Step Four is the vodka. Did I mention the vodka? After we came up with the idea of a liquid first course, our friends' ingredient choices starting making their way into vodka infusions. And now, with at least four vodka infusions going at any one time, even if a meal is a disaster, nobody complains. Or drives home, for that matter. Supplies and recipes for vodka infusions can be found at infused-vodka.com, but basically, if it would make a good ice cream or sorbet, it would make a good vodka.
Step Five. Don't be afraid to involve guests in the cooking. I used to think letting friends help meant asking someone to chop celery, but Ian will hand a friend a recipe for fish wrapped in banana leaves along with some banana leaves and wish them good luck. This might seem rude. It might be rude. But our friends have enjoyed the challenges we've thrown at them, like filling tamales or shaping their own ravioli. It lets them take pride in the meal, and helps me not panic (as much) when guests arrive and dinner isn't ready.
Step Six. It's not cheating to buy a course or two. In fact, it can be fun (albeit expensive) to include the world's best crab cakes flown in fresh from Baltimore (faidleyscrabcakes.com) if a guest chooses crab as one of their ingredients, or even if they don't. It's sometimes comforting to know that at least one course will be worry-free.
Step Seven. Keep your guest list short. I love it when a group is small enough to have one conversation. Otherwise, it always seems that giant bursts of laughter are coming from the end of the table where you are not. A small group means the cooking is more manageable, and you don't miss any laughs. And there will be plenty, because this is a long, luxurious, many-course night, and when you share your home, people seem more comfortable sharing their stories. We've invited couples we didn't know so well who have become some of our closest friends. We've cooked for houseguests, like my best friend from college and her husband, who chose rhubarb, not because he wanted to make life difficult but because his mother makes a killer rhubarb crisp, and now I love cooking with rhubarb. I included a colleague who happened to mention she loved pumpkin when we were planning a dinner that featured pumpkin, so sometimes the ingredients dictate the guest list, and sometimes the person who picks the ingredients dictates the guest list by bringing a few friends along. Once we invited four friends and let each pick one ingredient.
What I started to realize is that this approach to cooking is a terrific approach to entertaining, because no matter which ingredients are chosen, the most important ingredients are the people. I used to try to visualize how everyone would get along, try to bulletproof the evening. But I've learned I can put any of my friends together, because if each guest is special and amazing to me, by dessert, they'll find each other special and amazing.
These elaborate menus we've attempted, these culinary leaps of faith, have taught me that if each ingredient is picked carefully and appreciated for its uniqueness, celebrated really, then somehow the whole will be fabulous, as will the whole of your life once it's filled with delicious elements, be they food or people.
So be bold. Brag. Experiment. Invite. And if a night is less than perfect, remember, there's always the vodka.
Cindy Chupack is the author of The Between Boyfriends Book (St. Martin's Griffin).