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.

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