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Easing into Sunday lunch

Less pressure all around than a dinner party.

Have you ever had dinner guests ring the doorbell early and catch you frantically vacuuming the living room or furiously deboning anchovies at the sink? Or what about when half the party calls from the freeway, stuck in traffic, to advise that they're going to be very, very late?

For the last couple of months, I've pretty much scratched the dinner party (except for near neighbors) in favor of the relaxed Sunday lunch.

With traffic so unpredictable, I don't have to worry that people are spending an hour and a half driving across town on a Friday or Saturday night. The meal just feels more leisurely. Time seems to expand. It's the one time in the entire week when we can all disconnect from the clock, from the constant e-mails, calls, and tweets tugging at our attention.

There's time for an aperitif, to wander in the garden, listen to music, even dance between courses, and to talk about many things over the four or five hours we spend at lunch. Time to absorb the drink, too, so I don't have to worry about their driving when I kiss guests goodbye at the door.

A relaxed meal like this isn't as difficult to pull off as a dinner party. Sunday lunch is not the time to put on chef's whites and attempt a complicated seven-course menu. It's more about making food that pleases than about showing off your cooking prowess. And since you want to be able to spend time with your guests, it's ideal if much of the cooking is done ahead of time and dishes are served at room temperature. Of course, you can always do a Sunday roast, the kind of easygoing dish that was designed for such an occasion.

I generally have people come by around 2 or 2:30. We'll have an aperitif, nibble on a few things, or share a pizza or two straight out of the oven - and catch up. After a while, we'll go to the table and pass around small dishes to share. Eventually, we'll get to the main course, open another couple of bottles of wine. And when we're ready, everyone will move to the living room or outside for dessert.

I love the fact that no one is focused on the time, that everyone arrives hungry - for food and for conversation. A late, leisurely lunch feels like a wonderful oasis at the end of the weekend. And when people leave around 7, they still have time to watch Game of Thrones, read a little more of The Goldfinch, or take a bubble bath.

Mediterranean cuisine is perfect for this sort of meal. The first time I tried out the late lunch idea, I made a big spread of mezze followed by a shrimp, chicken, and chorizo paella. Another time I set out all the elements for make-it-yourself tacos while my husband grilled tri-tip Santa Maria style. A couple of weeks ago, I put out a slew of Moroccan salads made the day before (the better for their flavors to marry) and that Sunday morning assembled a bisteeya from Paula Wolfert's definitive Moroccan cookbook. Dessert was simply dates with creme fraîche and pistachios and small cups of good, strong coffee.

Actually, I was captivated by this late lunch idea when I was in Spain recently and arrived in a little fishing village outside San Sebastian on a Sunday. Everyone had just finished their Sunday lunch, and families and friends were whiling away the rest of the afternoon at the cafes and bars. Some took walks around the small harbor. Kids played with balls or rode scooters or skateboards down the cobblestone streets. It was mayhem and joy and deep connection all rolled together, unhurried, human.

In this crazy world right now, we all need to slow down and appreciate the moment, the people around the table and everything on it. And this is one of the best ways I've found to do it. I don't stress about getting everything on the table on time. Or getting everything perfect. It's a moment. A long moment. And I find myself longing for it by the middle of the week.