Is it too late to wish you a happy new year? Not if you follow the Chinese calendar which ushers in the Year of the Horse today or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you are. For most of us, it’s been a new year since January 1st and as usual I began my year with an open house. I’ve been holding an open house on New Year’s Day for so many years, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. It must be 20 years, at least. And every year I ask myself “Do you really want to do this or are you doing it only because you’ve always done it?” So far, I’ve always concluded that I really want to do it. Even for me, a professional cook, it’s a lot of work. Perhaps I should say, especially for me as a professional cook, it is a lot of work–no going to Costco or Whole Foods and buying prepared foods. Having a reputation of sorts to uphold, I figure everything (or almost) must be homemade and cooked from scratch.
There are any number of reasons I continue. First, I love sharing my home with friends, and January 1st is the only time when friends from various parts of my life come together. Also, as a caterer I must consider first my clients needs and tastes, and this is one occasion when I am the client and can create a menu solely to please myself (and hopefully, my guests). Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to try new recipes or revive lost recipes. Too, having invited people over spurs me to complete small projects around the house that I’ve been procrastinating about. And finally, because years pass so quickly, I do find satisfaction in taking special care to celebrate the beginning of each new one.
How do I plan the open house? I begin thinking about a possible menu, weeks and sometimes months ahead. Sometimes it will have an ethnic theme, other times it’s more a collection of dishes I like which I feel will go together. It would be easier were my friends of one mind about what to eat. Alas, that is so not the case. Some are vegan, others probably don’t feel they’ve eaten properly if they didn’t see a sizable piece of meat on their plate. My menus, unlike so many holiday menus which can be heavy on meat, fat and sugar, lean heavily vegetarian, with only a bit of animal protein and with vegetables in the starring role. Also, as a matter of practicality, I very much favor dishes which can be made a bit ahead and served at room temperature. And although I have chafing dishes, I prefer not to use them.
Once I have a menu in mind, I make a detailed shopping list and head to Berkeley Bowl, where I love to shop because of their unmatched produce department and because I can most likely find everything else I need as well. This year, as he has for several years, my friend Frank Melanson came three days before the party to be my decorator, sous chef, and chief silver polisher. Frank helps with everything that makes a party run smoothly, and slips away before the first guest arrives. This year, my housemate, Mike Rother, also helped with cleaning and tidying, which is saying a lot, because when I cook, I make a mess!
(Find the full menu, descriptions of the dishes, and more photos after the jump).