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New Year’s Eve: An intimate dinner for friends

By Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan,

No matter how old I get or how much I procreate, the elders in the family always seem to cover the Christmas meals. Sure, I pitch in by taking over a tradition or two — braiding the Christmas breakfast wreath or assembling the trifle for Christmas dinner — but I have yet to actually host.

My duties don’t really kick in until the next week, for New Year’s Eve. And that is a meal I like to dive into, deeply. It started the year a friend needed to break in a new kitchen at a little beach house, and I was a newly minted food writer. I threw myself into the project, the perfect marriage of my personal and professional selves. The menu featured fish from the nearby dock, wine from a local vineyard and a collection of other courses with recipes I’d loved, and in some cases published, during the year.

Since then I’ve developed a set of criteria for a New Year’s Eve menu: It should feel fancy but not fussy, it should be seasonal but not cloyingly holiday-themed, and it shouldn’t break my back with unnecessary labor. If any skilled procedures are involved, they need to be done ahead of time, because I’ll drink champagne while I cook this meal — and I can’t risk injury. (Two more things to note: I like to play music that my family might not approve of, and I like to wear big shoes and loud lipstick. This is a meal for friends; remember, it’s not Christmas anymore.)

This year, I’m cooking for just a handful of people, and I want it to make them feel really loved. The menu pulls heavily from the book I recently published, “Good Food to Share” (Weldon Owen, 2011), and includes a few recipes from my Web site. Little nibbles such as maple-and-bacon spiced nuts are smart starters to have around while people mill about, helping me prep the salad.

That salad, with endive and radicchio, is a homage to winter greenery and is a good task to hand off to a willing guest; there’s always someone who wants to help. The salmon looks fancy but is really no trouble as long as your oven isn’t too small. (If you can splurge on a wild salmon, the oceans will be grateful.) For a side, I’m going with some unreal Brussels sprouts I had recently in a little restaurant in Brooklyn, made with fish sauce and peanuts. Dessert is a simple tart using the last of the wild cranberries I picked in October and dollops of creme fraiche to top each slice.

With the Christmas hoopla behind me, I am ready to cook the final meal of the year. The engines are revved, and what better way to do it than with a glass of champagne in one hand and a knife in the other, raising both in the air with joy and anticipation for the year of cooking to come.

RECIPES:

Fennel-Roasted Whole Salmon

Cranberry Tart With Hazelnut Crust

Maple-Bacon Spiced Nuts

Endive, Radicchio and Apple Salad

Thai-Style Brussels Sprouts

Gillingham-Ryan is a food writer based in New York. She is the founding editor of Apartment Therapy’s the Kitchn (www.thekitchn.com).

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