Serve a festive meal where your guests gravitate &mdash the kitchen

Perhaps because cooking is my business, when I remodeled my kitchen everyone wanted to see the work in progress and, of course, the end result.

I planned for a kitchen where lots of people could gather in comfort because no matter how my husband and I herded guests into the living and dining rooms, they somehow made their own way back into our kitchen, hanging out until they were threatened by warm food turned cold.

A chanukat ha mitbach, the dedication of a kitchen, is a terrific way to celebrate the completion of the heart of the house; combining it with a Shabbat dinner is even more festive.

Let guests know this is an informal meal and encourage them to participate. Leave simple tasks for them. One-dish meals such as hearty soups are great because they can be made ahead.

Cornish Hens with Dates | Serves 8

4 Cornish hens, cut into quarters or halves
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
3 large onions, peeled and chopped
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1 tsp. saffron
1 tsp. turmeric
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbs. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbs. honey
3 cups chicken stock
1 lb. pitted dates, halved lengthwise
juice of 2 lemons

Season hens with salt and a generous amount of pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet, add the hens in batches and brown on all sides over high heat. Remove and set aside. Add onions to the skillet and cook over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, spices, honey and stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and return hens to the skillet. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes or until the hens are cooked. Skim the fat from the surface. Add the dates, lemon, and cook for a further 5 to 10 minutes. Serve hens with some of the dates and sauce.

Watercress, Orange and Red Onion Salad | Serves 6-8

3 bunches watercress, stemmed
3 oranges, peel and white pith removed, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. sherry wine vinegar
6 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

In large bowl, combine watercress, oranges and onion. In small bowl whisk together vinegar, oil and marjoram until well blended. Toss with salad. Taste for salt and pepper and sprinkle with pine nuts.

Cappuccino Chocolate Cake | Serves 10

1 1/2 sticks margarine
4 1/2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 Tbs. instant espresso powder or 2 Tbs. instant coffee powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup flour
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
powdered sugar for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 9-inch-round baking pan.

Place margarine, unsweetened chocolate, espresso powder and cinnamon in medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until smooth. Cool about 10 minutes. Whisk in sugar and eggs. Stir in flour, bittersweet chocolate and hazelnuts. Pour into prepared baking pan. Bake until tester inserted in center comes out almost clean, about 30 minutes. Cool on rack. Turn cake out onto cutting surface and cut into wedges. Dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Rebecca Ets-Hokin. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].