Watch out Martha Stewart, here I come

Housesitting for the Monitor's food editor has its perks. A full refrigerator is not one of them.

I know because I decided to host a small dinner party - my first - at his home.

You can imagine the level of my self-esteem as I sat in his gourmet kitchen surrounded with not one, but two food processors, a six-burner Garland stove, and such esoteric items as a Mongolian hot pot, and a Mexican chocolate swirler.

I was left with terse instructions to "throw a dinner party or something," and keep his home in order and his pets alive.

Too bewildered to comb through the 100-plus cookbooks stashed on the kitchen shelves, I turned to the refrigerator for inspiration, or at least a snack.

Prominently displayed on the fridge door was an old New Yorker cartoon that became my call to arms: Leaving a ritzy dinner party, a couple is depicted patronizing an obviously weary and unsuccessful hostess: "The Crab Bisque, the tournedos, the Bourbon Souffle ... thank you so much for trying."

I pledged to host a dinner party. Not a potluck or pick-up-a-pizza affair, mind you. This would be a full-fledged fete, brimming with the kind of ambition that promises either raging success or ego-crushing disaster.

With but a week to pull this together, I tried to think like my mom. How would she begin? A few seconds later, I gave that up and surfed the Net. Initially, the megabytes of meal ideas whetted my appetite, but who can sort through 1,300 pages of pasta recipes?

Convinced I needed to choose some sort of "autumn" theme, I asked friends and coworkers what a good autumnal feast might include. Quite a menu emerged. I don't remember all of the dishes, but the words truffle, stuffed, and nasturtiums featured prominently. Of course, you'd think someone whose experience at the stove was limited to Ramen noodles and instant oatmeal would look for recipes in the "Dinner Parties for Dummies" book, but I was aiming higher.

More problematic, I soon discovered, was creating a guest list. Those I turned to for advice naturally expected to be invited, but my budget was small, and so, necessarily, was my guest list. Still, to do this right meant expanding the guest circle beyond good friends. Otherwise, I'd be acting out a dinner party instead of fulfilling its social function: building companionship, which in its Latin root, means "with whom you share your bread."

After the guest list was decided, I procrastinated. The week ticked by, until the morning of the big night: Time to get crackin'.

8.a.m. As in early Saturday morning. Back to bed.

10 a.m. How could I have slept in!

So much to do, so little time. Needing a fairy godmother, I call my good friend Amy, who owes me about 64 favors. So I trade those in for her services as creative consultant, kitchen maven, cleaner, and doyenne of domesticity. This is easily the smartest move I make all day.

Noon. Let the errands begin.

At the entrance to the local supermarket, Amy - knowing my limited skill - snickers at my ambitious menu, and suggests we let inspiration be our guide. Eight bags and $158 worth of groceries later, we're ready to go.

2:30 p.m. The house is a mess. Part Chinese museum, part menagerie, and all gaudy clutter, the place needs at least a full day of scrubbing to make it presentable. With only three hours to spare, I settle for cleaning the kitchen and a thorough vacuuming.

5:30 p.m. Who knew pumpkin soup would be so hard?

Onion tears force me to leave the kitchen twice. I eat my last helping of chips and salsa, and face our first emergency: I can't get the food processor to work. We plug in the second one. Not a whir. Fortunately, the neighbors across the street kindly offer a blender. Before long, the rich stock is simmering, and things start to feel homey.

7:30 p.m. Waiting.

The chicken is roasting, the salad has been tossed, and the table adorned with stunning flowers. We decide to present the food on the dining room table, then have the guests help themselves.

7:45 p.m. The moment of truth.

The first guests arrive with good cheer but bad news. They never got in touch with another set of guests who were depending on them for a ride. The implication quickly becomes clear: three of my six guests won't be showing up. A flurry of phone calls to salvage the situation are fruitless. Houdini though I was in the kitchen, I couldn't escape the naked truth that I'd been cavalier with my guests. I'd hear about this later, deservedly so.

8:00 p.m. Martha Stewart eat your coeur a la creme out. This meal gets two thumbs up. Which is good, because most of the dinner-party conversation revolves around reviewing the food. The French bread with spinach-artichoke dip is tasty enough, but gets little attention as the guests fawn over the chilled pomegranate seeds. Meant only to add color to the soup and flavor to the salad, they quickly steal the show as finger food.

The hearty pumpkin soup, ladled from within a roasted pumpkin, also gets good reviews, but I can't help thinking that it looks better than it tastes. The arugula and asparagus salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted red pepper, and balsamic vinaigrette is a nice complement to the soup, but not memorable.

The Mahogany Chicken is also respectable, but easily the weakest link in an otherwise strong lineup. Its accompanying roasted root vegetables - fingerling and purple potatoes, fennel, sweet potatoes with garlic, and rosemary - get much more attention.

A Stan Getz album keeps the ambience enjoyable, but not intrusive.

10:00 p.m. Trying to stave off yawns from my guests, I hype up the dessert. The mood is set with soft candlelight and the thumping bass of the rap group The Roots. This amusing juxtaposition causes my guests to take note with furrowed brows.

I think back to the New Yorker cartoon. "Thank you so much for trying...." This dessert had to be extraordinary. I nervously brought in the first round of Chai tea and baked Bosc pears served with a dollop of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche ice cream. I expect the guests to wait until the host is seated to begin eating. But on my second trip, I hear one of them whisper: "This is the best dessert I've ever tasted." Ah, vindication: a feeling that lasts only until I discover how much cleanup awaits me when the guests leave.

But this is trivial. For all of the pretense and yuppiedom associated with dinner parties, enjoying, and yes, preparing a good meal for friends was deeply satisfying.

Baked Spiced Pears

5 Anjou or Bosc pears

Unsalted butter

4 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

Nutmeg

Cinnamon

Cloves

Honey

Haagen-Dazs Dulce De Leche ice cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Peel pears, cut in half lengthwise; remove seeds and core.

Generously butter a baking dish just large enough to hold the pear halves. Sprinkle the dish with half the sugar. Place pears cut-side down in the baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining sugar and dust lightly with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; drizzle with honey.

Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Pour cream over pears and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Serve pears hot, topped with a dollop of ice cream. Serves 5.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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