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Dinner In

Simple ways to sophisticate at home


Before Thigh Master and QVC, before TeVo and Jay Leno's forehead and long before frozen dinners, there was sitting down with loved ones to enjoy a meal (without ordering faux diamonds on your head-set while thigh-mastering to old episodes of the Tonight Show while waiting for your stroganoff to thaw). Not that anyone is surprised, but many Americans have lost their appreciation and even understanding for "breaking bread," the act of cooking and eating with other humans in order to nourish the mind and spirit as well as the body. Some local restaurateurs and consumers have jumped on the Slow Food bandwagon, imitating its Italian founders in their passion for sensory living, but what can the average Joe or Jill do at home to keep the slow fires burning?

One of the most entertaining ways to entertain is to put on a progressive dinner. No, this does not mean that a bunch of forward thinkers get together and eat wafers for peace (though that would qualify), it means that a bunch of friends get together and agree to each provide a course and location along a foodie gauntlet of sorts. The first thing to do is decide on a theme. Progressive dinners don't require a theme, but it is kind of fun to coordinate the culinary nuances and maybe throw in appropriate cocktails and even costumes (you haven't lived until you've been to a pirate potluck). The number of participants often determines the number of courses; so if you're having a family reunion and you're Irish Catholic, plan on more than one dessert. After the courses are assigned, it is up to some diligent organizer to put together a map. The best progressive dinners allow the diners to walk from meal to meal, but if it's not possible, ride your bike or carpool when necessary. After the logistics are taken care of, all that's left is to cook and enjoy. If your crowd is large (see above), the best choices are easy finger foods like prosciutto and melon, mini spare ribs, gourmet tacos, maki sushi or even platters of fresh fruit and veggies, meats and cheeses. For a more intimate group, you can cook just as you would for your family and serve accordingly. In any case, make sure the last stop has plenty of comfortable chairs, because conversation is meant to be the main course.

Another great way to gather your posse is to host an in-home wine tasting. Professional set-ups suffer from stuffy atmospheres, high costs and the awkwardness of trying to learn about wine in front of a bunch of snooty strangers who know the difference between Spadafora, Idelle and Mercia bowl shapes (I looked that up). Doing it at home is not only more relaxed, it's also a great way to get into wine without worrying whether you'll be able to drive.

In a recent article, Taylor Eason of Atlanta's Creative Loafing provided a great structural guide to D.I.Y. wine tasting. He began with some simple rules: "1) Invite at least six people so you can try plenty of wines. 2) Serve food--or your guests drunk-driving busts could really ruin the evening. 3) Make sure everyone follows the theme and price guide, which helps the education angle." From there, it's best to decide on a theme, whether its comparing varieties like Cabernet, Shiraz or Pinot Noir, wines that all retail for a certain price or selections from untried regions like Argentina, Chile or South Africa. If none of those strike your fancy, there's always the classic "stump the schnoz" trick of pitting terrifyingly expensive wines against $8 bottles that taste just as nice if not better. That's what is so great about an in-home tasting in the first place--you don't have to exclaim about the Emperor's new clothes (a.k.a. the wine that you're "supposed" to like), you can taste for yourself without memorizing the wine dictionary. When it comes to flavor, everyone is different, so don't be afraid to love what you love.

If you do attend an upscale tasting outside of your own living room, here are some basic rules of etiquette that will have the cashmere v-neck wearers convinced that you're one of them. Eason says: "Although it ain't pretty, spitting wine helps avoid embarrassing inebriation, lets you taste more without passing out and reserves your taste buds for more juice." It follows that you should never impede other tasters from getting to the spit bucket, as Eason says, many a pair of pants has fallen victim to the curve-hock. Still, the spittoon isn't for everyone, so bring some extra cups along for personal expectoration (I looked that up, too).

Another tip is to get in and out quickly. Eason says: "Camping around the pourer to wax philosophical only exacerbates everyone's irritation." If you want to discuss a certain vintage with the pourer, mosey back when the crowd has thinned and you might even score an extra sip. In the same vein, you should always respect the person behind the wine. Pourers are usually representatives of the products you are trying and tend to know more than you do about the ins and outs. And chances are that they have traveled a ways to stand before you, so be a peach and listen while they talk.

One of the biggest faux pas a taster can commit is to wear a strong scent, be it perfume, deodorant or last night's lasagna.

"Your nose is the entryway into taste when drinking, before the wine ever hits your palate. If you sniff a delicate Sauvignon Blanc with someone next to you drowning in Eau de Whatever, your olfactory glands will translate that sweet, rubbing alcohol smell to the taste of wine." And what is the cardinal rule, you ask? Don't wear white (that one I knew).