Never underestimate the power of lighting

We’ve all been to a party in a room that was lit up like a surgical suite. It just doesn’t feel good to know the person you’re talking to can see every pore in your face.  Low, romantic lighting makes everybody look better and can cover a multitude of sins, like pet hair and stained upholstery. Turn off your overhead lights. Put 15-watt bulbs in all of your lamps and you’ll be amazed how much better your house looks. This is particularly important in the kitchen, because everybody winds up there. If you have only overhead lighting in your kitchen, go get some small, attractive lamps and deploy them on your table and countertops.I adore candles and use them everywhere. One of these days my husband and I are going to wind up on the ten o’clock news because I burned the house down creating ambience for a party. I particularly love votives because you can tuck them anywhere. I do stay away from pillars and tapers, especially in high-traffic areas where someone’s garment could catch fire.Candlelight is especially critical at the dining table. I’m a little extreme about this — I turn the chandelier off completely and scatter my table with dozens of votives. You might not like the idea of abandoning wattage altogether and dining strictly by candlelight. But when you call your guests to dinner, your table should be the brightest thing in the room.

Regarding food: don’t confuse effort with results.

Sharing great food with friends is one of the pleasures of life. But you don’t have to knock yourself out to serve great food at a dinner party. If you do knock yourself out, do so before your guests arrive. Nobody wants to see you huffing and puffing in the kitchen. It makes everyone uncomfortable, and moreover, you will have a lousy time. I actually like to cook, but I never plan a menu that requires lots of last-minute broiling or sautéing or worse, deep frying. No matter how tantalizing and elegant the recipes look on the page, they are a trainwreck waiting to happen when you are trying to prepare them while visiting with your guests after a cocktail or two. I avoid menus that have several side dishes served warm at the last minute, because I blow it every time. I like to do a big pot of something — like shrimp creole or boeuf bourguignon — and serve it over rice made in my idiot-proof rice cooker. Recipes like this actually taste better if you make them ahead and let them sit for a day or so to let the flavors mingle.  But really, nobody cares if you don’t make the food yourself, as long as it tastes good and looks pretty. There is so much great carry-out available. I like the notion of assembled food. Take a baking dish to your favorite Italian restaurant and have them make a lasagne. Serve it with a salad of arugula and shaved parmesan, with really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For dessert, get a pound cake at the bakery and doll it up with good quality, store-bought raspberry puree or lemon curd.  If I have no time at all to cook for a dinner party, I set my dining table and call a Chinese restaurant nearby that delivers. I put everything in pretty serving dishes and serve it buffet style from my kitchen table. It’s just carry-in Chinese, but who cares when you’re among friends?

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