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Your mother always told you, don't talk with your mouth full and keep your elbows
off the table. Was she right? What are the correct table manners and proper dining etiquette to bring to the table?

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Planning the Perfect Party

Dinner parties are fun, but they can also be a source of stress and disappointment for the cook. The way to avoid this is through careful planning. Obviously you will give careful consideration to your guests, their likes, dislikes and even any allergies they may have. But it's just as important to consider your own needs, what you like to cook and what you are good at. It's better by far to create dishes you are familiar with than to attempt something new because you are hoping to impress. The trick is to make everything look simple, and the way to do that is to use variations on recipes you already know backwards.

On the other hand, if that means no improvement on spaghetti Bolognaise, another approach may be called for and a little more planning may be needed. Select your recipes with care. Decide very early on how many courses you intend to serve. It is by no means essential to serve three courses plus cheese just because that tends to be the norm.

But if you do decide to follow that convention there are few things it would be helpful to consider. Avoid, for example, using the same main ingredient in more than one dish. i.e. don't serve a quiche followed by something else in pastry, or add a strong flavor like chili to more than one dish.

Plan, also, how you intend to cope with both preparing and serving the food. If your menu means that you will need to spend more time in the kitchen than you do with your guests, you need to re-think Design your courses so that as much as possible can be prepared in advance. A simple way to do that is to serve only one hot dish, perhaps the main course, one course at room temperature and one straight from the fridge. The cheese can take care of itself.

Speaking of which, here is something you might like to consider. In Australia and the UK, cheese is served at the end of the meal. In France it is served before the dessert. I recommend the latter course.

The reason for that is because it puts the timing firmly in your hands as to when the meal is over and it's time for the guests to go home. Let them linger over the cheese until you are ready to bring the evening to a close. Then serve the dessert with just one bottle of good pudding wine, having cleared all the other dishes, including the cheese board. You do this by bringing two dishes to the table, and taking several dishes away as if to make room for more. With a little practice you will become very adroit at this and the table will clear as if by magic. Once the dessert is finished, choose your time to offer coffee and a final nightcap of port or brandy, if that's what you would normally do.

Most guests will understand that the coffee signifies the end of the evening and will not even be aware that you have manipulated the timing in this way. And even if they are, they will probably admire you for it and adopt the same system themselves. Above all, remember that everything you serve has turned out just as it was supposed to. Never ever make excuses or apologize for your food.

Cook it with conviction, serve it with panache.

Michael Sheridan is a former head-chef as well as an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at http://www.thecoolcook.com contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks

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