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Stretch Forth Thy Hand

Stretch Forth Thy Hand

Last night I held what will be the first of more than a dozen country French-style diners in my home to support local charitable organizations. From Habitat for Humanity to the arts organizations which enrich our area, these “dining for dollars” events were first conceived as a way to reach beyond the normal boundaries of a book.

I had this idea that my book, ground-breaking in the sense that it was the first of its kind to address a highly-niched area of interior design, it could be used for a greater good. That although it is certainly lovely and serves as both a widely-read reference book for design professionals and artists, as well as a book for renovators, remodelers, design-book addicts and Francophiles, that perhaps it could be used in a way to expand the greater good. That it could be an engine-driver for philanthropy.

More than a dozen of these dinners have been bid on at local live auctions, held at yearly galas, and have brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 for philanthropic endeavors of all kinds. And that’s a really neat thing.

Last night’s dinner was one of two that were the result of a bidding war between two friends. They each hit their bidding limit and, hating the thought of losing, they asked me if I would do two dinners instead. Because it raised double the amount of money for the charity, I gladly obliged. The other winning bidder will come with her guests next Saturday.

I headed for the grocer straight from my early morning tennis game. My preference is to support locally-owned merchants who carry locally-grown produce. Ah! What a delightful Saturday morning ritual this has become for me. Fully-awakened by a solid hour-and-a-half of chasing down tennis balls, along with a thermos of downed hot coffee, I always arrive at the grocery store early enough to avoid all crowds.

Scanning the bakery isles left me with only a French baguette, which would be used a few hours later for sopping up a fabulous feast of fresh mussels in white wine sauce.

The gourmet cheese isle was full of delicacies. My personal favorite, a Danish bleu, was swept up for the planned endive salad with roasted walnuts and pears, which, when drizzled with a homemade emulsion, would prove to be the perfect precursor to the entree.

It was on to the fresh produce isle, where it was time to pick up the most aromatic herbs I could find. Sprigs of thyme, rosemary and flat-leaf parsley would all find their way into my shopping cart. Rosemary would coat the roasted, buttery cashews set out, hot from the oven, for my guests as they arrived; thyme and parsley would work itself into the boiling broth of chicken stock and white wine where the mussels quickly cooked. Fresh Brussels sprouts, sautéed in my giant copper pan, proved earthy and nutty, and oh-so-flavorful with a few pieces of thick-cut bacon added for good measure (is there anything that isn’t made wonderful with the addition of a little bacon?)

The dairy isle held heavy cream, a required mainstay in my crème brulee. That, along with real unsalted butter and high-quality, extra virgin olive oil, provide all of the fat one’s diet requires (along with real ice cream of course). No artificial ingredients in diary allowed!

A bone-in veal loin was cut by the butcher. Oh my goodness was it divine! Hearty and flavorful, with a sauce whisked with chicken broth and the bits from the bottom of the pan (among others) gave it the soothing quality for which I was striving (and my body craved.)

Speaking of soothing: there’s just nothing like crème brulee for that final spoonful. My fourteen-year-old son loved using the kitchen torch to give each individual serving that fabulous crusty top; his reward was two servings instead of one and mine was watching him gobble it up with pure delight.

I confess to being a lousy Monday-to-Friday cook. Work gets in my way. As does my long commute, football carpool and frankly, physical and mental weariness at the end of most days. Weekdays find us “catch as catch can.” Grazing. Noshing on naked deli meats and cheeses. Nuts and fruits. Raw veggies or good organic soups, even though they usually come from a can. Pitiful as it might sound, it remains my weekday dinner MO.

So when the luxury of a weekend day comes when I have nothing else to do but prepare for a dinner party, I find it-surprisingly-absolutely delightful. I love primping my house: fluffing the pillows on the sofas and lighting the candle in their sconces; arranging flowers into a container and re-arranging chairs around the dining room table; polishing the silver and ironing the linens; pre-heating my oven and warming up my heart for service to others.

Entertaining requires a focus on others. And away from self. For it is such a time-consuming process that all thoughts of self must be essentially abandoned. No time for a manicure if the hors d’ oeuvres must be prepared pronto. Forget worrying about dressing like a glamour-puss when you’ll be popping your head into and out of a hot oven and thrusting your arms into sinks of sudsy water. Throw away those spike heels for a decent pair of ballet flats as you’ll be on your legs for a good eight hours or so.

Entertaining requires lifting your spirits in order to lift those of your guests. It means taking your mind off your troubles and seeking to make everyone around you at ease. Of laughing, of extending, of reaching beyond your comfort zone when breaking bread with complete strangers whom you have worked for since dawn in order to create an evening to remember.

“Be careful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This is the Old Testament verse from the Bible which I have personally claimed as my command for hospitality. Interesting or surprising at it may be, after all the groceries have been procured and put away, after all the dishes have been prepared and consumed, and after all the dishes have been washed and dried and put back in their place, it is always-always!-me, the entertainer, who has received the richest blessing. To fill the stomach of a friend or a stranger, to serve in the humblest of ways, brings the mightiest of rewards.

It is my hope this week that you might outstretch your hand to someone who could use a dose of nourishment. Bodily or otherwise. For by nourishing, you will be nourished. In the exhaustion of the aftermath of your evening, you will find refreshment of soul. And when you awaken in the morning, you will be at peace with the world.