Gathering to Celebrate a New Year With Friendship and Good Food

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My friends in the Bay Area have been coming to my home on New Year’s Day for so long, we can scarcely remember a time before this tradition began. My modus operandi is that I try to keep it simple; I set out a buffet of six or seven dishes (plus bread and a dessert or two), most of which can be  prepared ahead and served at room temperature, and everyone helps themselves to food and beverages and then settles in wherever they can find room to enjoy a mellow afternoon of conversation. Sometimes my menus have a theme, and sometimes I just cook dishes I think will go together, and I try to challenge myself by making at least one thing I’ve never made before. This year, my friend Susanne Jensen offered to contribute homemade squash ravioli, and so I dreamt up a more-or-less Italian menu around that (I hope soon to put up a separate blog post on Susanne’s raviolis). So, here in words and photos are five dishes we made for this year’s celebration. For dessert I made the Italian fruit cake, panforte, which I previously posted here. All these dishes could not have been done without the help of my friend, the inimitable Frank Melanson. Frank came three days before the party to help with all aspects of preparation.

Top photo: If a classic summer salad consists of tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, of what would you construct a winter salad? That’s the challenge I faced in creating this dish. I based this salad on vegetables (and some fruit) which, in the Bay Area, are plentiful in farmer’s markets now. The major ingredient is savoy cabbage which we tore into pieces as you would lettuce, then blanched very briefly.  Once drained and cooled, we tossed in radicchio and belgium endive, as well as some fuyu persimmon slices and pomegranate, and some toasted walnut pieces which we lightly-glazed with maple syrup. While for everyday meals I seldom combine vegetables and fruits this way, for this holiday meal I wanted to create an especially colorful and seasonal salad. To dress the salad, I made a creamy vinaigrette dressing in the blender, with apple juice concentrate, lemon juice, umeboshi vinegar, garlic, mustard, salt and pepper and olive oil.

Photo below: Cannellini beans, are not only so Italian, but are also one of my favorites. When cooked just right, they’re rich and tender, and almost meaty. I soaked the beans overnight and then cooked them for about an hour, but I started checking them for doneness after 50 minutes. Cook beans in plenty of water, then the only real trick is in the timing: check them frequently towards the end of the cooking time. Overcooked beans turn mushy, o.k. for soup, but a no, no for salad, and undercooked beans just don’t taste right and can be difficult to digest. Once cooked and drained, I tossed them with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, garlic and parsley. Just before serving, I mixed marinated kale into the beans, and that recipe is here. Kumquats chopped small added an occasional textural and flavor surprise. See three more dishes we made for New Year’s Day, after the jump…

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If there’s a way to cook cauliflower which yields a better result than roasting, I’ve yet to discover it. We cut the cauliflower into small flowerettes, tossed it with a little olive oil, mirin, salt and pepper, spread it on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet pans and roasted it in a 400˚ F oven about 35 minutes (after the cauliflower has been in the oven 25 minutes, begin checking it frequently so you can remove it when it reaches the stage of doneness you prefer). Once the cauliflower was roasted we tossed it with sliced, pitted green olives and oranges, peeled and cut into segments.  I may have sprinkled on olive oil and added salt and pepper, but this dish really needs no additional dressing.

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Farro is an old form of wheat which was grown in Italy for millennia, before almost dying out in the last century. Lately, it’s been revived as a specialty crop for the natural and gourmet market.  If you can’t find farro, wheat berries or spelt are good substitutes.  Cook according to package directions, then drain, cool and toss with a little olive oil to keep the grains from sticking. I roasted a mixture of fennel, bell peppers, butternut squash, carrots, mushrooms and red onions (read about roasting vegetables here). After that, we mixed the veggies with the farro, a cup of diced Red Hill Farm smoked goat cheddar cheese and seasoned it all with umeboshi vinegar, salt and pepper.

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Although my New Year’s menus are largely vegetarian, I often make one dish with fish or sea food. This year we did sardines with a sweet and sour marinade, a recipe I adapted from Italian Country Cooking by Loukie Werle (a cookbook I heartily recommend). While this recipe is a lot of work (try cleaning and deboning dozens of small fish), I was pretty happy with the result.  Would I make it again?  I’m not sure, but if I did, I’d use trout filets rather than sardines. One of the beauties of this dish is that it is made entirely a day ahead. Anyway, after the sardines were cleaned, butterflied and deboned, we dipped them in seasoned flour and panfried them for about a minute on each side.  Once the fish were drained, we covered them with the marinade and let them sit over night in the fridge. Our marinade consisted of red onions, sliced lemon and garlic, all sautéed together in olive oil until tender, then simmered briefly with lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, mirin and golden raisins, and of course, seasoned with salt and pepper. Just before serving, we garnished the fish with sliced almonds and parsley.

To see what we made for our New Year’s celebration last year, click here. A slide show of the party, posted by Bob Starkey, is here (click on slide show).

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