nice asides

Times Food Editor

It happens to everyone at some point. You invite friends to dinner, then just can’t get excited about what to feed them. Your creativity is in limbo. You procrastinate. The clock moves ahead inexorably and visions of a disastrous evening are beginning to appear. You have to produce something--anything.

Instead of trying to re-create something a professional chef has spent years perfecting, look for an easy out. Don’t even think about preparing an exotic main dish; settle for a simple entree. Put the accent in your menu, not on the meat dish but on an interesting side dish or two. Broiled or steamed fish or chicken generously seasoned with some fresh herbs will go well with almost any vegetable. So will lightly sauteed turkey or pork cutlets, or a small broiled steak.

Vegetable side dishes can be as simple and quick to prepare as a snow pea and mushroom stir-fry or they can be wonderful, rich, old-fashioned mixtures redolent with intriguing aromas and flavors.

Search out the recipe for that never-to-be-forgotten old broccoli casserole Aunt Melissa used to make and serve it with baked chicken breasts brushed with tarragon butter. Or try a colorful new treatment for broccoli by combining it with multihued rainbow corkscrew pasta in a rich cheese-laden sauce. You won’t find this dish on a spa menu, but almost everyone is entitled to splurge a few calories in a good cause once in a while.

If time--or rather the lack of it--is an important factor, by all means consider stir-frying a combination of compatible vegetables. Marinate some chicken or thinly sliced beef or pork in a teriyaki sauce while you do the brief preparation for a quick stir-fry side dish of Chinese pea pods and water chestnuts. A pretty fruit salad and an elegant dessert from a nearby patisserie will add the perfect extra touches this simple menu needs.

If these suggestions still aren’t quite what you’re looking for, how about a nice steak broiled just the way you like it, served with a puffy mashed potato casserole and chilled artichokes for a salad? Or some nice thick grilled lamb or pork chops served with cauliflower topped with a spicy chile-cheese sauce and a simple tossed salad? Or . . . well, maybe the easiest way to provide the inspiration you need is to offer the following recipes and let you find a home for them on a menu of your own making. BEETS, ONIONS AND APPLES

2 1/2 pounds fresh beets, about

1 cup rice vinegar

1 tart green apple

1 tablespoon butter

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons water

Salt, white pepper

Cut tops from beets, leaving about 2 inches of stem. Discard tops. Leave roots attached and scrub beets well. Place beets in large saucepan and cover with water. Add 1/4 cup rice vinegar. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer beets until tender, about 45 minutes.

Drain beets, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Run beets under cold water. Slip off skins. Cut off beet tops and roots. Cut beets into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Set aside.

Meanwhile, core apple and cut into thin lengthwise slices. Melt butter in large skillet. Add apple, onion, garlic and ginger. Saute until apple and onion are tender. Stir in remaining 3/4 cup vinegar, sugar and reserved beet liquid. Heat to simmer.

Blend cornstarch and water until smooth. Add to skillet and cook, stirring gently, until mixture thickens and becomes clear. Carefully stir in beets, blending mixture well. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Makes 6 to 8 servings. STIR-FRIED SHREDDED CABBAGE WITH CARROTS

1 pound cabbage

Salt

1 carrot

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Discard tough outer leaves and stem of cabbage. Quarter cabbage and cut out core. Cut quarters crosswise into fine shreds as for coleslaw. Place in colander, rinse well in cold water and place in large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, then mix and cover with cold water. Let stand about 1 hour.

When ready to cook, wash and peel carrot. Cut diagonally into thin, long slices about 1/8 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long. Set aside. Place cabbage in colander, rinse with cold water and drain well.

Heat wok or skillet over high heat until hot. Add vegetable oil, swirl and heat a few seconds. Add carrot and stir rapidly until color deepens. Add cabbage and stir vigorously to sear evenly. Add sugar and season to taste with salt. Toss mixture to blend well. Add sesame oil and toss vegetables quickly, just enough to coat well with sesame oil. Spoon into serving dish and serve at once. Makes 4 to 6 servings. POTATO PUFF CASSEROLE

4 large potatoes

3 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon grated onion

Dash hot pepper sauce

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Salt

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Boil or bake potatoes until tender. Peel and mash until smooth. Add egg yolks, onion, hot pepper sauce and pepper. Season to taste with salt.

Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into potato mixture. Spoon into greased 1-quart casserole. Dot with butter and bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes or until golden. Makes 4 to 6 servings. BROCCOLI-PASTA COMPANY CASSEROLE

3 pounds broccoli, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Boiling salted water

1 (16-ounce) package rainbow macaroni twists

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup minced onion

6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons flour

3 to 4 cups sour cream

1/2 cup milk

3 tablespoons prepared horseradish

Salt, white pepper

2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup soft bread crumbs

Blanch broccoli in boiling salted water 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Cook macaroni according to package directions. Reserve enough broccoli florets to garnish casserole and toss remaining broccoli with well-drained pasta. Spoon into lightly greased 3-quart casserole and set aside.

Saute garlic, onion and mushrooms in 2 tablespoons butter until tender but not browned. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Add sour cream to onion mixture, blending well. Stir in milk and horseradish. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Heat mixture just to simmer. Remove from heat and pour over broccoli mixture, tossing lightly to coat pasta and broccoli well. Stir in cheese.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in small skillet and stir in bread crumbs. Cook, stirring, just until bread crumbs brown lightly. Spoon bread crumbs over pasta-broccoli mixture. Bake casserole at 400 degrees 40 to 45 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Arrange reserved broccoli florets around edges of casserole and serve hot. Makes 8 to 10 servings. CHEESY POTATO CASSEROLE

5 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/4 cup minced onion

5 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Salt

3 1/2 cups milk

3 to 4 potatoes, peeled and sliced lengthwise 1/8 inch thick

1 (10-ounce) package frozen mixed vegetables, thawed and drained

1 1/4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

Paprika

8 tomato slices, 1/4 inch thick

Grated Parmesan cheese

Heat butter in large saucepan until melted. Add onion and saute until tender. Stir in flour, mustard and pepper. Season to taste with salt. Gradually stir in milk until smooth. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Cover and set aside.

Cook potato slices in boiling water to cover about 5 minutes, or until tender but firm. Drain well. Layer 1/3 of potatoes in bottom of buttered 12x7-inch baking pan. Sprinkle half of thawed vegetables and 1/2 cup Cheddar cheese over potatoes. Spread 1/3 of white sauce evenly over vegetables.

Repeat layering once. Top with layer of potatoes, then spread remaining white sauce to cover top of casserole completely. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Cheddar cheese and paprika over filled casserole. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees 30 to 40 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Arrange tomatoes over casserole in single layer. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Place under broiler until tomatoes are browned and hot. Makes 8 servings. GREEN PEAS AND MUSHROOMS

1 (1-pound) package frozen green peas

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup sliced mushrooms

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Salt

Combine peas, chicken broth and sugar in saucepan. Bring to boil, separating peas with fork. Cover and cook until peas are tender, 3 to 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute mushrooms in butter until lightly browned. Toss peas with mushroom mixture. Season to taste with salt. Makes 6 servings. CHINESE PEA PODS AND WATER CHESTNUTS

1/2 pound Chinese pea pods

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 clove garlic, minced

1 (5-ounce) can bamboo shoots, drained and sliced

1 (5-ounce) can water chestnuts, drained and sliced

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon cold water

Wash peas, remove tips and strings. Heat wok. Add oil and heat. Add soy sauce and garlic and cook a few minutes. Add pea pods, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. Cook over high heat 1 minute, stirring frequently.

Add chicken stock. Cover and cook over medium heat 2 minutes. Combine cornstarch and cold water and stir into pan. Cook and stir over high heat until sauce thickens and bubbles, about 1 minute. Makes 4 to 6 servings. GLAZED PARSNIPS

3 cups diagonally sliced parsnips

Salt

3/4 cup water

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 tablespoon honey

1/3 cup orange juice

1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange peel

Orange slices

Cook parsnips in lightly salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Combine butter, honey, orange juice and peel in saucepan and heat. Add parsnips and mix well. Place in serving bowl and garnish with orange slices. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings. EGGPLANT TERIYAKI

1 pound Japanese eggplant (about 4 to 6)

Vegetable or sesame oil

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup sake, sauterne or mirin

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

Toasted sesame seeds

Cut eggplant into 1-inch-thick slices. Soak in water 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and dry. Heat large non-stick skillet. Add 1/8 inch of oil. Cook eggplant in oil on both sides until tender, adding more oil as needed. Remove from heat. Combine soy sauce, sake, sugar, ginger and few drops sesame oil. Add to eggplant and let marinate 10 to 20 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings. CAULIFLOWER CON QUESO

1 head cauliflower

Salt

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons flour

1 (1-pound) can whole tomatoes

1 bay leaf

1 (4-ounce) can green chiles, drained, seeded and chopped

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 cup shredded Jack or mild Cheddar cheese

Wash cauliflower and remove leaves. Place in 1 inch boiling salted water in large saucepan. Cook, uncovered, 5 minutes, then cover and cook 15 to 25 minutes or until tender-crisp.

Meanwhile, melt butter in saucepan. Add onion and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Blend in flour. Stir in undrained tomatoes. Cook and stir until mixture thickens and comes to boil. Add bay leaf, chiles and hot pepper sauce. Season to taste with salt. Cook 5 minutes. Add cheese and stir until melted. Drain cauliflower and serve topped with sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings. BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND MUSHROOMS

2 pounds Brussels sprouts

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons minced onion

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

Lemon juice or nutmeg

Choose Brussels sprouts of uniform size for even cooking. Cut off blemished leaves. Cook sprouts in small amount boiling salted water until barely tender. Drain well.

Melt butter in saucepan. Add onion and mushrooms and cook until onion is tender but not browned. Add Brussels sprouts, heat and toss to coat well. Turn into serving dish and drizzle with lemon juice or sprinkle with nutmeg. Makes 6 to 8 servings. CARROT RING WITH CELERY SAUCE

2 cups mashed, cooked carrots

1 cup milk

1 cup cracker crumbs

1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

1/4 cup grated onion

1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 eggs, beaten

Salt

Celery Sauce

Combine carrots, milk, cracker crumbs, cheese, onion, butter, pepper, cayenne and eggs and mix well. Season to taste with salt. Spoon into well-greased 1 1/2-quart ring mold. Bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes. Serve with Celery Sauce. Makes 8 servings. Celery Sauce

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

3 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash black pepper

1 cup milk

Melt butter in saucepan. Add celery and onion and cook until tender. Add flour and cook 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened. RONALD CITRONBAUM’S BROCCOLI MOUSSE

1 1/2 pounds broccoli

1/3 cup whipping cream

3/4 cup soft bread crumbs

1/3 cup milk

Butter or margarine

6 shallots

5 eggs, separated

Salt, pepper

Nutmeg

Flour

Tarragon Sauce

Steam broccoli over about 1 cup boiling salted water about 15 minutes or until tender. Drain. Puree with cream until smooth. Moisten bread crumbs with milk. Add to pureed broccoli. Melt 1/4 cup butter in small skillet and saute shallots. Blend into puree with egg yolks. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Beat egg whites to soft peaks, then fold into puree. Line small souffle dishes with wax paper, brush with butter and dust with flour. Fill each souffle dish 3/4 full with broccoli mixture. Bake at 375 degrees 15 to 20 minutes. Unmold and serve with Tarragon Sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings. Tarragon Sauce

2 cups whipping cream

1/4 cup minced tarragon

Salt, pepper

Combine cream and tarragon in small saucepan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Boil gently 5 minutes. Serve hot.