New delights for a new year

When I lived in Paris, I particularly loved the festive atmosphere of New Year's.

eifell tower 88 night (photo credit: )
eifell tower 88 night
(photo credit: )
There seem to be as many ways to celebrate the secular New Year as there are people who have fun doing it. Unlike Rosh Hashana menus, the meals prepared for this event are rarely rooted in tradition. Yet most people seem to follow a similar guideline: "Pamper yourself with the best you can get." When I lived in Paris, I particularly loved the festive atmosphere of this season. At the outdoor markets I gawked at the game hanging at the boucherie stands and admired the wonderful displays of super-fresh fish. The Parisians' principle behind selecting items for New Year's menus is simple: "Spend a lot of money." Frenchmen bought foods that were normally beyond their budgets - foie gras, truffles, oysters, smoked salmon, caviar and, of course, champagne. Restaurant menus highlighted chefs' creations featuring these same luxurious ingredients. As a young student working in exchange for cooking classes in the City of Lights, I felt fortunate to be able to taste such sumptuous ingredients at the cooking school. Still, my husband and I allowed ourselves several special treats - maybe a tempting cheese from our local fromagerie, perhaps chocolate truffles from the chocolaterie down the street and a small bottle of a very good wine. Walking to our favorite stores to shop for these items was all part of the pleasure. Russians and French people share many of the same New Year tastes. According to Anya Van Bremzen and John Welchman, the authors of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (Workman, 1990), "Caviar is a must, and will be accompanied by smoked sturgeon and salmon, a special roast (usually a goose or a turkey), and beautiful fruit from far-off regions." In the US many celebrate with superb steaks or the best seafood. People in other parts of the world choose other items, but the principle is the same - start the year with the foods you love best. Another way to choose a festive food is to go outside the limits of our diets, opting for foods that exceed our usual self-imposed calorie allotment. Sometimes I like to prepare sole fillets with beurre blanc (a French butter sauce), chicken with a Thai coconut milk curry sauce, or a luscious multi-layered chocolate almond cake. But occasionally I opt for a healthy feast. Instead of plain bread, I might buy a wonderful walnut bread from the best bakery around. If I've had my eye on an excellent olive oil, this is the time I choose to spring for it, for my spinach salad with Bulgarian cheese and tomatoes. And I splurge on exotic fruits. You don't have to shop in France to find all sorts of enticing foods for the New Year. This is a good time to try something different from your usual market, or to savor a food you haven't had for a long time. Look around the supermarket and take off the blinders that usually stop you from purchasing certain festive ingredients. You'll probably find dried wild mushrooms - they seem expensive for their weight but a small amount goes a long way and perfumes sauces and soups with an intense woodsy flavor. Buy cashews or macadamia nuts to enliven your salads or vegetable dishes. Try fresh pasta for a change from the usual dried noodles. When you're making chocolate mousse, experiment with a different brand of fine chocolate. Indeed, the New Year is a good occasion to invigorate our cooking with new creativity. For New Year's party menus, Rick Rodgers, the author of Celebrations 101 (Broadway, 2004), suggests simple recipes flavored in a new way. He uses toasted pecan vinaigrette to transform green bean salad into a holiday dish. To make cherry chocolate truffles, he heats bittersweet chocolate with butter, cherry preserves and cherry brandy. When he prepares hot apple cider, in addition to the usual cinnamon sticks and cloves, he adds slices of fresh gingerroot. Going outside your usual routine is good for your soul. Whether you're cooking a whole meal or supplementing your menu with prepared foods, have fun and enjoy new foods for a New Year. NOODLES WITH SMOKED SALMON AND DILL This pasta recipe with its creamy sauce can be embellished with smoked fish, caviar, wild mushrooms or a combination of these. If using dried wild mushrooms, soak them in hot water for 20 minutes, rinse them and simmer them in the wine for 10 minutes or until tender. Fresh egg noodles taste great with the delicate sauce but thin dried pasta is good as well. 120 to 150 gr. thinly sliced mild lox or smoked salmon 2 large green onions, minced 1⁄2 cup dry white wine 1 cup whipping cream 225 gr. fresh or dried egg noodles or fettuccine 2 Tbsp. snipped fresh dill, plus a few small sprigs for garnish Salt and freshly ground pepper Cayenne pepper to taste (optional) Cut lox in lengthwise strips of about 5 x 1 cm., cutting with the grain rather than crosswise so that strips hold together better. Combine green onions and wine in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook over low heat about 5 minutes or until liquid is reduced to about 3 tablespoons. Stir in cream and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat about 6 minutes or until sauce is thick enough to lightly coat a spoon. Cook noodles uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with fork, about 2 minutes for fresh pasta or 2 to 5 minutes for dried, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well. Transfer to a heated platter. Bring sauce to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in snipped dill. Pour sauce over noodles and toss. Gently stir in salmon, using a large fork. Add a little salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Garnish with dill sprigs and serve. Makes 4 appetizer or side-dish servings. Faye Levy's latest book is Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).