WHETHER NEW YEAR’S EVE means spooning on the sofa or sashaying at a swank bash, rituals rule the night (midnight kisses, Dick Clark’s grin). Yet nothing says “Howdy, 2010!” like the pop of a cork. Fizzy wine on Dec. 31 is as inevitable as dashed resolutions by MLK Day. But bubbly doesn’t just belong in clinking flutes. Chefs say Champagne (or any sparkler) brings flair to food, too.

“Champagne always feels luxurious in cooking,” says Katie Lee, ex “Top Chef” host and author of “The Comfort Table” ($26, Simon & Schuster). “A dish with bubbly in its name makes guests go ‘oooh.'” Lee poshes up gelatin by subbing sparkling wine for the water (think grown-up Jell-O shots).

Champagne’s cachet stems from an elite pedigree. Legally, only sparkling wine produced in France’s Champagne region can bear the C-word. Still, for an exclusive elixir, Champagne is versatile, says personal chef Paul Schneider (Chefpaulcooks.com). “There are many different ways to cook with it.”

Schneider teaches an annual December class on cooking with Champagne at Bethesda‘s L’Academie de Cuisine. This year, his menu included shitake-leek-Champagne soup, salad in Champagne vinaigrette, grouper in Champagne sauce and caramelized apples with cake and Champagne sabayon (sweet custard).

French laws aside, Champagne is, simply, wine that sparkles. And like vino, bubbles — be they Spanish cavas or Italian proseccos — complement each dish, says Sebastian Zutant, sommelier at Proof (775 G St. NW; 202-737-7663). He likes zesty Champagnes with salads or carpaccio and richer, Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs with pasta (try Virginia’s Thibaut-Janisson). Similar ideas work cooking with champers: Kick up vinaigrettes with light sparklers; use heavier blends in main-dish sauces.

Still, some pros believe boiling Champagne falls flat. “I don’t cook with Champagne. Its beauty is effervescence. Once heated, it becomes still,” says Bryan Moscatello, executive chef of Stir Food Group (Stirfoodgroup.com), a family of D.C. restaurants including Potenza and Zola. On the other hand, Moscatello thinks pouring sparklers into a sauce makes sense if you sip from the same bottle at dinner.

Chef Ris Lacoste, who just opened an eponymous resto in D.C.’s West End (2275 L St. NW; 202-730-2500), suggests always cooking with the type of wine you plan to have with your meal. “Look for a connect between drinking the glass and eating the food,” she says. Sometimes she subs Champagne for white wine in risotto.

Nicholas Stefanelli, chef at new Italian cafe Bibiana (1100 New York Ave.; 202-216-9550), uses prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) to deglaze roasted dorade, then splashes more on the fish just before serving.

But perhaps the easiest trick? “Pour Champagne over sorbet,” says chef Tracy O’Grady, of Arlington’s Willow (4301 N. Fairfax Dr.; 703-465-8800). “You get bubbles and acidity, and if you do sorbet in a color, it will fizz and bleed.”

Sure, Jan. 1 grogginess may be as inevitable as obnoxious noisemakers at U Street bars. Just be sure supper isn’t the culprit by buying better bubbly. “Good Champagne is a necessary indulgence,” Lee says. “There’s nothing worse than a headache from the cheap stuff.”

» Recipe File: Shitake-Leek-Champagne Cream Soup

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky