Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

This might be an appropriate time to discuss food poisoning. Avoid serving fare that could contain botulism or salmonella. Forget the caesar salad dressing that calls for an uncooked egg. Forgo the raw oysters. And if you're roasting, say, a turkey, and it's taking longer than you thought, don't shrug your shoulders and serve it anyway. My college roommates made me a celebratory dinner one night, but at nine o'clock the bird still wasn't done. Two hours later we couldn't wait any longer and ate it, skirting around the pink parts, which we threw in the garbage can on the porch. None of us got sick, but the next day we found the garbage tipped over, the Hefty bag torn open, and a dead rodent lying next to turkey bones. Maybe it had a heart attack or died of old age. Then again ...

The Bread and Salad Rule
Picky guests can be prickly critics, but few will leave your table hungry if you supply plenty of fresh-baked bread (unless they're allergic to wheat). I buy a few different kinds -- a soft focaccia, a flavored olive or onion loaf, and a crusty sourdough -- from a reliable source. Bakeries I prefer: Renaissance (12551 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami; 893-2144), if I'm in Dade; Ferraro's (860 N. Federal Hwy., Pompano Beach; 954-782-3331) if I'm in Broward; Biga (2200 W. Glades Rd., Boca Raton; 561-447-8688) if I'm in Palm Beach County.

As for salad, the new prepackaged blends of lettuces, located in the produce section of every supermarket, are both timesaving and tasty; I jazz them up with a handful of toasted walnuts and a can of mandarin orange slices (drain them first). Or you can trek to an organic market -- Whole Oats in Dade and Palm Beach, Bread of Life in Broward -- for already mixed, chemically unadulterated baby field greens. While you're there, invest in a good (read: expensive) salad dressing, and decant it before serving. Pulling out that oily Wishbone Italian isn't likely to wow anybody. Critics don't mind the bottle so much as the brand.

Dress to impress: Basic vinaigrette is so easy to make it's almost a crime to buy the stuff. Here's my mother's emergency vinaigrette. Mince a clove of garlic. Chop some dill or parsley (any fresh green herb will do). Pour in one cup of olive oil and one-third cup of balsamic vinegar. Add a pinch or two of dry Coleman's mustard or one teaspoon of prepared mustard. Twist in some fresh black pepper and salt to taste. Blend in a food processor or in a bowl with a whisk.

A Little Garnish Goes a Long Way
So the dish looks a little mangled, not even close to resembling that glossy photograph you saw in the cookbook. No matter. Freshen it up with a sprig of something -- rosemary is always pretty, and watercress is curly enough to hide plenty of culinary design flaws. Just make sure you use a sprig of something edible. Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for Vogue, found a poisonous leaf garnishing a meal on a transatlantic flight. And I remember a horror story -- perhaps apocryphal -- my grandmother told me about a woman who once livened up her plates with ivy she'd picked from the vine outside her window. Everyone at her table died. Talk about the last supper.

For those with a creative bent, the book Play with Your Food by Joost Elffers is terrific inspiration. Elffers, a photographer, manages to fashion pigs out of Brussels sprouts, rabbits from green peppers and snow pea pods, and insects from okra. Okay, so you might not want to put his "bugs" on your dinner plates. But a hummingbird or two, made from squash, can really sweeten things up.

Recruit Your Guests
The idea is to make them responsible somehow. Ask your hardest-to-please companions to bring the wine; critics love to show off their knowledge. Take the others into the kitchen and give them prep work to do. That way when some of the glazed carrots are still crunchy and others are overly soft, you can say, "Well, Julian did the chopping." Redirected blame might be bad manners, but it's hardly criminal.

Buy Dessert
I admit to being an overachiever. Formerly, for my dinner parties, I would make everything from the crackers that went with the cheese to the final sweet. I quickly realized, however, that the only person conscious of my extraordinary efforts was my husband, who stood in awe of how little sleep I seemed to need. Then some chocolate macaroons exploded in my oven, the debris caught fire, and the smoke detector wouldn't quit -- so I did. The only time it's truly difficult to cook for a critic, I learned that day, is when that critic is you.

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