Choose a sturdy, attractive quality plate that can handle a full meal.

Present the cutlery by wrapping it in a napkin and then tying a bow around it with either ribbon or jute. A fresh herb blossom or flower can be tucked into the bow.

GLASSES

Mix and match whatever glasses you have on hand.

For a large party, you might consider renting all-purpose wineglasses. Figure that you should double the amount of guests to arrive at the correct number of glasses.

If you’re serving champagne, use the right glasses, champagne flutes. Buy them, rent them, or use plastic ones, but the shape is essential.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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