Ringing in the New Year

For years I’ve been teasing you with promises to share stories and recipes from our annual New Year’s Eve party. This is the year, friends!

New Year’s Eve traditions are a big thing in my family. My parents have been ringing in new year after new year with the same friends for the last 30-plus years. There’s no longer a need for an invitation; my mom makes snacks, prepares hot dogs and kielbasa and sauerkraut in the crock pot, and her famous Slush drink (for adults only), and their friends come over. It’s a small, causal gathering, and it’s special because that’s the one time of the year they’re sure to see these friends.

When I was in college (and for years before), my aunt and uncle hosted New Year’s Eve, with my other aunt and uncle and a few of their close friends attending. Ryan and I joined them every year, sometimes with Ryan’s parents. Since my aunt also hosts a large Christmas Eve dinner and cooks a big Christmas dinner, after we purchased our home and had more space (and a child), Ryan suggested we host New Year’s Eve to give my aunt a break and also to be able to keep our son at home near his own bed on a night we’d be sure to be up late. After the first time, it became the new tradition, and one I look forward to all year long. Each year, I begin looking for menu ideas months in advance. This year, Ryan woke me up on Tuesday morning by delivering a cup of coffee to me in bed and and announcing, “It’s time, babe! This is the day you spend all year looking forward to!” He knows how much I love planning and hosting and entertaining in our home, and that cup of coffee was such a perfect way to start my day.

Preparing for this event is a science I’ve gotten down to a two-day process: day one is grocery shopping and preparing make-ahead recipes, and then setting the table. Day two is cleaning and last-minute food prep. I haven’t changed the dinner menu much in the past eight years: we have a traditional pork and sauerkraut dinner, with mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato and apple casserole, mushroom casserole, and a couple of vegetables. I almost always serve green beans, and then the other veggie changes from year to year. This year, I realized a day later that I’d forgotten to cook the green beans. We’ve had brussels sprouts in various forms, roasted radishes…something a little different, usually whatever I can get my hands on that I can find a good recipe for. Where I play is with appetizers and desserts. I’ve served a pretty wide variety of different appetizers, and different desserts almost every year: stuffed potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, shrimp cocktail, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, raw veggie plate, meat and cheese plate…whatever I’m inspired by from Pinterest, cookbooks, magazines, and my mood. My aunt always brings her famous bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, which disappear really quickly.

This year’s menu utilized some tried-and-true favorites: Ina Garten’s Tomatoes Roasted With Pesto; Joanna Gaines’ recipe from her Magnolia Table cookbook for “Beck’s Crackers;” a selection of pepperoni and salami with Havarti, Gouda, and Colby cheeses; some olives and pickles; assorted crackers…and a new addition this year, Lobster Dip Crostini, from my David Venable cookbook, “In the Kitchen with David: Back around the Table.” (You may know David as the food guy on QVC. Those who grew up in the part of Pennsylvania I did may remember him from his days on the local TV network WTAJ

When I’m planning a menu, I try to find recipes that utilize similar ingredients so I’m not purchasing every single ingredient for every single separate recipe. First of all, it’s tedious; secondly, it can get expensive, if you can only purchase a large quantity of an ingredient you need a tablespoonful of for one recipe. A great example would be the tomatoes with pesto appetizer, even though pesto is not an expensive ingredient, it’s also not something we use regularly at our house. The little bit it takes to make the tomatoes leaves 3/4 of a jar to sit in my refrigerator and gets thrown out. So I found this recipe for pesto twists to use the remainder of the jar. It helps that the pesto twists also use fresh Parmesan, which I’d used on the tomatoes as well. I often add the twists to our appetizer menu, but this year I put them on the table as the bread to serve with our meal. A third reason to look for recipes using common ingredients is to cut down on the margin of error while grocery shopping for your event. Nobody likes getting home with bags of groceries and realized they forgot something; it’s so much worse when you’re under pressure and preparing for guests.

I like to prepare as much of our dinner the day before our party as I can. Much of what I serve can easily be done this way, and refrigerated overnight. The lobster dip was easily prepared ahead and kept well chilled until just before our guests arrived, and I toasted the crostini just before party time. The tomatoes are best made fresh, but they’re quick and easy and don’t require much cleanup.

Most of the dinner sides recipes I make ahead, including this apple and sweet potatoes dish; the apples compliment the pork nicely, and the sweetness of the dish is the perfect contrast to sauerkraut. The best part is that my boys fight over finishing the leftovers. This mushroom casserole has been a favorite in our family for years, takes only minutes to make ahead, and is perfect to reheat just before putting on the table as well. It’s rich, creamy, cheesy, with a bit of crunch from the toasted bread crumbs on top (don’t put those on until just before baking) and it’s super easy to make. Don’t be surprised if there’s none left; if you like mushrooms, this one is a star.

I mentioned I’ve used several different recipes for Brussels spouts. A lot of the time, my recipes take the direction of a certain ingredient I have on hand, or a flavor I know my family likes. One year, I roasted Brussels sprouts with some fingerling potatoes as a potato dish for two of my aunts who aren’t big fans of mashed potatoes. But the majority of the time, I find Brussels sprouts and bacon to be a wonderful pair. This year’s Brussels sprouts side was another Joanna Gaines recipe, this one using bacon (which most everyone loves), sugared pecans, and a balsamic glaze (one of our twins is a huge fan of balsamic). While my husband typically passes on Brussles sprouts, this year as the dish passed his plate, he commented, “I’m going to try some of these since my beautiful wife made them.” (When I asked if the same principle applied to testing the mushroom casserole, he politely declined. Can’t blame a girl for trying…)

The dinner table, New Year’s Eve 2019

In order to have enough room in the oven to finish heating all of the appetizers and side dishes, I always cook our boneless pork loin roast and couple of bags of sauerkraut in my electric roaster in the basement. Not only does this free up my oven, but it also keeps the sauerkraut smell from overpowering the other kitchen aromas. Ryan and the boys bought me a Ninja Foodi for Christmas, so some year I may cook the meat and sauerkraut in that, but until I’m confident in my use of a new appliance, I’d rather not ruin a meal when I’m hosting a group of our family and friends.

Finally, once we’ve gotten our fill of mixed drinks (I set up a mini bar on a kitchen counter, setting out glassware and providing several bottles of liquor and soda mixers, bottles of wine, and beer, plus ice and glasses, where guests can mix their own drinks and mingle with me as I put the finishing touches on appetizers and dinner) and appetizers, then dinner, we take a break to digest and then we start on dessert. I typically offer two different options: one is usually a cake or cake roll or cheesecake; the other is often something served in individual cups. I’ve served Bailey’s chocolate mousse, creme brulee, homemade ice cream… this year we enjoyed this Hershey’s Pot de Creme recipe. Traditional pot de creme has a custard base, but this is a fast, easy, four-ingredient alternative that provided the perfect sweet finish to our meal. The other dessert this year was Peppermint Bark Cookies and Cream Cheesecake, from the Philadelphia cream cheese recipe I’d seen in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. You really never can go wrong with cheesecake, and I dare you to argue with me about that.

And that, my friends, is our New Year’s Eve spread, in so many words and not so many photos, because…well, I’m nailing procedures but I still have some work to do at efficiency.

I hope your holidays were merry and bright, and surrounded by love, peace, and joy. Wishing you and yours all the best in this New Year…

Cheers!

xoxo,

~d

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