Close your eyes and you'll swear it's your favorite aunt, hairpins sliding down to release wisps of gray hair, while she encourages: "Of course you can do it."
Open your eyes and it's not your aunt at all, but Julee Rosso, a tall brunette who, with Sheila Lukins, is coauthor of The Silver Palate Cookbook (1982), a volume whose success is attributed to its simple and imaginative recipes and chatty asides.
It was the season's least intimidating cookbook, and the authors, who own the Silver Palate, a gourmet take-out on New York's Upper West Side, have repeated the formula in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook (Workman Publishing, paperback, $11.95).
In person, as in their books, both women are warmly encouraging: Cooking is fun! Entertaining is fun! You can do it!
"I love to be the one who has the best time at my party," says Russo, whose fast-talking enthusiasm is balanced by Lukins' low-key practicality. "When the guests arrive, they should feel the party has already started. Have a drink going, music on. Don't leave people standing alone while you disappear to open a bottle of wine: That makes them think they got there too early. If they're the first to arrive, give them things to do so they won't feel awkward. It takes people a while to feel at ease in a new place."
"The hostess has to make things happen," Lukins interjects. "If something goes wrong, you figure a way around it." Like the time the tablecloths failed to arrive for a party to promote their first book. How do you convince someone you're a whiz at entertaining when the tables are covered with brown oilcloth?
"I began strewing flowers over the tables to cover the oilcloth," says Russo. "Then a load of red tablecloths were delivered for a woman who was giving a party later that afternoon. 'Your party isn't for two more hours,' I said. 'Let me use those tablecloths and I promise you'll have another set by the time your party starts' . . . We covered up the brown oilcloth, I called the office, and when it was time for her party, we'd managed to replace her tablecloths."
"We push ourselves to come up with new ideas," says Lukins, and their latest book shows the same imagination as the first.
"Salicornia is known as glasswort, marsh camphire, pousse-pied . . . It is a crunchy, slightly salty, twiglike green that grows in salt marshes. Look for it, beg your merchant for it. Try it raw, or steam it for two minutes, and add a dash of olive oil and chopped fresh basil. We love to use it as a bed for fish or chicken."
*How to give an imaginative dinner party when you don't feel like cooking?
"When it is just too hot to cook, buy a wide assortment of salads, cold hors d'oeuvres, and special taste treats from your favorite take-out food shop. Spread out a tapas-style buffet with everything placed on individual Italian or Portuguese glazed pottery plates. Set up a small open bar with an assortment of Spanish sherries and a huge pitcher of sangria. End the evening under the moon with chilled buckets of Spanish champagne, sugared almonds and bowls of fresh fruit and berries."
"There are a staggering number of types of hot peppers. The most widely available tend to be jalapeno, serrano, cayenne and poblano, so popular in Tex-Mex style dishes. Cajun cooks are particularly fond of the banana and bird's-eye pepper native to Louisiana. Which pepper you choose will depend mostly on personal preference and local availability, as differences in flavor are often too slight to detect. A good rule of thumb when attempting to judge a pepper is to remember that, usually, the smaller the pepper, the hotter the taste . . ."
*The lights of summer?
"Leafy garden greens -- bibb, arugula, leaf lettuce, sorrel, chicory, radicchio, Boston lettuce -- are good wrappers around tasty tidbits. They're fresh, and lighter than pastry or toasts. For a tea party, spread the leaf as you would a thin slice of bread, roll it up, and place it on a serving dish, seam side down. Or tie each packet with a fresh chive, with the blossom still attached if possible."
*Simple but interesting recipes?
The warm potato salad, which incorporates fried potato skins, or the roasted lamb with fig tapenade, or herbed fish flamed with gin.
The entertaining tips and recipes are salted with quotes from the famous, such as Brillat-Savarin's story: "A wine drinker, being at table, was offered grapes at dessert. 'Thank you,' he said, pushing the dish away, 'but I am not in the habit of taking my wine in pills.' "
Leafing through the book, you can imagine its two authors searching out funny quotes, planning original parties, thinking up new recipes -- a life to be envied. Ah, but it is not all peaches and cream. "Sometimes," says Lukins, "you'll finish testing a recipe at 1 in the morning, and there's no one there to eat the stuff."