Guess Who's Serving Dinner

A funny thing happened on my way to becoming a restaurant critic -- friends stopped inviting me over for dinner. It didn't happen gradually or politely. One day I was a welcome guest who always brought a bottle of wine; the next day I was persona non grata at their tables. A case of vino couldn't get me through the door.

I can appreciate my friends' rationale: No one wants to feed me for fear I'll criticize their cooking. Even family members, who have little choice but to have me around for holidays and celebrations, occasionally ask, "You're not reviewing this, are you? Heh, heh." Fortunately most of them are good cooks, confident in their abilities. Ego, apparently, is a strong suit in my family.

Still, I can't make my friends understand that it's really the conviviality of dinner parties that I enjoy, and that I would never measure their cooking against the standards to which I hold professionals -- or those who claim to be professionals -- in the culinary field. In fact I wouldn't judge them at all. But the boycott against me hasn't lifted, and so I've come up with some dinner-party advice that just might garner me -- or someone else -- an overdue invitation.

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See, you may not have a restaurant reviewer for a friend, but that doesn't mean you don't have a potential critic angling for a seat at your table. A boss, a new mate, a mother-in-law. Chances are you owe a meal to someone who makes you nervous. Even I'm not immune. I get butterflies when I have to prepare something for my women writers' group. So while following the simple guidelines below may not ensure you a gold medal in the Culinary Olympics, adherence to them just might work to satisfy your dinner guests.

KISS
I don't mean smooch the air near your friends' cheeks at the door. No, I'm talking about the old acronym that stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. Now is not the time to crack open Norman Van Aken's Norman's New World Cuisine and attempt to re-create his snapper escabeche ensalada with salsa romesco, Arbequine olives, avocado, oranges, and ribbons of greens -- unless you're a serious chef, in which case you should probably stop reading right here. The first meal my sister and I ever made, for our parents' anniversary dinner, involved a capon that needed to be deboned, stuffed with wild rice and its own liver, sauced with a beurre blanc, and encased in a pastry shell. I might have been ten; she was about twelve. By the time my folks finished eating, my sister and I had gone to bed, leaving the dishes to my mother. I think she was honestly dazzled -- by the amount of work we'd given her to do.

And yet we learned an important lesson. Novice cooks should follow familiar recipes, using ingredients easily found in the nearest Publix. Check out cookbooks that (a) you're not afraid to splatter with sauce, (b) offer intelligible but sophisticated recipes, (c) explain exotic ingredients or steps using visual aids such as charts or diagrams, and (d) supply shopping tips. I find David Rosengarten's The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook, as well as The New Basics Cookbook by Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins, particularly helpful.

Terra Cotta Is Your Friend
Don't feel as if a five-course meal is in order. As far as I'm concerned, the more dishes you make, the more chances you have of ruining one. When I entertain I like to prepare one-dish meals such as paella, lasagna, or shepherd's pie. I fill a big terra cotta casserole with the appropriate starches, vegetables, and proteins, stick it in a cold oven (a preheated oven might make the dish crack), turn up the heat to 350 degrees or so, and forget about it until the timer goes off. Which reminds me: Don't forget to set that clock.

Stick to a Theme
In other words pasta and spring rolls don't mix. If you're planning to serve an ethnic meal, choose a main course first, then decide on side dishes and accompaniments to complement it. For larger parties consider conforming to a theme, one you can handle. The most traumatized I've ever been as a host was when I threw a sushi do. My husband and I rolled the stuff frantically all day long, then watched our guests down it all in about an hour. Another problem: We'd never made sushi before, and it took us precious hours to get it right. (See KISS above.) I'm still digging out bits of dried-up sticky rice from the cracks in my counters.

Identify Guests' Preferences Beforehand
Nothing is quite as disheartening as serving beef to a vegetarian, as I recently did to a new acquaintance, who, while very polite, appeared to be revolted just looking at my beautiful, medium-rare roast. Then there's another friend who can't tolerate wheat and sugar; my sister, deathly allergic to shellfish; my husband, lactose intolerant. All of them at my table at the same time might present quite a challenge. But it's relatively easy to meet their needs individually and avoid the foodstuffs that cause them problems. A good host is one who keeps her critics out of the hospital.

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