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Sunday night, a good mystery, a fire in the fireplace…I stare at the flames and think of cooking–both need the right balance of timing, heat and attention.

I hadn’t planned a dinner party in a while. Making plans is not my preferred way of doing things. I like letting the day unfold with all its unexpectedness and if a meal with friends fits in, all the better. Full calendars can make that difficult and my husband and I often end up spending weekends alone. But friends feed your spirit like food feeds your body, I’d been feeling deprived, so I went ahead and made plans with friends a month out.

I like to try new recipes even though I’ve learned that’s not always a good idea, especially if you are having people over for the first time. I have to remind myself that photos are deceptive–those glossy full-page color pictures you see in magazines and cookbooks. Like the Indian recipe I saw in a book at Williams-Sonoma that was so beautiful I bought it…a hardcover. I remember it called for lots of lemons–maybe a dozen or two–and olives. Lots of olives. Big ones. I had to slow cook the lemon rinds overnight and marinate the chicken in the juice with other things that I don’t recall, except for the olives. We were having a big party. There was lots of chicken.

After getting everything assembled I went to bed late and woke up around 2:00 am remembering Todd doesn’t like lemon in food–unless it’s cookies. He’s not actually big on olives either, I remembered around 3:00 am. What possessed me to plan a dinner party around lemons and olives?! A photograph. It was so beautiful. So was the fava beans side dish.

I got up late, nervous about the marinade and turned the oven on for a trial run while throwing together a flourless, sugarless, dairy-free chocolate cake recipe (my friend has diet restrictions) while the chicken baked. There had been a picture for that cake too. It was complicated–two parts with a lot of coconut milk. I remember opening all the cans.

The cake went in the oven as the chicken came out. I grabbed my purse to head out the door for a hair appointment and told my husband to listen for the timer–he would be on cake duty. Stabbing a chunk of chicken with a fork, I blew and bit off a piece as I gave him his instructions. A canker sore immediately popped up on my tongue. Citrus. Panicking, I drained the marinade, threw it back in the refrigerator, grabbed the recipe book to show the pictures to my hair dresser and raced to the car. I’d figure something out in the chair.

Thirty minutes later I called Todd and told him to wash the chicken–scrub it!–and put it back in the refrigerator. That was when Christopher, my hair dresser, told me Hannibal Lecter ate fava beans in Silence of the Lambs, and I realized I had used all the coconut milk in the first part of the cake recipe instead of saving half of it for the second part. Todd told me not to worry, he recommended turning the oven down to slow cook it.

That dinner turned out great. I would never be able to repeat it. I substituted a white wine marinade and it was delicious. Really tender. The cake turned out like a mousse. I did make it again later, following the recipe correctly and it wasn’t nearly as good.

So tonight I think back to last Saturday night when I made a Moroccan Lamb and cheesecake with raspberry sauce for friends. It was a chilly night, I was a little rusty on dinner parties, it had been a while, and I realized too late that I should have done more the night before, but the food was tasting good.The flowers were still in the sink with their cellophane wrap, I hadn’t lit the candles, turned on the music or set out the hors d’oeuvres when the doorbell rang. Todd was busy with a fire he had decided to make, which sounded cozy but the wood, was…well, damp?–and the smoke was blowing out, not up the chimney, just as everyone arrived.

Other than my public meltdown, it was “woodsy wonderful” they all said as we sat down at the table together. After-all, like us, dinner with friends is about being with the people you love not about being perfect. Perfectly imperfect. You know what I mean?

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