Guess Who's Coming to 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 I was persona non grata. A case of vino couldn't get me through the door.

I can appreciate my friends' rationale: No one wants to entertain me for fear I'll criticize their cooking. Even family members, who have little choice but to feed me on holidays, 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 by the standards to which I hold culinary professionals -- or those who claim to be professionals. In fact I wouldn't judge them at all. But the boycott against me hasn't lifted, and so I've come up with dinner-party advice that just might garner me -- or someone else -- an overdue invitation.

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 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 help to satisfy your dinner guests.

I don't mean smooch the air next to 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 can 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 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 with 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 Julee 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 things frantically all day long, then watched our guests gobble them down in about an hour. Another problem: We'd never made sushi before, and it took us precious hours to get it right (see KISS). 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 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.

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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