The New Block Parties

They work in the design and entertainment fields, are single (mostly), childless, in their late 20s and early 30s, and they are polished practitioners of the latest wrinkle in the nouveau-urban lifestyle--the potluck.

If you just had a suburban tract flashback, this is not your parents' potluck. Rather these communal dinners are staged in industrial-style loft complexes that have sprung up across L.A., where young professionals are lured by generous living spaces as well as proximity to shops, restaurants, museums and galleries.

Take the Lofts at Melrose Place, a 12-unit compound overlooking Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. The flowing, multi-tasking rooms, with their modern, open kitchens, are perfect for the updated "block" parties. "During the day, my loft is my office," says Kenneth Brown, an interior designer who is getting his own TV show next year. "But in a flash, I can set it up as a cocktail lounge for 150." How many suburban homeowners can say that?

Just about anything--from a TV special to a homeowners meeting to carving pumpkins for Halloween--has prompted a potluck. "We have an open-door policy here," advertising executive David Wood says. "People just stop by and pretty soon there's a party going on."

These impromptu soirees can mean some creative food-gathering. Actor Joshua Buxbaum heads across the street for Sweet Lady Jane's killer Oreo Cheesecake--"even if I didn't' make it I'm the hit of the party," he says. He also on occasion picks up the New York-style chicken Parmiggiano pizza at Damiano's Mr. Pizza on Fairfax Avenue. When there's time to cook, real estate agent Marissa Faith swears by her secret hot artichoke dip, while Brown cooks up his Louisiana mama's green bean casserole.

In the spirit of the season, the denizens of Melrose Place hosted a holiday potluck in four courses in four different lofts. The menu: retro comfort food with a 21st century update. Think Lipton Onion Soup dip--only made with creme fraiche, yogurt, caramelized Maui onions and served with homemade potato chips.

While the food goes beyond the Tupperware-and-tinfoil fare of potlucks past, it's still all about chipping in. "We're all so busy, it takes the responsibility off one person and everyone shares in the fun," Faith says. "It's also a great conversation starter . . . everyone talks about what they brought, whether they made it or bought it," Brown says. "And if it's good, you get a recipe."

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retro hors d'oeuvres

Actor Joshua Buxbaum and deejay Darren Foldes let the Jungle Lounge look of their loft inspire the first stop of the evening, for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. A camouflage-print tablecloth and jungle-appropriate accessories complement the patio setting, encircled by bamboo. The hors d'oeuvres--mini corn dogs, chutney cheese balls and homemade potato chips and dip--arrive in an array of containers that blend right in: woven green boxes, baskets, bamboo trays and plates in a medley of khaki hues. Small bowls, vases and trays add an exotic orange accent against an assortment of tropical leaves on the table and in bamboo vases. The three-olive Jungle martinis and Key Lime cocktails are color coordinated to the theme, while '59 Martin Denny "Quiet Village" music sets the mood.

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polychrome salads

The primary colors and modern furnishings in the loft of advertising executive David Wood and florist Curtis Bennett make a sort of Rainbow Room that's a far cry from the New England Colonial that Wood grew up in. Upholstered dining chairs in a bold palette of colors circle the dining table, while brightly hued ottomans offer additional seating. The second course--an array of salads--includes a 10-layer psychedelic Jell-O concoction, a spinach-strawberry salad and a spicy coleslaw, all served on festive Bauer and Fiesta ware plates. A blue runner on the table and red, yellow and azure napkins, along with yellow Gerber daisies in red bowls, add to the colorful scene.

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classic comfort food

An elegant black-and-white backdrop provides contrast for the down-home entrees at real estate agent Marissa Faith's Mid-century loft. White platters show off the traditional dishes of macaroni and cheese, taco pie and chicken breasts stuffed with chiles and cheese. A black-and-white floral runner along a long white table is stacked with white dishes. White napkins tied with black velvet ribbon and black napkins tied with white echo the palette. Tall glass vases hold white amaryllis and curly willow. As for seating, white beanbag chairs that recall the '60s offer comfy perches.

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sweetly modern

A "red" cake with cocoa flavoring, grasshopper pie and old-fashioned snickerdoodle cookies provide a sugar boost for Scrabble, as desserts and games end the evening at interior designer Kenneth Brown's cozy contemporary loft. A loosely gathered, inexpensive fabric acts as a mossy backdrop for homemade desserts displayed on a large round table. Grass-colored organza napkins with torn edges alternate with green ceramic plates to embellish the loft's earthy decor. Coffee, kept warm in sealed carafes, and cordials are offered on a long console table. Cymbidiums adorn dessert plates and coffee cups in keeping with the green theme.

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RECIPES

Caramelized Onion Dip with Homemade Potato Chips

Onion Dip

Makes 2 cups

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 cups sweet Maui onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup creme fraiche

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon Tabasco

Heat peanut oil and butter in a medium-sized frying pan. Saute onions on low to medium heat until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature and stir in remaining ingredients. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

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Potato Chips

Serves 10-12

1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes

8 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Wash and peel potatoes. Using a mandolin or very sharp knife, cut potatoes into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Place baking and sweet potatoes in separate bowls and divide the oil between the two bowls. Coat individual slices with oil and sprinkle with salt. On baking potatoes, add sprinkled paprika. Place two baking racks on top of two baking sheets. Place baking potatoes on one rack and sweet potatoes on the other. Cook baking potatoes for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden and crispy. Lower oven to 450 degrees, then bake the sweet potato slices for 15 to 20 minutes until golden. Check them several times to prevent burning. Serve with onion dip.

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Mini Corn Dogs with Assorted Dipping Sauces

Serves 10-12

Mini Corn Dogs

3 cups vegetable oil

1 cup flour

1 cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Corn dog sticks or wooden skewers

1-pound package of cocktail franks

Heat oil to about 360 degrees in a medium-sized heavy saucepan. In a bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, beat eggs with milk and 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Pour liquid ingredients into dry mixture and whisk until smooth. Insert skewers into cocktail franks. Dip each hot dog into batter. Fry until golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Drain on paper towel-lined plate.

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Spicy Kiwi Red Bell Pepper Dipping Sauce

Makes 1 2/3 cups

2 tomatillos, husks removed

2 tablespoons red bell pepper, diced

1/4 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1/3 cup sweet onion, diced

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 tablespoons green jalapeno pepper jelly

1 lime

2 kiwi fruits

Dice tomatillos. In a food processor, place bell pepper, jalapeno pepper, cilantro, onion, tomatillos, salt, light brown sugar, jalapeno jelly and juice of lime. Blend until smooth. Peel and mash kiwi and stir into mixture. Chill and serve.

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Horseradish Mustard

Makes 1 cup

1/2 cup dried yellow mustard

1/2 cup hot water

1/2 cup oriental rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Pinch ground allspice

Mix dried mustard and water. Let stand uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a food processor, blend remaining ingredients together until smooth. Strain excess liquid and discard solids. Stir mustard-water mixture into strained liquid mixture and simmer over double boiler for about 5 minutes, until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and chill.

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Cranberry Ketchup

Makes 2 cups

1 pound fresh cranberries

1/2 cup sweet onion, diced

1 cup water

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 bay leaf

1/2 tablespoon salt

1/2 cup white vinegar

1 cup light brown sugar

In a large pot, place cranberries, onion and water. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring periodically. Puree mixture in a food processor for 10 to 20 seconds. Place in large pot over low heat and reduce by half. Wrap all spices and bay leaf in a cheesecloth and tie. Add to pot with salt, simmering for 25 minutes. Remove spice bag, add vinegar and light brown sugar and simmer another 15 minutes until thick, stirring frequently to avoid scorching. Remove from heat, chill and serve.

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Rainbow Jell-O Salad

Serves 10-12

6 1/4 cups boiling water

1 4-serving package cherry Jell-O

1 4-serving package grape Jell-O

1 4-serving package lime Jell-O

1 4-serving package peach Jell-O

1 4-serving package orange Jell-O

1 cup vanilla low-fat yogurt

In a small bowl, stir 1 1/2 cups boiling water into cherry gelatin until completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Pour 3/4 cup dissolved gelatin into six-cup mold. Refrigerate until set but not firm, about 15 minutes. Refrigerate remaining gelatin in a separate bowl until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir 3 tablespoons yogurt into gelatin in bowl and refrigerate until set but not firm, about 15 minutes. Repeat process with each remaining flavor, taking care that dissolved gelatin is cooled to room temperature before adding to Jell-O mold. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

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Spicy California Coleslaw

Serves 8

1/2 pound green cabbage, shredded

1/2 pound red cabbage, shredded

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup creme fraiche

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Place vegetables in a medium bowl. In separate bowl, thoroughly mix mayonnaise, creme fraiche, cinnamon, cayenne, salt and pepper. Chill for 30 minutes, combine with vegetables and serve.

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Spinach-Strawberry Salad

Serves 6

10 ounces fresh spinach

1 cucumber, cored and chopped

1 pint fresh strawberries, halved

1/3 cup mushrooms, sliced

1/4 cup toasted shaved almonds

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate

1 tablespoon unsweetened applesauce

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Wash, dry, stem and tear spinach into pieces. Toss spinach with cucumber, strawberries, mushrooms and almonds. In a separate bowl, mix vinegar, lemon and orange juices, applesauce and sesame seeds. Pour over salad, chill and serve.

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Four-Cheese Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 6-8

8 ounces large elbow macaroni

1 cup milk

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1/3 cup provolone cheese, grated

1/3 cup mozzarella cheese, grated

1/3 cup Colby-Monterey Jack cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil macaroni in saucepan and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain. In saucepan, pour 1/2 cup of milk. Sift in 1/2 cup of flour and bring to boil. Mix in 1 cup sharp cheddar and simmer, stirring constantly until mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in half of the boiled macaroni until macaroni is coated and smooth. In a saucepan, mix remaining 1/2 cup milk with 1/2 cup flour and bring to boil. Mix in remaining cheeses, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when mixture is thick, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining macaroni and mix until coated and smooth. To make four layers, pour in half of white cheese mixture. Add half of cheddar cheese mixture and remaining white cheese mixture and finish layering with the remaining sharp cheddar mixture. Sprinkle remaining sharp cheddar over dish. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes.

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Taco Pie

Serves 8-10

1 puff pastry sheet (from 17.3-ounce package), thawed

1 pound lean ground sirloin or turkey

2 tablespoons cold water

2 tablespoons taco seasoning mix

8 ounces creme fraiche

2 tablespoons mild salsa

2 ounces sliced black olives

1 cup baked blue-corn tortilla chips, coarsely crushed

1 cup sharp cheddar, grated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line bottom and sides of lightly greased 9-inch pie plate with puff pastry sheet. In a frying pan, cook ground sirloin or turkey over medium heat, about 10 minutes. Add water and taco seasoning and mix. Remove from heat. Spread cooked ground sirloin or turkey mixture over puff pastry. In a bowl, combine creme fraiche, salsa, black olives and tortilla chips and spread over beef or turkey. Sprinkle cheese over the top. Bake until crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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Grasshopper Pie

Serves 8-10

24 chocolate sandwich cookies

1/4 cup butter, softened

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons lemonade concentrate

1/4 cup green creme de menthe

1/4 cup creme de cacao

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup semisweet chocolate morsels

2 teaspoons sugar

Mint leaf to garnish

In a food processor, finely crush cookies. With a fork, mix together butter and cookies and press to bottom and side of 9-inch pie plate and chill for 30 minutes. Using an electric mixer, whip cream cheese until fluffy. Mix in sweetened condensed milk sporadically until smooth. Stir in lemonade concentrate and liqueurs. In a separate bowl, whip 1 cup heavy cream until soft peaks form and fold into mixture. Chill mixture for 30 minutes and pour into crust. In food processor, finely crush chocolate (should resemble large coffee grounds). Dust top of pie with ground chocolate bits. Whip remaining cup of cream with sugar until soft peaks form. Freeze 4 to 6 hours. Garnish with a dollop of whipped cream and a mint leaf.

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Red Velvet Cake with Buttery Rum Cream Cheese Frosting

Serves 8-10

Cake

3/4 cup shortening

2 1/4 cups sugar

3 eggs

3 tablespoons cocoa

3 ounces red food coloring

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 1/4 cups cake flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

2 1/4 tablespoons vinegar

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Frosting

20 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 pounds confectioners' sugar

3 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 cup butter, softened

3 tablespoons Bacardi light rum

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make cake, cream together shortening, sugar and eggs. In a separate bowl, combine cocoa and food coloring to form a paste and add to creamed mixture. In another bowl, combine vanilla, buttermilk and salt. Fold into creamed mixture in parts, alternating with flour. In a separate bowl, mix baking soda and vinegar and fold into mixture. Do not beat. Pour mixture evenly into 3 greased and floured 9-inch baking pans. Cook for 30 minutes. Rest cakes on wire rack to cool for at least 15 minutes before removing cake pans. Cool on rack for 1 hour before frosting.

To make frosting, mix together cream cheese, sugar and vanilla. Cream in butter and rum. Spread frosting over each cake layer. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

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Jungle Martini

Serves 1

2 ounces vodka

1 thin slice garlic

3 to 4 slices pickled jalapeno pepper

Dash of dry vermouth

Ice

1 large jalapeno-stuffed green olive

Let vodka, garlic and pickled jalapenos steep for 1 hour in the refrigerator. In a mixing glass, combine steeped vodka with vermouth and ice. Shake. Strain into chilled martini glass. Garnish with stuffed olive.

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Key Lime Cocktail

Serves 1

Crushed graham crackers

1 1/2 ounces Stoli Vanil vodka

1/2 ounce Rose's lime juice

1/2 ounce pineapple juice

Ice

Lime wedge

Dip rim of martini glass in water and then onto a plate of crushed graham crackers. In a cocktail shaker, combine vodka, lime and pineapple juices over ice and strain into martini glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

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Recipes by Jeff Respress; cocktail recipes by Heather John; other featured dishes are adapted from "The Big Book of Potluck," by Maryana Vollstedt (Chronicle Books, 2003).

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Food styling by Liesl Maggiore; prop stylist: Gia Russo for Celestine Agency; wardrobe stylist: Denise Solis; grooming: Leiane Taylor for Celestine Agency; production: Leslie Morara

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RESOURCE GUIDE

Tami Mensing wears a Petro Zillia sequin miniskirt, $500, and velvet-trim tank, $205, both available by special order at Petro Zillia, (818) 988-8188, with Hogan patent leather Ninja boots and Julianna Raye bracelet; Alicia Lynch wears Stella McCartney sandals with a Julianna Raye bracelet and necklace; David Wood wears a Lloyd Klein striped shirt, $250, available at www.lloydklein.com, with Energie jeans, $135, available at Energie, Los Angeles; Viva Black wine goblets, $3.50 each, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove, Los Angeles.

Matthew Rachleff holds a salad plate, $4, at Cost Plus World Market, West Los Angeles. On the table: Lamont runner, $20, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove, Los Angeles; AFA tangerine vase, $27, orange Bauer Pottery berry bowl $23, woven raffia tray, $30, all at Scentiments, Venice; orange dinner plates, $8 each, and white bouillon bowls, $5 each, all at Sur La Table at the Grove, Los Angeles; zucchini-green cotton napkin, $2, at Cost Plus World Market; bamboo candles, $8 each, at Urban Outfitters, Los Angeles. Martini glasses, $4 each, at Cost Plus World Market; leaf tray, $19, at Scentiments. Panden square box, $5, at Cost Plus World Market; orange salad plates, $6 each, at Sur La Table at the Grove.

Curtis Bennett wears a Rare gunmetal shirt, $180, available at Traffic, Los Angeles. Shamrock-green Fiesta pitcher, $31, at Bloomingdale's, Century City; Caprice all-purpose goblets, $10 each, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove, Los Angeles. Clear cake stand, $13, at Cost Plus World Market, West Los Angeles, red nut bowl, $16, at Williams-Sonoma, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. On table: Loops spoon rest, $5, green and blue plastic serving bowls, $40 for set of six, all at Crate & Barrel at the Grove, Los Angeles; red, blue, yellow and green salad plates, $6 each, blue square vase $5, blue serving bowl, $13, red, blue, yellow and green linen napkins, $14 each, all at Sur La Table at the Grove, Los Angeles; Bauer Pottery orchid bowl, $30, at Scentiments, Venice; table-runner fabric from F & S Fabrics, West Los Angeles.

Oval dish, $10, at Cost Plus World Market, West Los Angeles, tablecloth fabric from F & S Fabrics, West Los Angeles. Marissa Faith wears a Tree silk camisole, $256, at Fred Segal Flair, Santa Monica, and Julianna Raye pink tourmaline earrings; Ann Eysenring holds a Daisy Doodle dinner plate, $6, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove, Los Angeles, and a Viva Black wine goblet, $4, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove. On the table: round Portugal dish with handles, $10, oval Portugal dish, $10, Portugal pie dish, $10, and tray, $25, all at Cost Plus World Market, West Los Angeles; Viva Black wine goblets, $4 each, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove. Black and white sateen napkins, $4 each, black-tie tall vase, $20, square tall vase, $33, and vintage black serving tray, $12, all available at Crate & Barrel at the Grove; large Portugal serving dish with handles, $15, at Cost Plus World Market.

"Interest" painting by Kenneth Brown; Samoa coffee cups, $14 each; Samoa saucers, $7 each, orange spice votive candles, $5 for set of four, clear sugar and creamer set, $25, olive Como vase, $25, all at Crate & Barrel at the Grove, Los Angeles; green Wingard vase, $70, at Scentiments, Venice; Gala cordial glasses, $3 each, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove; brown resin bowls, $36 each, at Zipper, Los Angeles. Coasters, $85 for set of four, at Scentiments, and green polyester organza napkins, from F & S Fabrics, West Los Angeles.

Pie plate, $12, at Cost Plus World Market, West Los Angeles; tall clear candlesticks, $29 each, green candlesticks, $14 each, and cream pillar candles, $5 each, all at Pottery Barn, Los Angeles and Beverly Hills; olive shimmer candles, $10 each, at Crate & Barrel at the Grove; sage Florenza buffet plate, $13, Larissa pedestal plate, $20, large Juliet cake platter, $45, clear compote dishes, $3 each, and Samoa salad plates, $15 each, all at Crate & Barrel at the Grove; green polyester organza for tablecloth and napkins from F & S Fabrics, West Los Angeles.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction Jell-O recipe -- The recipe for the Rainbow Jell-O Salad that appeared in the Special Entertaining Issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine ("The New Block Parties," Nov. 9) incorrectly called for 1/4 package of cherry, grape, lime, peach and orange Jell-O. The recipe should have called for one 4-serving package of each flavor. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday November 30, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction The recipe for Rainbow Jell-O Salad that accompanied the article "The New Block Parties" in the Special Entertaining Issue (Nov. 9) incorrectly called for 1/4 package of cherry, grape, lime, peach and orange Jell-O. The recipe should have called for 1 4-serving package of each flavor.
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