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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