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To celebrate or not celebrate

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The new year is just about upon us and so is the question of what to do on New Year’s Eve. For me, it’s not an all-consuming thing. I’d be happy spending the evening with a glass of Armagnac and a good book. But others close to me want to celebrate. In past years, we’ve gone to Spago or Valentino for either Christmas Eve or New Year’s, and had a swell time. But, for me, the very best New Year’s Eves have been the quieter ones.

There was the year two of my writer friends were in the money and said they’d buy a big tin -- and I mean huge -- of caviar if we made blinis. And so six of us sat in front of the fireplace with Champagne and that huge tin of caviar on ice and piles of warm buckwheat blinis dripping with clarified butter. For the first time in our lives, we could all eat as much osetra as we wanted. A one-time extravagance, it was wonderful fun. Some of us fell asleep in front of the fire, and toddled off home much much later.

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Another of my favorite New Year’s Eves was the one we spent at a friend’s cabin on the Russian River up north in Sonoma County. We feasted on piles of chilled Dungeness crab with a fresh ginger and rice wine vinegar dipping sauce with premier cru Chablis. And for dessert, we had dark fragrant gingerbread with drifts of softly whipped cream. Fun.

And then there was the year my husband and I were housesitting in Berkeley. The Russian River friends brought a bushel of oysters from Hog Island Oysters and we all pitched in to shuck them. We were terrible at it to start, but quickly got the hang of it. While I didn’t break the record I set when I was up at the Oyster Farm slurping oysters, I must have eaten a good three dozen of the small, briny belons. Meanwhile, two beautiful chickens with black truffles tucked under the skin were roasting in the oven. They’d turned a deep gold by the time my husband basted them with butter one last time. As he closed the door, he turned a lever he hadn’t noticed before, not realizing that doing so set off the oven cleaning mode. How would he know? We’d never seen such a high tech oven before, or even one with a self-cleaning mode.

Once launched, the oven basically blasts away at extremely high heat until everything on the inside is incinerated, and during that process the oven is in lockdown. We pressed our noses to the glass, and could see the chickens inside getting browner and browner. Disaster! None of the geniuses on hand could figure out how to disable the cleaning program and unlock the door. We unplugged the oven. We shook it. We poked thin wires inside in hopes of jiggling the lock. We tried to unscrew the hinges. In the end, we somehow got it open, but broke the latch (and subsequently had to pay the repair bill). Hey, but we managed to liberate our truffled birds before they’d shriveled and burnt. You want crisp skin? This is one unconventional way to achieve it. And believe me, those birds were worth it.

This year, after reviewing my options, I’m staying close to home, spending the evening with friends from the neighborhood. We’ll have lots of excellent Champagne and wine -- and great music. Dinner will be a potluck built around a huge pot of Provencal daube. And you can be sure no oven cleaning -- or funny hats -- will be involved.

-- S. Irene Virbila


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