"What exactly are soft peaks?"
The earnest question from our friend Ben - someone with more experience microwaving Kraft Easy Mac than whipping egg whites for chocolate mousse - was our first clue that this would not be a traditional dinner party.
We knew, of course, that inviting a motley crew of friends for a Mediterranean-themed cooking party would test their limited culinary skills. Ben's efforts to brush a cumin-paprika sauce onto pita toasts had all the awkwardness of a child learning to write in cursive. But his diligence assured us that this experiment in merriment would be tasty indeed.
Entertaining has a different flavor this season. Upscale restaurants have been hit hard by the sagging economy. For the first time in a decade, the frequency of eating out is projected to decline by at least 3 percent, according to the 16th-annual "Eating Patterns in America" report, conducted by the NPD Group.
Perhaps more noticeable, however, are the cuisines that have reemerged as American favorites. Seven-syllable foods that end with "gras" are out. Comfort foods such as meatloaf, potatoes, and chicken pot pie are in.
The emotional fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put a new premium on spending quality time with family and friends, leaving Americans yearning for food and company with substance - but not necessarily seriousness.
But a need to fill the holidays with feel-good foods is no excuse to limit appetizer fare to eggnog, cheese, and gingerbread cookies. The definition of comfort foods has broadened, enlivening Christmas culinary clichés, allowing hosts to fulfill their guests' desires for comfort and creativity.
Traditional dinner parties, in theory, celebrate the twin virtues of order and harmony. Flawless timing and immaculately presented food create a warm and dignified environment for the guests. The food's preparation is "a cinch, really," if it's mentioned at all - no matter how ornate a dish may appear to awestruck onlookers. In reality, formal dinner parties can be expensive and stressful for the host and disconcerting for guests.
So why serve your guests when they can help cook - and do the dishes? A dash of democracy can greatly spice up a dinner with friends.
Would-be holiday hosts should remember that a successful cooking party is like a good dance: Creative themes make both a lot better. The bold, earthy flavors of Mediterranean food, in particular, allow friends with a wide variety of cooking skills to team up and create simple appetizers from common ingredients.
The Mediterranean diet has been hailed for its nutritional qualities, but its real appeal for our purpose is the diversity of appetizers it offers. Jorge Ramirez, executive chef at Boston's Tapeo restaurant, says a common staple binds the spectrum of Mediterranean flavors.
"[The cuisine of] Spain and Portugal, also, the south of France, Italy, and Greece - they call all these 'Mediterranean foods,' " says Mr. Ramirez. "Olive oil, olives, lambs, goats, a lot of fish, tomatoes - it's similar from one country to another."
To capture the richness of the region, we created a menu that worked like a clockwise tour. It included Spanish tapas, French hors d'oeuvres, Italian antipasto, Middle Eastern mezze, and North African appetizers. Each of the six guests was assigned a partner and a couple of recipes from a particular cuisine.
The democratic scheme started well, but a temperature snafu that turned "toasted" pitas into roof-shingle sheets of carbon necessitated the appointment of a kitchen delegator. But that diminished neither the improvised nature of the evening nor the group's clique-free interaction.
If a traditional dinner party is Sunday at the ballet, a cooking party can be a rugby scrimmage in a monkey house. People get confused. The timing of dishes gets juggled and misjudged. Inevitably, important bits of food are spilled or tragicomically forgotten. ("Hey, weren't we supposed to use these pine nuts for something?")
But for aspiring chefs, a cooking party is a chance to improvise with friends who might have valuable tips to share. And few things are better for helping strangers connect than working together to turn out a perfect batch of Sheikh el Mahshi Banadoura (a stuffed-tomato dish).
For a cooking party, the emphasis is on process, not product. If the Shrimp Bruschetta is a bit watery (and ours was), an important lesson can be taught about scooping out pulp before slicing tomatoes. And if you've got perfectly delicious dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), your group's anguish will be dramatically lessened.
After a night of feasting, the verdict was clear: There would be no James Beard awards for culinary excellence. But the warmth of the kitchen forged common bonds in a crowd as diverse as the menu.
To paraphrase British author W. Somerset Maugham: "We ate wisely, but not too well, and talked well, but not too wisely." Guests left the evening well-fed and in good spirits - but not before doing the dishes.
Cooking-party improvisation doesn't preclude the need to plan. Before tossing aprons to guests, make sure you - and your kitchen - are ready.
Here's what you'll need:
Make sure you have a sense of how long each recipe will take - and what resources each requires. If your stuffed tomatoes cook at 350 degrees F. and your pita toasts need to be at 400 degrees F., it's important to stagger the time they'll be in the oven - and be sure to change the temperature.
Similarly, make sure you've got sufficient cookware to handle the recipes you're working with. If you have only two large mixing bowls, and three or four recipes require them, adjust either your menu or your cookware.
Anyone can cook; a combination of self-confidence. attentiveness, and a good recipe are all it takes to get started. That said, it helps to include a couple of competent cooks to offset your group's novices and impractical gourmets, guide the action, and teach technique on the fly.
A collective sense of humor
If your guests expect a perfect meal, they'll probably be disappointed. But if they're excited about having fun in the kitchen, experiencing new food, and learning as they go, even the most horrendously botched dish can be laughed off with aplomb.
A safety recipe - or two
People want to leave well-fed. Have a recipe or two that you're sure will go off without a hitch, while allowing your guests the excitement of trying some of the more exotic and technically difficult dishes.
If there's a canine in the crowd, spilled food is rapidly taken care of. Our floor-cleaner was a Shar-Pei, but most breeds are perfectly suitable.