Call me an old codger, killjoy, and stick-in-the-mud, but can someone please explain to me the appeal of greeting a brand new year with a hangover?
Probably few people begin with that intention. But, regardless of intentions, if you count down to the end of the old year by downing one drink after another, it's not going to end well.
Savannah may have a reputation for its partiality to strong drink, but that doesn't mean that overindulging in it is the only way to celebrate. We're also renowned for our unique, elegant style, and there's nothing stylish or elegant about wearing a lampshade.
That doesn't mean that showing a little class means that we have to be stuffy. Formality isn't (or shouldn't be) a straightjacket, nor are elegance and fun mutually contradictory concepts.
One of the loveliest New Years' Eve celebrations I've ever known was an intimate house party that began with a civilized cocktail hour around a blazing fire, followed with a festive four-course dinner at an elegantly laid table, and finished with fireworks and champagne at midnight.
And I do mean finished.
We all went to bed before the room started spinning, and actually greeted the first dawn of the year without needing ice packs and dark glasses, refreshed and ready to meet it head on.
While that evening was formal, it was very relaxed and lots of fun - far more fun than trying to make conversation with someone who's lost the ability to complete a sentence.
Intimate New Year's Eve parties don't have to follow that blueprint to be successful, however. You can make it as dressy or as casual as suits your own style. To that end, I've offered a menu that can be dressed up or down to match your party's level formality (or lack thereof).
If the idea of multiple courses at a table full of fine china, silver, and crystal intimidates or depresses you, don't do it. Serve the soup from sturdy mugs while you're still around the fire and offer the rest of the dinner from a buffet, or in a single course at a more casual table.
You might even finish with dessert back at the fire or around an outdoor fire pit.
And if something in the menu doesn't work for you, just change it or leave it out. If, for example, you don't like oysters, then don't have them. Or if the make-ahead saltimbocca seems too fussy, substitute the drop-dead easy and equally elegant roasted beef tenderloin from my Dec. 14 column.
Oysters on the Half-Shell with Anita's Sauce Mignonette
Whether they're broiled until plump, juicy, and hot, or served raw and iced cold, nothing sets the stage for an elegant meal quite like a plate of oysters on the half shell.
Serves 6 as an appetizer.
3 dozen fresh oysters, in shell
Unsalted butter cut into bits (only for broiling)
Anita's Mignonette Sauce (recipe follows)
2 lemons, thinly-sliced and sprigs of flat leaf parsley
1. Shuck oysters and cut loose from shell, but leave in deep halves. Discard shallow top shells. Set in crushed ice and refrigerate until needed, but for no longer than 2 hours.
2. When ready to serve, if serving raw, skip to step 3. If broiling, position rack 6 inches from heat source and preheat broiler at least 15 minutes. Spread 1/2-thick layer of rock salt on rimmed baking sheet or line sheet with crumpled foil. Press oyster shells into salt until level. Put dot of butter on each oyster and broil until plumped and gills are lightly curled, about 3-4 minutes.
3. Whether raw or broiled, arrange oysters 6 per plate on oyster plates or salad plates around small cups of sauce at center. Garnish with twisted lemon slices and parsley and serve.
Anita's Sauce Mignonette
From friend Anita Lippitt Clay, this suave sauce was included in my "Savannah Cookbook" (Gibbs-Smith/2008).
Makes about 1 cup, serving 6.
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon grated onion
3/4 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine ingredients, adding salt to taste in jar with tight-fitting lid. Shake well to combine.
2. Chill at least 2 hours before serving in individual ramekins.
Cream of Parsnip Soup (with Oysters)
If you don't want to serve oysters as a first course, but still like the idea of having them, they're a lovely addition to this soup. If, however you are having them separately, or don't care for the oysters at all, it's delicious without them.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
4 cups peeled, sliced parsnips, (1-1/4 pounds, or about 5)
4 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme, tied in a cheesecloth bundle or in a tea-ball
Salt and whole white pepper in a mill
1 pint oysters (optional)
11/2 to 2 cups whole milk or half-and-half
Croutons (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons minced chives, flat leaf parsley, or thyme leaves (or a blend)
1. Warm butter in heavy-bottomed 3 Â½- to 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. Add onion and sweat until softened and translucent, about 8-to-10 minutes. Add parsnips, toss well, and let heat through.
2. Add broth, bay leaf, and thyme bundle (or tea ball), raise heat to medium high, and bring to boil. Adjust heat to simmer, season with salt and white pepper, and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in batches with blender or food processor. (Can be made 2-3 days ahead: let cool, cover, and refrigerate.)
3. When ready to finish and serve soup, if not adding oysters, skip to step 4. If adding oysters, pick over for bits of shell and put with liquor in small saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring gently, until oysters plump and gills curl. Strain, reserving liquor, and transfer oysters to bowl.
4. Return soup to pot and reheat over medium low heat, stirring often. Stir in cream. If too thick, thin soup with milk or reserved oyster liquor if adding oysters. Add oysters, if using, and heat until oysters are heated through. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with croutons, a sprinkling of herbs, and, if liked, a light grinding of white pepper.
Cut enough stale home-styled bread into small cubes to make 2 cups. Preheat oven to 300 F. Put 3 tablespoons butter on rimmed baking sheet and bake until just melted. Add bread and toss to evenly coat. Bake, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Veal or Chicken Saltimbocca
"Saltimbocca" literally means "jump in the mouth" and is presumed to refer to its irresistibility. Though traditionally made with veal scaloppine, it's also lovely with chicken breast cutlets. Best of all, it's elegant and can be mostly made ahead and finished at the last minute. The typical portion is 2 per servings, but with a menu like this, 1 per person is plenty.
8 uniform veal scaloppine, cut Â¼-inch thick (about 1 pound), or 8 chicken cutlets (see notes)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
8-16 sage leaves
8 very thin slices Prosciutto di Parma or other Italian-style ham
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoon olive oil
About Â¼-cup all-purpose or instant-blending flour in a shaker
Â½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
1. Spread sheet of plastic wrap over a large cutting board and lay veal or chicken cutlets flat on top. Cover with second sheet of wrap and lightly pound with meat mallet or scaloppine pounder until uniformly 1/8-inch thick. Uncover and season lightly with salt and pepper. Lay 1-2 sage leaves over each and cover with single slice of prosciutto, gently pressing into surface.
2. Put butter and oil in large, heavy-bottomed skillet (preferably non-stick) and turn on heat to medium-high. When butter is melted and hot and foaming subsides, lightly dust each side of scaloppine with flour, shake off excess, and slip them into pan, prosciutto-side-down. Cook until golden brown on bottom, about 2 minutes.
3. Carefully turn with spatula and cook about a minute longer. Transfer them to a platter. Can be made up to 2 hours ahead to this point. Let cool and loosely cover. Save pan without cleaning.
4. When ready to finish, reheat pan over medium heat and add wine, stirring and scraping to loosen browned cooking residue. Let reduce slightly. Return scaloppine to pan and simmer until heated through and sauce is lightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Transfer scaloppine to warm platter or individual serving plates, pour sauce evenly over and serve immediately.
Note: To make chicken breast cutlets, lay 4 6-ounce boned and skinned chicken breasts on work surface. Carefully split in half by cutting horizontally through each with sharp knife.
Mixed Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette
6 (loosely packed) cups spring mix or mix of romaine, bib, and endive
2-3 red radishes, thinly sliced and then cut into thin sticks
2-3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/4 cup mixed fresh herb leaves (mint, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary)
1/3 cup toasted pecans or pine nuts
About 1/2 cup crumbled Roquefort, gorgonzola, or other blue cheese, optional
Champagne Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
9 ripe grape tomatoes, halved
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
1. Wash and dry greens. Tear into bite-sized pieces as needed. Put in salad bowl and add radishes, scallions, half of herbs, nuts, and cheese if using. Gently toss to lightly mix.
2. Add 2/3 of vinaigrette and toss. Taste and gradually add vinaigrette to suit. Divide among salad plates and garnish with grape tomatoes, remaining herbs, and grinding of pepper. Serve.
1 tablespoon Champagne or Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon honey or to taste
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Whisk together mustard, honey, a pinch of salt and grinding of pepper. Whisk in vinegar. Gradually whisk in oil in a steady stream. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, and honey.
Easy Ginger Ice Cream
Easy, elegant (both to look at and to eat), this sort-of-homemade ice cream is great with the last of the Christmas shortbread, sugar cookies, ginger snaps, or a thin slice of fruitcake. You can also up the ante by adding a warm chocolate ganache spiked with a spoonful of Grand Marnier (recipes follows).
It should ripen in the freezer for at least 2-3 hours, but it's even better made a day ahead.
2/3 cup chopped crystalized ginger
2 tablespoons grated fresh gingerroot
1 quart French Vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
1. Put both crystalized and grated fresh ginger in heatproof bowl. Bring teakettle of water to a boil. Cover ginger with about 1/3 cup boiling water. Let soften and cool completely. Water will be mostly absorbed into ginger.
2. Turn ice cream out into large glass mixing bowl and let soften to consistency it would be straight from churn (or "soft-serve" ice cream). Gently fold in ginger and any remaining soaking liquid. Pack back into container and freeze until firm, about 2-3 hours.
Chocolate Grand Marnier Ganache
Just in case you can't leave well enough alone with the ice cream.
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup heavy cream
1-by-3-inch strip orange zest
1 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate chips
1-2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1. Bring cream and zest to a simmer in small heavy-bottomed pan. Simmer 2 minutes and turn off heat. Let steep 5-10 minutes. Remove and discard zest.
2. Return pan to medium heat and bring cream back to simmer. Add chocolate chips and turn off heat. Let stand 1 minute or until chocolate is softened. Whisk until chocolate and cream are evenly blended and sauce is silky and smooth. Whisk in Grand Marnier. Serve warm or at room temperature.