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A Virgin's Guide to Everything
By Lauren McCutcheon

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 A Virgin's Guide to Everything

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A Virgin's Guide to Everything
By Lauren McCutcheon
ISBN: 0446695734
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help

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Chapter Excerpt from: A Virgin's Guide to Everything , by Lauren McCutcheon

1


ENTERTAINING


Hosting a first shindig is a big step in a virgin's life-even if that shindig is holing up on a Tuesday night with takeout. A virgin's willingness to entertain reveals she inhabits a reasonably presentable living space, one with a refrigerator, possibly a freezer, a table, one or more chairs, and cabinets and drawers holding dishes, glasses, and utensils, mismatched though they may be.

But more than that, tossing out an invite and seeing who shows up indicates a virgin's going places. She's not daunted by the size of her studio apartment or her meager MP3 collection. Her main concern isn't the thread count of her duvet cover-or the fact that she's still shopping for curtains. It shows she values good friends, times, food, and drink above all else. (After all, she's going to be vacuuming and shoving stuff in the closet before they come over.)

Furthermore, our little girl-all grown up-has come to the place in her life where she's prepared to spend the equivalent of a month of manipedis on simply playing host, with her only guaranteed, immediate rewards being a few hours of prep time followed by a few more hours of cleanup, possibly while hungover.

COCKTAIL PARTY

I like to have a martini Two at the very most- After three I'm under the table, After four, I'm under my host
-DOROTHY PARKER

A cocktail party. How hard can that be? Drinks. Music. More drinks. Kind of like a kegger, but with refined shaken-or-stirred libations instead of beer from a tube.

Oh yes, and a few other things. Like nicer clothes. And more polite conversation. And clever garnishes for each drink. And food you spear with a toothpick instead of grab with your hands. And glasses instead of Solo cups. And fancy napkins . . . But no keg stands. Definitely none of those. More like pure, completely adulterated party-scene-in-Breakfast-at Tiffany's-style fun.

GO-TO GIRL*

Sarah Gray Miller Founding Editor, Budget Living Magazine

Sarah Gray-the double first name reveals her Mississippi roots-is the ultimate cocktail party hostess. She says her talent comes naturally. "I'm Southern. We take babies to cocktail parties down there." Her fondness for bourbon (when it's not Woodford Reserve, she's fine with Jim Beam), her ability to remain lucid after polishing off a six-pack, her categorical rejection of the chocolatini, and her conviction that an apartment is not an abode without a fully stocked liquor cabinet are impressive, but her real party-throwing skills reside in her creativity. She's a whiz at thinking up clever party themes, and always looks out for inexpensive favors-like a New Year's Eve piñata to stuff with hangover remedies or embossed matchbooks that double as Prohibition-theme party invitations. Sarah Gray measures a soiree's success by how long guests want to stay and is always prepared to let friends spend the night. Her cocktail party mantra: "The worst, worst thing is if the hostess isn't having a good time."

*Go-to Girl: A bonafide, flesh-and-blood-big-sister type who's been here, done this, and lives solely to tell (you) about it.

What You'll Need

Budget. How much you can spend determines what kind of party it's gonna be. Expect to lay out $100 to $200 for fifteen to twenty guests. Got a bit more dough to drop? Hire a bartender. Says Sarah Gray, "A lot of colleges and universities have bartending schools where you can hire a college student who's learning to be a mixologist" for a low, low price. Or, call a local bartending school.

Theme. Doesn't have to be huge, but does set a tone. Stir some summer into a frosty February by cranking up the heat, blending up frozen margaritas, and playing Jimmy Buffett. Celebrate the 100th-something birthday of Cary Grant-January 18-with martinis, pink champagne, a mini film festival and black-tie-only rules (we stole this idea from some virginal boyfriends). Hurricane headed your way? Batten down the hatches and mix up some dark 'n' stormies, or match a grown-up drink to an immature theme: piña coladas and a piñata. Prosecco and a bubble machine.

Invitations. Invite twenty to thirty friends. "You can count on 30 percent of the people not showing up. And any less than fifteen people, and you don't really have a cocktail party on your hands." Sarah Gray prefers the mailed invite to the Evite, so save a few bucks by sending out postcards instead of envelopes. (Now there's something you can do with those leftover postcards from Las Vegas and Dollywood: Throw a casino party hoedown!)

Decorations. Log on to www.ustoy.com or www.orientaltrading.com for "hilarious little anythings in bulk. Rather than splurging on crème de cassis for the bar, spend your money on those little details that are going to make people remember the party." Cheap stuff we love: blow-up tiki bars, glow-in-the-dark necklaces, plastic grass hula skirts, Mardi Gras beads, feather eye masks.

While you're installing your fabulous cheap disco ball and glitter streamers, be sure to put away anything that would make you very sad if it were harmed when your best friend inevitably busts out with her MC Hammer.

Drinks. A premixed signature drink cuts down on costs-and relieves the host of bartending duties. Stick to vodka for the main bevvie. "Because not everyone is crazy for bourbon or scotch," says Sarah Gray. Count on eight ounces of hard liquor per guest-more if your buds are serious boozehounds.

Stock up on beer and wine. "There's nothing I hate more when I go to a cocktail party than when they do the signature cocktail thing and nothing else." Serve beer in a galvanized tub filled with ice, or in an ice-filled bathtub (a little frat-y, but it'll do in a pinch). Look for second label wines (less expensive vintages made by high-end producers, like Hawk Crest Margaritas by Stag's Leap). If you're running low on liquor funds, skimp on wine. "I never expect it, but most people do bring a bottle of wine . . . I always seem to wake up the next morning with seven or eight bottles of great wine."

Food. Low-maintenance only. Save the é, the gougères, the fondue for a dinner party. If it can be poured into a bowl and eaten with toothpicks or fingers, it's appropriate for a cocktail crowd.

Finger food we love to nosh:

Mini egg rolls from Trader Joe's Hummus and pita chips
Cheese plate with cornichons, hot mustard, and sliced baguette bread Blue cheese-stuffed olives
Spanish nuts
Nonna's Cucina tortilla chips, homemade salsa, and guacamole (keep the guac fresh by burying the avocado pit in the bottom of the bowl) Terra Chips
Homemade sweets: bar cookies are infinitely faster than drop cookies: Ghirardelli box-mix brownies, mini chocoalate chips, lemon squares, raspberry oatmeal bars
Imported sweets: mini cannoli from an Italian bakery, sweet bean pies from a Chinese pastry shop, mini cream puffs, eclairs, and bite-size fruit tarts from a French or French-Vietnamese patisserie

Glasses. Stock up on less expensive glass vessels at Ikea, Kmart, etc. "You don't wanna break out the Baccarat at a rowdy party. But I don't believe in the plastic stuff either," says Sarah Gray. If you're using Popov or another, um, un-costly liquor as the base for your signature drink, consider transferring it into a comely decanting vessel.

Music. Burn a few CDs. Start with getting-in-the-mood music (Nicola Conte, Bebel Gilberto). End with impossible-not-to-dance-to tunes (Out- Kast, Scissor Sisters, Lauryn Hill, vintage Prince, way vintage Jackson 5). "I always keep one or two CDs that are retro or dance music. Normally I kick them in once the party starts to get out of control-in a good way." Stash your CD collection to prevent you or anyone else from playing part-time DJ.

Activities. Have parlor games standing by, ready in case there's ice to be broken. "There's nothing like a round of celebrity," says Sarah Gray. Charades, Pictionary, Name That Tune, Twister, even drinking games inevitably fizzle out in the first fifteen minutes, which means people are more interested in each other.

Sarah Gray also likes to turn her bedroom into a photo booth, with a digital camera, props, and a printing station.

Wing women. "Make sure there are one or two people at your party who are close enough friends to you that they can help you out-with beer runs, etc. You certainly don't want to have a cocktail party of thirty people you've just met."

Arm your steadfast assistant social directors with information about guests-"Oh, you're Tony, the Tony who's just returned from Turkey"- as well as any household details that might pop up while you're busy putting your right hand on red and left foot on green-"Oh, don't worry about the toilet, it overflows all the time."

BORN-AGAIN VIRGIN

Pauletta Party Girl had her Gimlet Gauntlet planned down to the very last lime slice. She'd dusted every bunny from underneath her dining room table. She'd received RSVPs from a savory blend of friends and associates. She poured herself a juicy libation and pushed play on her get-the-party-started mixed CD at T minus ten seconds. Guests arrived, appropriately attired, in a steady stream. The mini quiches, lamb kebabs, and chocolate és were a huge hit. Pauletta made sure the buffet was never empty. When the beer supply wound down to four, Pauletta called in reinforcements from the grocer who delivers. Glasses emptied. Pauletta refilled them. She also fluffed pillows, changed CDs, recycled empties, relit candles, turned the living room into a dance floor. Before she knew it, her well-applied Benefit High Beam shimmer turned into a full-fledged, foggy-day sweat. And it was 1:00 a.m. And guests headed to the door. They had a great time. Pauletta, however, didn't. Because she failed to party at her own party, Pauletta is a born-again virgin. Still, she's a game gal, that P.P.G., and got right back in the saddle for the next month's Mojito Meltdown. This time, she relaxed, laughing in the face of spills, dancing atop her own coffee table, and generally proving Sade wrong: A second time can be as good as a first-even better.

The Big Night

Pre-party duty: Have your first drink. Start to sip (gently) the moment the party is supposed to begin. Most guests will arrive twenty minutes after the SET start time.

Party duties: Have fun. Refill, restock, casually, remembering you set the tone for everyone else. Translation: Flitter, float, and be the first to disco. Deal with the spilt red wine tomorrow. Don't get sloshed.

Post-party duty: Take it easy. This means if a guest or two ought to spend the night, let them spend the night. Put them to bed with a pillow, a glass of water, a couple of tablets of pain prevention, and a trash can lined with a plastic bag. Allow them to take you to breakfast the next morning, and to help with the cleanup. It's the least you can do.

PROPER MEAL FOR ONE

When I'm home alone, I will open up a bottle of wine, set a place mat down, and have a civilized dinner. Just because I'm alone, it doesn't mean that I have to eat like an animal. -CLAUDINE PÉPIN

In the beginning, there was the boob-that, and/or the bottle. We cried, and the nipple delivered. Next, we slurped up jarfuls of pureed vegetables and fruits. Then came the boxed food phase, when we put our baby chompers to work, first with Cheerios, eventually moving on to Crunch 'n' Munch. Big kid food led to cafeteria grub.

Now, graced with a fridge of our own, we grown-up eaters face a whole new challenge: feeding ourselves.

To some of us, this chore comes easily. Like to you, for example, who, at this very moment are pondering: sauvignon blanc or chardonnay for tonight's roast capon and rosemary potatoes followed by apple tart ? la mode? Others of us, however-ahem, you, on the floor, munching pretzel logs dipped in peanut butter, slugging down flat Diet Coke with Lime and watching Judge Judy reruns-could use a little help.

Here's the secret to a successful meal for one: It's not what you eat; it's how you eat.

No time to puree your bisque or br?ler your crème? Oodles of Noodles can be as much a meal as a Julia Child-like feast pour une. That's not to say there isn't room to improve from the ramen realm. It's just that we all gotta start somewhere.

Step away from the sink. Get up off the floor. Cordon off any sleeping area. If your first real meal on your own isn't occasion enough to use your dining table (or, at the very least, a TV tray) for its intended purpose, then nothing is.

Phase One: Table for One and Takeout

Clear the dining surface of all junk mail, laptops, pets, bank statements, stamp collections, cosmetic brushes, etc. Do this completely. Bring out a partial (place mat) or full (tablecloth) covering. Place the covering on the table surface. If desired, add freshly cut flowers and/or one or more unscented candles.

Spelunk your kitchen drawers and cabinets for one each: clean napkin, fork, knife, spoon, full-size plate, small plate, or bowl-because a meal always tastes better on real plates-water glass, wineglass. Lay them out neatly. Fill the water glass. Fill the wineglass (or at least open the bottle).

Now you're looking good. Depart your nifty new dining arrangement to retrieve a pizza and a salad from your neighborhood Italian take-out joint. Return home.

On a non-dining surface, open the take-out bag. Transfer the salad to the small plate or bowl. From box of pizza, extract one slice. Bring the salad and slice to the table setting. Sit. Eat.

While chewing and swallowing, you will be tempted to turn on the tube, catch up on bills, read a book, call your mom. Don't do it. You may, however, play the music of your choice.

Congratulations: You just completed your first meal for one.

Phase Two: Making Dinner

Don't panic. Campbell's finest tomato bisque and a grilled cheese sandwich count. But hardcore DIY counts for more.

The trick here is timing. Do you work late or go to the gym right after the office? Then prepare in advance meals you can reheat: lasagna, roast chicken, veggie burgers, anything ending with "Parmesan"-or anything made in a Crock-Pot.

The stove life of lots of foods-starches like pasta and rice, fish, fowl, and meats, steamed veggies-has a small window of pleasant edibility. Serve yourself the hot food when it's ready, even if this means shifting the first course to second place. Salad after a meal is actually a nice switch- and good for your digestion. (At least that's what the French say.)

Our favorite cookbooks for meals for one.

Bowl Food-The New Comfort Food for People on the Move: soups, salads, stir-fries, curries, pasta-this book offers up simple but hearty recipes for one-dish meals

Girl Food, Cathy Guisewite and Barbara Albright: one of our favorite comic book heroines serves up quick-and-easy recipes with a liberal dash of her deadpan wit

How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food, Nigella Lawson: the uber-domestic goddess breaks down the basics in fun recipes that are dee-lish and easy to execute

Joy of Cooking, any edition: supplies basic techniques for when socalled simple recipes turn complicated

The Girl Can't Cook, by Cinda Chavich: a no-fail guide around the kitchen with recipes organized into "sustenance, decadence, and observance."

GO-TO GIRL
Claudine P?pin Chef, Author,
and Intrepid Solo Diner

In college, Claudine had a minor revelation: "Why should I wait to have company to eat off a plate?" Of course, to the daughter of a world-famous chef and a mom who insists on using the good silver for every meal, this revelation came somewhat naturally. What came a little less naturally were culinary skills. Her favorite tale of cooking floppery: "I was in my second year at college and invited my father over for dinner. One of my father's favorite meals is roasted chicken, a good green salad, and roasted potatoes. So, I went to a fancy food store in Boston, bought a hen, green salad, and potatoes. I started cooking too early. He arrived late. As it turns out, a hen is meant for soup. The thing was like eating a piece of shoe leather. I looked at him with big, second-year-of-college eyes and asked him how it was. He looked at me and asked, 'As a father or as a chef? . . . As a father, it was delicious.'" Then she learned quickly. She and Papa Jacques racked up on-air hours taping the show Cooking with Claudine. In front of a live TV audience, Claudine picked up the finer points of shopping to supping. Claudine P?pin is our cookfor- yourself Go-to Girl.

Kitchen Essentials, According to Claudine

Knives: four of them."A small knife, a paring knife, a large knife, and a good bread knife. Only four, because you can use only one knife at a time. And you need them to be sharp. Buy knives that are easy to sharpen. I like Lamson Sharp because I have small hands. If you cook twice a month, get them sharpened once every eight months. When you feel like you can't easily slice through a tomato, get your knife sharpened."

Oil."If you don't cook a lot at home, it's very important to keep oil in the refrigerator. Oil can go rancid quickly, especially sesame oil." After time in the fridge, "it might look like it's congealed. Just take it out, and in twenty minutes it will be fine."

Salt 'n' pepper. "Go for kosher salt over iodized salt. If you look at iodized salt under a microscope, you see the shape of it is round, which means it falls off food. Kosher salt is jagged, like broken glass. You use less of it and you get more flavor. It sticks to your food properly." Don't bother with pre-ground pepper. It's like using old fresh herbs. Or, think of Folgers or Maxwell House and really nice freshly ground coffee. That's the difference between pre-ground and freshly ground pepper. Pre-ground pepper has a really bland taste. Freshly ground pepper is nutty and spicy . . . Invest in a good Peugot pepper mill."

Pans. "I'm a fan of really good, no-stick pans. People buy a whole set of pots and pans. You don't need them. Remember the thin, dinged-up pots and pans you used in college? You felt like you could burn water in them. You want a piece of metal that's thick." Think Le Creuset. Think All- Clad.

Whisk. "You need one whisk."

Wooden spoon with a straight edge. "If you make a sauce, you can scrape the bottom of the pot with the edge."

A rubber spatula. "One that is heat resistant."

A slotted spoon. "You'd be surprised how much you use a slotted spoon."

A really thin spatula. "One that's made of flexible, thin metal. You can't get big spatulas under what you need to get out."

Pastry scraper. "This is my favorite kitchen utensil-and I don't make pastry. I use it all the time. When you cut a bunch of onions, use it to push the onions into a bowl or pan. It's like a big hand."

To Recap: The Top Ten Most Beautiful Things about Eating Alone

- You're always on time to dinner.

- You're always impressed by your own cooking.

- No permission required for seconds.

- You don't have to finish your vegetables.

- Spilling is OK.

- Burping, too.

- Farting is permitted, but discouraged.

- Talking with your mouth full is a nonissue.

- No need to share.

- No need to finish your spinach in order to have dessert rights.

ROMANTIC DINNER FOR TWO
Find me a man who's interesting enough to have dinner with and I'll be happy.
-LAUREN BACALL

It isn't just the seventy-five minutes you wait to be seated at that chic new bistro across town. It isn't just the wobbly table, wedged between an espresso station and a swinging kitchen door. Nor is it merely the noise level that incites a polite shouting contest between you and your date, or the server that scoffs at your choice of wine-and then spills it onto your suede skirt-or the bill that exceeds your monthly rent check. It is all of these combined-and, perhaps, one of those handy, courage-bolstering espressos-that leads you to do the unthinkable.

"How about I fix you dinner next week . . . at my place?" you ask. The question hangs in the air, suspended in a cartoon bubble. Its presence is shocking. Suddenly, you're back in junior high health class, raising your hand and asking, "What's a testie?" You recognize the voice as yours, but the idea itself surely came from a nether region of your unconscious. But there it is. Floating up there, above your head. Across the table, a face smiles, a head nods. Your offer has been accepted.

So this is how it's gonna be. You. Your significant other (or as signifi- cant an other as a former stranger can be after four dates). A rendezvous for next Saturday night. At your apartment. With food you've promised to make yourself. Oh man.

The upside: no restaurant-related inconveniences. The downside: little previous experience cooking for yourself, let alone for someone you find irresistibly cute, highly intelligent, and sweaty-palm inducing. Wipe off those hands. Pick up your favorite cookbook. You can do this. You've got a whole week.

P.S. Words to the wise. Remember to ask ahead of time your date's likes, dislikes, allergies, intolerances, etc. Anaphylactic shock is such a date dampener. Stick to three courses: starter, main, and dessert. And make these courses light. "If you're thinking of-let's face it-trying to get busy afterward, you don't want to be full of heavy food. After a heavy meal, you're not feeling sexy," says our next Go-to Girl . . .

GO-TO GIRL

Thia Boggs Caterer, Event Planner,
Culinary Program Coordinator
for Macy's Union Square in San Francisco

Quality-over-quantity girl Thia began her culinary career assembling pear slices into the shape of a bunny, as per the instructions of Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls. Nowadays, she books top chefs for appearances in the test kitchen at San Francisco's Macy's Union Square-a job for which, on occasion, she spends weekends baking hundreds of Nigella Lawson's mini chocolate cheesecakes. Thia's our number one for the classic lines: "If something occurs to you and you're like, that's not the way they do it in the books, well then screw it. Do it your way." And, "There's nothing sexier than confidence."

The Mantra According to Thia: "You are the greatest dish in your whole dinner."

The Meaning of the Mantra: "You don't have to make the meal the star: You're the star."

The Meaning of the Meaning: This time, "It's not all about the food. If you're going to have an eight-person dinner party, it's about the food. In this scenario, it's about you eating with someone. Whatever you do, don't make yourself feel more self-conscious."

The Application of the Meaning of the Meaning: The first production of dinner at your place emphasizes tangible inedibles as much as edibles. In other words, the scene, costumes, and rapport are just as important as the meal itself. This should be good news for less-experienced home chefs.

Rethunk Rules of Dinner for Two

Lighting before flowers. Fluorescent overheads render a room about as seductive as an office cubicle. A decent dimmer or a ten-pack of votives makes a much better investment than a bouquet of exotic blooms.

The lighting is a must, but if you're flush enough to afford both, buy one kind and color of mildly scented to unscented flowers-chrysanthemums, zinnias, white crocus. Float blossoms in a bowl or make sure the centerpiece is below eye level. Keep a few empty vases in reserve in case your date brings you an arrangement.

Clothes before food. If it's T minus sixty minutes and you're still in sweats, crank up a smooth soundtrack and get thyself to wardrobe. Your date will be fine if hanging out in the kitchen while you mix the salad dressing. Your date will be less fine hanging out in the kitchen/at the table/on the couch while you dress. The food can wait. Your adorable outfit cannot.

Make space stove-side for your special guest to hang out while the sauce simmers. "It's totally cute to watch somebody cooking," says Thia. Possible jobs to delegate: the selection of mood music (from your carefully and recently edited music assemblage, minus the Ricky Martin/ Savage Garden/ RuPaul). The mixing and pouring of cocktails. The complimenting of your obvious and numerous culinary skills.

Pre-cleaning before post-cleaning. Tidy up the homestead ahead of time. But when dinner's done, forget about the mess.

Behold the lesson Thia learned from her dear grandma, who imparted these grandmotherly words: "Screw that. Put away the food that you don't want to spoil, but NEVER CLEAN UP THE SAME NIGHT." If your date wants to play dishwasher, fine. But if your loveseat compels the two of you to employ it for its intended purpose, soak the Fiestaware in the sink and get down to some old-fashioned postprandial necking.

Starter

Think spicy or extremely fresh, to wake up the appetite. Try a simple salad of tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Spring rolls with peanut sauce. Bruschetta brushed with pesto. Cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Baked goat cheese with dandelion greens. If you're feeling daring: raw oysters, the original aphrodisiac. Things that add panache to Boston bibb lettuce or mesclun: crumbled blue cheese, smoked trout, grilled pears, spiced pecans, golden and red beets, roasted garlic, heirloom tomatoes, pine nuts.

Main Course

Go with what you know. Think of where you grew up. Of your ancestry. Of your year abroad. "Don't try to cook food that isn't you," says Thia. Plus, a recipe with a story attached to it "takes the pressure off because you're not trying to be fancy or perfect; you're really making something from the heart."

Come from a home where Mom and Pop considered the stack of takeout menus their own personal Joy of Cooking? No problem. Simple yet impressive:

- Pasta (seasonal). Butternut squash ravioli in fall. Pesto farfalle in summer. Creamy, Parmesan-topped gratin in winter. Classic primavera in spring. "The Italians understood this so well: total cucina amore."

- Grilling. (Let your guest show his skills.) Tuna steaks briefly marinated in soy sauce and O.J. Petite filet mignon. Shish kebabs. Or, because you can't beat 'em, burgers and dogs.

- Roasting. Capon or Guinea hen, those little flavorful birds that oneup chicken any day. Pot roast (it worked for Grandma when she was wooing Grampa). Roasting requires a little more time, but you get to pay less attention.

Dessert

Anything that doesn't require your extended presence in the kitchen. Ice cream with fresh fruit. Ice cream with a quick and easy strawberry lavender sauce. Brownie sundaes. Cookies you baked yesterday and nuke for ten seconds tonight. Thia's into the s'more thing. A few graham crackers, a few marshmallows, a chocolate bar, and a heat source make the meal's end interactive. (Extra note to self: Eating with hands is the ultimate leveler- half child-like, half très adult!)

It's No Sin to Order In

Just couldn't get your act together in time? Good old-fashioned takeout will rescue you. Feel free to amp it up with a few of your own creations. Order fried chicken from that great little soul food restaurant down the block. Pair it with sweet tea, homemade mac and cheddar, and Grandma's Coca-Cola cake.

Pick up some steaming pho from your favorite Vietnamese. Add fruity rum drinks. Follow with warm rice pudding with coconut milk. Or, prepare your own savory starter and main course, and purchase the strawberry shortcake from a qualified professional.

POTLUCK

You can't forget the Jell-O salad. You watched it wiggle, saw it jiggle, that mass of grass-green goo magically holding aloft a variety of canned fruits and miniature snacks. Each pretzel, each mini marshmallow was evenly distributed in midair. Or mid gelatin. There it was. In your fridge. At the church picnic. At your family reunion.

At any gathering that required each participant to bring a covered dish.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with the potluck concept. Even a 1979- style potluck, complete with meats served directly from the Crock-Pots that cooked them. A potluck virgin ought not to allow her painful Jell-O salad memories to come between her and the luck of the pot.

GO-TO GIRL
Mindy Fox Cookbook Writer
and Potluck Mobilizer
Smart girl, that Mindy. She moved to NYC not knowing a soul, gathered up women she met through culinary publishing, and started an eating club. These days, Mindy and ten friends assemble a few times a year at the home of the pal with the largest dining room table for a potluck dinner. Each pal brings a dish. There doesn't need to be an occasion, but there usually is. "There's always something to celebrate, and we make somebody the guest of honor," says Mindy. A new job here, the passing of Julia Child there, a yen for crawfish etouff?e: Any reason to get the gals together. The collaborative effort, all-homemade meal is "an oldfashioned kind of thing. It's from before the time when you could buy a roast chicken at a gourmet food store. It's from a time when people cooked . . . And it's a really nice way to build your community."

The Potluck Players

The organizer. Must be adept at delegation. Must be willing to send and to answer multiple e-mails. Must be unafraid to ban store-bought dishes. The host. Must be the owner of a kitchen with a real stove and a genuine full-size oven. Must have room to store items in a genuine full-size refrigerator. Must also own a dedicated dining area (be that a large table with an adequate number of chairs or a room with enough seating or carpet space to accommodate guests). Must possess ample supply of cleaning items as well as emergency condiments, serving dishes, flatware, glasses, Tupperware or the equivalent.

The cooks. Must know how to prepare one decent dish. In the absence of such knowledge, must be willing to master one decent dish through practice- by testing it out on willing tasters in the days before the potluck. Must be able to transport the dish to the host's home without ruining it. Must arrive on time or early to help the host set up for the meal. Responsibilities may also include staying late to assist with cleanup. The non-cooks. Must check with the organizer, cooks, and host to arrange libations commensurate with the meal. Must chill white wine, beer, champagne, or bottled water beforehand. Must assume the role of dishwasher, dish dryer, or leftover packer-upper.

The Potluck Rules

- Pick a theme (to avoid culinary clashes). Indian food. Diner food. Southern food. French food. Senegalese food. Says Mindy, "You wouldn't want to have one person making barbecue chicken and another person making a é."

- Gather a reasonably sized group. Any less than five isn't a party. Any more than fifteen is too much of a party.

- Distribute food responsibilities evenly. At the minimum: two hors d'oeuvres, one salad, one main course, one dessert, one beverage delivery for five people. Translation on this last one: a bottle of wine and a liter of water for every two dinner guests.

- Enlist help. Anyone who'll need to use the oven or stove should arrive early. Non-cooks who brought the beverages shouldn't shirk dish-doing duties after the dessert plates are cleared.

Potluck Tips

- BYO recipes. Ask each cook to bring copies of her dish's recipe, one for each eater. As the host, you'll supply a hole punch and affixing devices (string, clips, etc.). Assemble a casual cookbook.

- Plan to serve hot and cold foods, to avoid crowding on the stove and in the oven.

- Salad maker: Prepare dressing(s) ahead of time, reserve in bottle(s) then toss on site, at last minute.

- The more people you invite, the more food you'll have. No need to overfeed.

DINNER PARTY

It might as well be the impossible dream. The idea that you, of your own free will, would invite more than three friends to your home to serve them a sit-down, multicourse dinner that you make yourself. The concept seems much more fantasy than reality.

But something is calling you to do it. That something might be your grandmother's French country dinnerware. Or the shame you feel from years of reading a decade's worth of gourmet magazines and never testing out a single recipe.

Maybe you've mastered a vinaigrette. Or inherited a shiny set of All- Clad. Or want to show off your new digs. Could be payback time for all those times you've mooched squares from settled-down pals. Of course, it's also possible that you harbor a secret desire to be Martha. Or that you're nuts. After all, you've just started feeding yourself. What would possess you to think you're equipped for feeding others is, well, anybody's guess.

The thing is: If you pull off the dinner party, you automatically enter the sacred realm of the platinum virgin goddess. Here's how to get there.

What You'll Need

- A kitchen

- A table big enough to seat all your guests, and chairs for them to sit in

- Some idea of a menu

- Calm in the face of culinary stress

- Pots, pans, casserole dishes, linens, and the serving items (plates, flatware, glasses, etc.) from "Proper Meal for One"

GO-TO GIRL
Jennifer Arronson Mystery Guest and
Mostess Hostess

"No one wants to spend the whole party in the kitchen," says entertaining expert Jennifer. This Manhattan-based editor works for the one of the premier homemaking magazines in America-modest Jennifer would rather not name drop-but she completely appreciates the plight of the first timer. Her advice for pulling off a first dinner party: "Try not to be too ambitious at first. Start with dishes you know are tried and true. This is not the time to experiment. Try out dishes at home before attempting them on guests. Don't make your guests guinea pigs."

Jennifer's Rules for Making a Guest List

- "Invite two couples who don't know each other but that you've been wanting to introduce."

- "Try to avoid the odd man out. If you're inviting a large group, be sure to include more than one person who doesn't know anyone."

- "Try not to play matchmaker at a dinner party. If you must, invite the people you want to set up to a larger party so that if they're not interested they won't have to spend the whole party trying to make small talk."

- "Make a list around something to celebrate. Invite a group that will appreciate someone's recent accomplishment, trip, or announcement."

- "Enlist a friend who's done this before, who won't mind making an emergency run to the grocery, who is glad to lend a gravy boat, will be kitchen backup-and will ensure you'll have a glass of wine by your side at all times."

How to Plan a Menu

Part one: culinary reconnaissance. Start by scoping out farmers' markets to find out what's in season. Stumbling upon a crate of fresh white asparagus/baby lettuces/ Honeycrisp apples will inspire you to plan around what's freshest.

Part two: victim reconnaissance. Feel out your guests for possible likes, dislikes, allergies, etc. You likely know those of your pals already. But you may not know those of your pals' wives, hubbies, and dates.

Part three: Girl Scouts are prepared. Replenish staples-olive oil, butter, kosher salt, black peppercorns-days in advance. Lighten your lastminute load.

Part four: strategic planning. Plan a few dishes you can cook a day or two ahead. Not everything, but most things. "Try not to choose recipes that depend on perfect timing," says Jennifer. Restaurant tricks to remember:

Risotto and pasta can both be cooked partway and finished off without much fuss. Braising doesn't require as much finesse as roasting and usually improves the meat the longer it cooks. For roast poultry, leave the bird in the fridge, uncovered, on a baking rack twenty-four hours before you roast it (the skin will be extra crispy). Grilling or searing are both last-minute methods that don't take too long, but do require an expert touch. Veggies get blanched first (cooked to brightness, immediately chilled in ice water bath), then reheated in saut? pan with olive oil.

Part four: the budget. Balance out special indulgences-caviar, oysters, French champagne-with economical fare. Tougher, inexpensive cuts of meats-pork shoulder, oxtails, short ribs, chicken thighs-can be delicious when slow cooked.

Shopping/Preparing

"I make four stops: the farmers' market, the regular market, either the fish store or meat market, and the liquor store. Be sure to make a thorough list so you don't have to run out again." (Of course, you will have to run out again. The day of your dinner party, start an hour early just in case.)

Advanced prep. "If you've chosen your dishes wisely, you can prepare almost everything ahead of time. A dish of braised short ribs can be made the day before, then reheated right before guests arrive. Mashed potatoes can be made ahead of time, then reheated in a pot with extra milk or cream stirred in to bring back creaminess. A shellfish stew can be made up until the point of adding in the shellfish at the last minute."

Other things to do ahead: Baking (desserts), making the salad dressing, washing (and drying!) salad ingredients.

"Make sure to have plenty of alcohol. Try not to rely on guests to bring wine-it may not be appropriate for the meal you're serving. Have a plan for what kinds of drinks you will serve."

Shopping the day of. Pick up perishable vegetables, fruit, seafood, plus flowers and bread. Reminder: Buying produce at the last minute is not always the smartest move; for example, mangoes, pears, avocados, tomatoes, and bananas often need time to ripen.

How to Set a Table

"Keep it low. Large flower arrangements or tall candles make conversation difficult. Stick with low votives, flowers, and fruit on the table top," says Jennifer.

"Get inspired by a theme. For a party with French bistro food, you might want to set your table as they do in caf?s in France, with paper over white linens and short juice-type glasses for wineglasses, white napkins, silver salt and pepper shakers, small flower vases." Or use a bright cotton shawl as a table runner for an Indian feast, Chinese lanterns overhead for a Mandarin meal, a vase of American flags for a Fourth of July dinner.

"Limit colors. Try not to overwhelm your table with too many colors. Sticking with white china and a few bold colors will make your food look its best."

How to Set a House

Clean and straighten any areas where people will be. For example, the bedroom (coats may be thrown on the bed, people will peek in the bedroom whether you know it or not). In the bathroom remove all lingerie from the shower head, toss the towels in the hamper, break out the guest towels, and light a candle or two.

Good places to stash junk-classic: under the bed and in the closet; risky: behind the shower curtain; foolproof: in the car.

Pulling It Off

The classic delay. Cocktails (see signature cocktail ideas in "Cocktail Party,") or wine and cheese (see "Wine Tasting" and "Cheese & Chocolate Encounters,") in living room. Favorite sources for athome mixologists: www.exhale.com and www.drinknation.com.

Keeping it cool. "Make sure to toss salads at the last minute to avoid sogginess."

Keeping it hot. "Keep food that was cooked in the oven in a low (200?-250?F) oven, covered, until ready to serve (unless it is something that will dry out or overcook). Keep food at a low simmer or in a low oven-each course will not take long to reheat if it's already on its way to warm." Blanching veggies or a quick greens steam happens just before serving. Store serving dishes in a warm place.

THE HOLIDAY MEAL

The Upside
You know when it's coming. You have access to unlimited decorations, recipe ideas from a barrage of monthsahead press coverage. You often have a whole day off to get ready, a day when relatives and friends are available to help out.

The Downside
Those relatives and friends may well spend that day watching a series of televised professional sporting events, frustrating you no end as you attempt to perform culinary feats that include removing bags of organs from large birds and re-creating Grandma's collards and/or Bubbi's brisket.

Depends what traditions guests have.

Your Family

You already know that you must make a perfect chess pie or extra crispy latkes. You also know everyone will be eternally grateful if you can improve on Mom's cloyingly sweet ham or skip the fruitless fruitcake.

Your Pals

Ask for input-and consider a potluck so that everyone can bring her favorite dish.

Someone Else's Family: Laid-back Version

Get a general feel for what they'd like to have, then do your own thing. Ask for help freely. Don't expect to get it. Don't worry if you're running late or you burned the bread pudding. Prepare plenty of pre-meal munchies.

Someone Else's Family: Uptight Version

Enlist advance assistance from a ranking member on the family board of directors. Go to this person with all pertinent questions, including requests for recipes and nontraditional recipe approval. Cover your tracks and you won't feel so stressed when something goes wrong. Do not-we repeat-do not attempt to reinvent or to reproduce a holiday meal if you have not attended the same meal with the uptight family.

Lower-Pressure Suggestions

The holiday brunch: less pressure at the last minute. Baked goods you can bake or order in advance. Coffee before and during the meal puts everyone in a good mood, as do mimosas and Bloody Marys. Fresh fruit. Scrambled eggs or egg casserole. Salmon, onion, capers, lox, and bagels. Chocolate croissants and coffee cake. You're done-even with the dishes-before nightfall.


Excerpted from A Virgin's Guide to Everything , by Lauren McCutcheon . Copyright (c) 2005 by Interesting Women Productions. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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