DARING TO ENJOY: A LUXURIOUS LUNCH

My friends and I have a great cure for the stresses of modern life. We call it "lunch therapy." Gathered around a table, we spoil ourselves with an unfettered session of good food and really delicious conversation, spiced with lots of opinions and more than a pinch of gossip.

This restorative practice of enjoying a leisurely luncheon is nothing new, of course. Civilized ladies of centuries past used to gather together regularly for a lunch and conversation. But these days, the overextended superwomen that I know consider such get-togethers a great extravagance. Perhaps that’s why the biggest challenge in organizing a ladies’ lunch isn’t choosing the food–it’s convincing one’s friends that they should abandon all responsibilities for an afternoon, toss out the to-do lists, and dare to enjoy themselves.

My chums are most easily persuaded by the promise of a homemade get-together, rather than one in a restaurant. I don’t think it’s necessarily due to the food (some of us are…um…more challenged in the kitchen than others) as much as the atmosphere. In someone’s home, lunch becomes an intimate party with everyone sharing the same dishes, refilling each other’s glasses and not worrying about the noise they make. Such a meal is a great gift that no one wants to refuse.

When I give a lunch, I consider the menu carefully. It has to be one that takes me into the kitchen for brief moments, so I don’t miss any conversation. I want every bite to be tasty too, but that’s not difficult if you start with fresh ingredients. Though luncheons can be simpler than dinner parties, I prefer to serve courses because they inspire a relaxed pace. 1 search my recipe cards, cookbooks, and imagination for dishes that can be made almost entirely before. While shopping, I keep a lookout for store-bought delicacies that help enliven the menu and allow for less fuss on my part. My beverage strategy is simple: Offer a white wine–such as Sancerre–for those who wish to imbibe, and iced tea and sparkling water for everyone else. Whatever the drink, keep the glasses filled and toast often. Remember, it’s therapy.

Potato Crisps with Smoked Salmon and Lemon Cream

Makes 12 hors d’oeuvres

1 ounce cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons sour cream, at room temperature

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind

12 olive oil potato chips (sec note)

2 to 3 ounces smoked salmon

Sprigs of baby pea shoots or fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

At least one hour or a day before serving, prepare the lemon cream: In a small bowl, whisk together cream cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, and lemon rind until smooth. Cover and refrigerate lemon cream at least 1 hour or until serving.

To assemble, using pastry bag or spoon, place a small dollop of lemon cream in the center of each chip. Cut smoked salmon into 12 small strips and arrange one strip atop each dollop. Garnish with pea shoots or parsley, and serve.

Note: The chips are distributed by Good Health Natural Foods in 5-ounce bags labeled "Olive Oil Potato Chips." If not available, substitute another thick-cut gourmet potato chip, but not regular supermarket chips, which are too

thin.

Roasted Pepper and Goat Cheese Dumplings with Greens

Serves 4

4 long-shaped bell peppers, preferably one each of red, green, yellow, and orange

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sherry or balsamic vinegar

4-ounce log herbed goat cheese

6 cups mixed salad greens

1/3 cup store-bought or prepared vinaigrette

Line oven bottom with aluminum foil. Heat oven to 450[degrees]F. Arrange peppers on bottom rack in oven and roast 10 minutes. Rotate peppers and roast 8 to 12 minutes longer or until peppers are blistered all over. Remove peppers to brown paper bag and set aside 15 minutes. (Place bag in the sink or a pan to catch any moisture.) Peel peppers, scraping off stubborn patches of skin with a paring knife. Rinse peppers and pat dry. Cut out the sterns and slit each pepper lengthwise; scrape out the seeds and remove any large pieces of white pulp. Cut peppers lengthwise into strips about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Place strips in bowl and stir in salt, then oil and vinegar.

To make dumplings, cut goat cheese crosswise into four equal rounds. Line four 4-ounce individual baking dishes, or ramekins, with strips of pepper so that some ends of strips overlap slightly in bottom of ramekins while the opposite ends overhang the edges. (Be sure that the outer side of each strip is facedown.) Place a round of goat cheese in the center of each ramekin, then fold the pepper over to enclose the cheese.

Cover each ramekin with plastic wrap and press down firmly on dumplings to pack cheese and peppers. (Dumplings can be set aside 2 hours at room temperature; refrigerate up to two days, bringing to room temperature before serving.)

Toss salad greens with vinaigrette and divide among four serving plates. Uncover each ramekin and invert in center of each salad. Slowly pull off ramekins, keeping dumplings intact. Serve.

Egg Linguine with Asparagus, Peas, and Fresh Chives

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chapped

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 pound asparagus, cut into bite-size lengths

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup green peas, thawed if frozen

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

6 cups water

2 large cubes all-natural vegetable bouillon

5 ounces egg linguine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute about 7 minutes or until very soft. Stir in garlic, then asparagus and salt. Increase heat to medium high, cover, and cook about 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until onion begins to brown and asparagus is tender–crisp. Stir in peas and most of the chives, reserving about a tablespoon for garnish. Cook 2 minutes, remove from heat, and set aside while preparing pasta.

Heat water to boiling in a large pot; add bouillon, stirring to dissolve. Add linguine and cook 6 to 7 minutes or until barely tender. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup cooking broth. Stir 3/4 cup broth and butter into vegetable mixture, then add pasta to skillet, stirring well to coat. Set aside at least 10 minutes or up to 1 1/2 hours to allow pasta to absorb flavors.

Just before serving, add the remaining 1/4 cup cooking broth to skillet and warm pasta and vegetable mixture over medium heat. Mound linguine in the center of each serving plate, surround with vegetables, and sprinkle with reserved chives.

Strawberry Rhubarb Marlow

Serves 4

1 1/2 pints fresh strawberries

3/4 cup chopped rhubarb

1/4 cup sugar

20 large marshmallows

1/2 cup heavy cream

At least 3 1/2 hours or a day before serving, trim one pint of strawberries and chop into small pieces. In medium saucepan, combine the strawberry pieces with rhubarb and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until both fruits are very tender and fall apart–about 15 minutes. Add marshmallows and cook until melted. Remove from heat and cool mixture to room temperature.

Meanwhile, cut some of remaining strawberries into wedges and arrange, points up, in the bottoms of four 6-ounce glass serving bowls or goblets. Reserve 4 strawberry slices for garnish. Beat heavy cream until soft peaks form. Gently fold cream into fruit mixture until blended. Divide among strawberry-lined serving bowls. Cover the dessert and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight. Immediately before serving, garnish with strawberry slices.

Thank you, kindly

WHOEVER SAID IT IS BETTER to give than receive was not hunting for the perfect hostess gift! I love receiving party invitations, and I can spot those square envelopes the second I open my mailbox, even if they’re buried under flyers, magazines, and bills. But a few hours after receiving an invitation, a sort of panic can set in. What should I give as a hostess gift?

Certainly, it is customary to bring something the first time you visit someone’s home. I hate to arrive at the front door appropriately dressed but empty-handed. Somehow, it makes me feel like a child dressed in Mary Janes listening to my mother telling me that I wasn’t raised by a pack of wolves.

However, in this age of less formal entertaining, where invitations can be announced by the beep of incoming e-mail, I have tried to leave the traditional hostess gift standbys behind. Yes, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, or a bouquet of fresh flowers are still classics, but I have discovered that I enjoy substituting traditional standbys with something different. First, I think about the personality of my host or the type of occasion I am attending. Then, ignoring my dusty etiquette book, I clear my head and invite creativity to inspire me.

My favorite gifts to give are care packages for the host or hostess to enjoy long after the table has been cleared and the guests have gone home. They might include a book I know the recipient will like, a candle or something small for the house, and even some tasty morsel that doesn’t have to be shared with guests.

Fun hostess gifts are endless. Great cooks appreciate the latest kitchen gadget and gardeners always seem to crave new gloves, shears, or even transplants from other gardens. Recently, I stole one terrific idea from someone at work and brought a small breakfast basket to a dinner party. The morning after a fairly late night, the hostess was able to enjoy muffins from a popular local bakery, a cup of tea in a pretty mug purchased at a flea market, and a tiny pot of jam.

I started a weekend at a friend’s country house with a bag of goodies from a city gourmet grocery that was enjoyed by all. During the visit, I noticed that my friend used charming vintage linens and mismatched cloth napkins at the table. I paired my follow-up thank-you note with a more personal gift of a vintage tablecloth for her collection.

For one recent gathering, I knew the hosting couple would receive enough alcohol to fill several Prohibition-era bathtubs. So instead of giving them a bottle of bubbly, I presented my hosts with the latest edition of a local restaurant guide. Since the couple loves to eat out and often entertains outside their home, this gift was quite a hit.

If I don’t know the hosts well, I do rely on a safety gift, such as a box of chocolates, combined with a small present for their children or pets. Fluffy, Fido, and Junior are often the keys to your hosts’ heart. If I know another invitee who has been to the home where the party is to be held or who is more familiar with the host or hostess, I always try to remember to ask for suggestions on what to bring.

Seasonal gifts–fresh local produce in summer or holiday ornaments and sweets in winter–are perennial favorites for hostess gifts. But out-of-season items ranging from sweet peas and hyacinths in December to pumpkin pie-flavored ice cream in May can be terrific points of conversation as well as thoughtful remembrances.

I have learned through trial and error that the act of giving a host a gift does not have to be complicated or expensive. Stepping out of the box of what is standard or expected can be fun, yet simple. It just takes some consideration and a bit of planning. Hostess gifts remain a gracious gesture between acquaintances that can deepen and reinforce existing relationships or begin new ones.

Now if I could only remember to send the thank-you note within a week of the event, I’d really make my mother proud!

American gothic

David Scott Parker’s initial connection to Gothic Revival design arose by chance, but looking back, it seems predestined. "About a dozen years ago, I was doing a project for a museum that included an intact room by [19th-century American Romantic architect] A. J. Davis," says Parker, an architect and antiques dealer. "In the course of the project, people kept referring me to this man in New York, Lee Anderson, who was supposed to have this amazing collection of Gothic furniture. I called him and we set up a meeting, during which we discovered we are related…he is a distant great uncle of mine."

It turns out that Parker and Anderson both grew up in New Harmony, Indiana, the site of an early 19th-century utopian community "Lee has been a great influence on me. He is considered by many to have the finest private collection of Gothic Revival furniture in the United States and his passion for the style is contagious."

As he learned more about Gothic Revival style, Parker began to seek out dealers and sources for what would become an important collection of his own. In 1995, he bought a vintage Carpenter Gothic house near Fairfield, Connecticut, to accommodate not only his collection, but also his two growing businesses–David Scott Parker Architects and Associated Artists, a company that deals in museum-quality pieces made from 1850-1920. The circa 1880 main house has three rooms up and three down, and it is connected by a covered breezeway to a detached modern office that houses the architecture practice.

Originating in France during medieval times, Gothic style’s chief elements–peaked windows, elaborate tracery, and trefoil or quatrefoil motifs–were adopted as popular features of American architecture in early Colonial times. The enduring style can still be found thought the country in examples as diverse as 17th-century churches in Virginia and garden follies such as one Thomas Jefferson designed but never built. Probably the first use of Gothic design for a private home in America was Benjamin Latrobe’s 1799 Sedgeley, outside Philadelphia.

In America, the term Gothic Revival was introduced in the mid 1800s to describe application of the Gothic style from the 1700s through the early 1900s. Originally interest in Gothic was stirred up by the books of 18th-century English writers and aesthetes such as Horace Walpole, A. W. N. Pugin, and Batty Langley Its appearance in American homes can be attributed to America’s godfathers of Gothic: A.J. Downing and A.J. Davis. These two–partners at times–popularized Gothic in several books featuring "picturesque" landscapes inhabited by romanticized cottages, many of them designed by Davis. "Davis is interesting because he was an architect who was also a furniture designer," says Parker. "In the same way, my firm is interested in being involved in all aspects of design."

As a native of New Harmony, Parker likes to note the connection between his hometown and Gothic Revival. "Robert Dale Owen was the son of the founder of New Harmony, and also a congressman who helped create the Smithsonian Institution. For the plans, he turned to his brother, David Dale Owen, a geologist and draftsman. He returned a design for the building in the Gothic Revival taste, considered by the Owens to be the only style suitable for America’s institutions because it was the only truly Christian architecture." Ultimately, the project was turned over to James Renwick, who used the drawings as a basis for his final project

Parker is an inveterate collector who bought his first antique at the age of 12. He has amassed a variety of collections but admits to an affinity for Gothic Revival pieces. "I didn’t set out to have a house full of Gothic furniture," says Parker. "It was acquired through interest rather than decorating needs. It is among the most architectural of styles, and that appeals to my eye."

Gothic gallery

When most people think of Gothic style, they often imagine gigantic cathedrals with elaborate stained glass windows and grotesque gargoyles, not mid-19th-century wallpapers. However, Gothic style did not disappear after the Middle Ages. It was incorporated into 18th-century design motifs and experienced a resurgence in the Gothic Revival period of the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, Gothic designs were applied to furniture styles, fabric designs, tableware motifs, and wallpaper patterns in England and America.

"I think Gothic Revival wallpapers reflect an inner source of peace and comfort. They create an atmosphere in a room that is traditional and has withstood the test of time," observes John Bucemi, president of Classic Revivals in Boston. "While not much of the original survives today, it was a strong decorative statement that changed decorating styles in Europe and America."

The term Gothic originated in the 16th century, but the style actually grew out of the early medieval Romanesque style and began in France with the building of St. Denis Cathedral in 1140. The hallmarks of the medieval style include flying buttresses that stabilize walls, allowing for more windows; vaulted ceilings; pointed arches; and carved tracery designs.

During the late 18th century in England, Gothic elements were used on garden follies or mock ruins on large estates, and in country house interiors. These motifs, applied without regard to an original meaning or purpose, were sometimes referred to as "Gothick."

By the 19th century, Gothic style was further revived with more attention paid to historical accuracy, as well as moral and religious meanings. Championed by a number of design reformers, including A. W. N. Pugin, who published Gothic Furniture in 1835, Gothic Revival was seen as a Christian style with moral or ethical qualities that also referenced an English medieval past.

As technology improved wallpaper manufacturing in the 1800s, papering became the preferred method of wall decoration. In Gothic Revival interiors, wallpaper provided color and contrast with woodwork, copied forms from original medieval structures, and often incorporated more two-dimensional patterns and stylized natural forms. Pugin designed wallpaper patterns for clients that combined family crests, mottoes, and private symbols into heraldic decorating schemes. The style’s popularity grew after Pugin designed a Gothic Revival decor for the 1850s rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament that included vibrant wallpapers.

By the mid-19th century, copies of medieval patterns were replaced by more geometric medieval design elements combined with botanical forms. English designer Christopher Dresser followed this style in his early wallpaper designs, which he acknowledged were heavily influenced by Pugin’s interpretation of Gothic style. Dresser’s versions used the structural elements of plants as abstract ornament. He flattened botanical forms and abstracted Gothic lily and carnation designs with arches that reflected both architecture and animal skeletal forms.

"A lot of Dresser’s work was derived from Gothic Revival," says Bucemi. "No designer in any era operates in a vacuum, but is influenced by historical styles and social trends."

In the United States, Gothic Revival was at its height as an architectural style in the 1830s. Gothic rustic cottages and villas were featured in books by American architect A.J. Davis and landscape designer and writer A.J. Downing. English romantic novels by authors such as Sir Walter Scott also sparked America’s fascination with medievalism.

With the 1872 publication of Charles Eastlake’s A History of the Gothic Revival, and Gothic Revival’s inclusion in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the style became entrenched in American design lexicon. However, American Gothic-style wallpapers often departed from Pugin’s purist ideals and took a less serious approach. Also, they were not always placed in pure Gothic Revival-style homes, but were introduced into interiors of home styles from several eras.

"There were so many wonderful American Gothic Revival wallpapers," says Joanne Warner, curator of the wallcovering department at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. "While all the tastemakers of the time period were saying how incorrect these Gothic adaptations were, people were buying them and using them throughout the United States."

As the century waned, Gothic Revival wallpapers were replaced by American styles that did not reference England’s history but looked to the nation’s own past observes Warner.

Today there are many high-quality reproductions of Gothic Revival wallpapers in original colors or new tones. "Don’t be afraid of Gothic Revival wallpaper, and don’t be afraid to use its strong colors," advises Bucemi. "Wallpaper is an instant way to transform a room, and when Gothic Revival paper is put in a home setting, it creates a seriousness and warmth."

Stick Shift. 5 tips on doing the hustle

As if club-hopping weren’t sport enough, many chic night spots are inviting their patrons to put down their drinks and chalk up their cue sticks. At N.Y.C.’s trendy Hudson hotel, a baroque pool table graces the Library Bar where Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Paul McCartney have all racked ’em up. In Miami Beach’s Club 320, site of Puff Daddy’s birthday party and hangout of Tori Spelling, Vince Vaughn and Rod Stewart, the second-floor cue rack attracts plenty of VIPs. And in Las Vegas, the Hard Rock Hotel’s pool table has been seeing more celebrity action (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and friends) than the blackjack one. Soon L.A. royalty will have their own hip place to play. When the West Coast outpost of New York’s Moomba opens this month, it will feature a downstairs lounge with–you guessed it–a pool table. Says owner Jeff Gossett, hanging out in the low-ceilinged space “will remind people of growing up in the seventies when everyone had basement game rooms.” But it’s not just Yanks into bank shots. Across the Atlantic, the craze for baize has hit London’s posh Sanderson hotel, where you might even spot local Elizabeth Hurley. “I love playing pool although I’m quite a bad player,” says the star, who brought Brendan Fraser to his knees while sinking a few balls in Bedazzled. “For some reason, I’m way better after two glasses of wine. Make that three and I’m terrible again.” But then, it’s not how you play the game, but where (and with whom) you’re playing it.

5  TIPS ON DOING THE HUSTLE

1. Find out if others are ahead of you, and wait your turn.

2. To see if your cue stick is straight, roll it on the table (a warped stick will roll bumpily).

3. After each shot, gently twist the chalk against the stick’s tip.

4. Move quietly out of sight when it’s your opponent’s turn.

5. Get the lingo down pat. A few terms to help you pass:

barrage: a series of made shots

digging a hole: amateurishly grinding chalk against the stick

icing: psyching out a player

giving no air: not giving opponents a chance to play

rail bird: an annoying spectator

sharking: distracting a player

sweat this: watch the action

the table is leaking: when too many balls go in on a break

Worldwide Wendie

Like free Oscar frocks and great tables at hot restaurants, globe-trotting ranks as one of the perks of stardom. But while many well-known actors roam the world for movie shoots and film festivals, Just Shoot Me’s Wendie Malick packs her bags for an entirely different reason: to practice hands-on international activism in such far-flung places as Central Africa and Tijuana.

It started 10 years ago, when a friend told Malick about the need for volunteers to build houses for the poor in Tijuana. She and a group of friends have spent time there every year since, and in 1994 they decided to make their annual pilgrimage over the Thanksgiving holiday. Carving turkey? Try lifting and pouring concrete, which Malick says has its own rewards. “It’s hard, but I love it because you don’t have to be skilled. You just have to bust your butt. It’s really satisfying.” Until recently, the collective worked all day, then camped out at night. “It could be windy, and we were cooking in a tent that could go over at any moment,” says Malick. “It was insane.” Now the group has moved up to living in bunkhouses, where they feast on burritos on Thanksgiving.

Last year Malick and about 40 friends–the self-proclaimed Maverick Building Squad–built an addition to the City of Angels orphanage for children of prostitutes and prisoners (where they had constructed a bathhouse the year before). They also brought donated computers and installed an e-mail system so that donors can be alerted to what’s needed at the orphanage, from books to clothing.

The children have benefited, but so has Malick–and in more ways than one. It was in Mexico, on her first charitable visit, that she met her future husband, Richard Erickson, a fellow volunteer who invited Malick to motorcycle through Central Africa the following summer. “The idea was that we would have this great adventure, then leave the bikes for the nurses at this little medical center he knew about, because they can’t use cars in the rainy season,” she says.

For Malick, that trip marked the start of another international volunteer project. She has returned three times to Aungba, a small village in Central Africa. (As a child, her husband lived in Aungba for six years with his missionary parents; in 1988 he spent a year there building a medical center.)

Last summer the couple traveled there for the dedication of the center’s new surgical wing, which they had financed. “It’s a very remote part of Congo. All the people from all the surrounding villages come to this place for medical help,” says Malick. “They were desperate for more room.”

On each visit, Malick and Erickson meet with teachers and students in the local school to determine what could make a difference–big or small–in the lives of the young villagers. “The needs run from a piano for the choir to a basketball, because they’ve had this hoop for years but no ball,” Malick says. To raise contributions for the center and other relief projects in Africa and Mexico, Malick and Erickson set up a fund in 1997 called A Drop in the Bucket.

Today the funds they’ve collected constitute more than a drop, and Malick’s enthusiasm continues to grow. “When you look at a map and realize that you have friends in every quadrant of this giant world,” she says, “it just helps you feel like part of the great picture.”