This year, I hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner for 8. Nothing unusual about that. But, on the day of the dinner, I relaxed, took a long walk in the woods, stopped off on the way home to buy fish, read a book, did a crossword puzzle, listened to the radio, and set the table.
What I didn’t do that day is spend any time at all preparing food before the guests arrived. How is that possible?
Here’s the menu:
Wild Mushroom Pastries With Red Pepper Sauce
Butternut Squash Soup With Goat Cheese and Chives
Romaine, Brussels Sprouts, Fennel, Green Apple, and Pomegranate Seed Salad With Pomegranate Molasses Dressing
Layered Fillet of Sole with Ratatouille and Red Pepper Sauce
Double Chocolate Mousse Torte
Here’s what made it possible:
For the past several years (with a break for the pandemic), we have celebrated New Year’s Eve with the same three couples. It is our tradition that each couple volunteers to contribute to the dinner.
This year, the appetizer dishes were made by my brother-in-law Alan. The rich, earthy flavorful mushroom pastries (the dough is a Moosewood restaurant recipe, whereas the filling is his own recipe) reminded me of mushroom-stuffed knishes. The red pepper sauce provided just the right sweet tanginess to go along with their savory filling. The bagna cauda, a dipping sauce usually made with anchovies, capers, and olive oil, was made more substantial with the addition of sardines, chickpeas, and parmigiana, and easily stood on it’s own.
As for the soup, I usually make and freeze hot soups a week in advance of a dinner. This time, it was a butternut squash soup. The night before the dinner I transferred it to the refrigerator to thaw. When the guests arrived, I started to warm the soup. The garnishes of crumbled goat cheese and sliced chives were readied the night before.
The salad was made by my friend, Carmen, who assembled the components according to what she thought would go well together, ending up with a zesty, colorful, and crunchy combination of romaine leaves, shredded Brussels sprouts, sliced fennel, thick green apple slices, and pomegranate seeds. Accompanying the salad were pieces of umami-filled parmesan toasts.
The tart and sweet dressing was made of olive oil, pomegranate molasses, and Balsamic vinegar. It complemented the salad beautifully. Here’s the link to the recipe for the dressing:
For the main course, I knew I wanted to cook fish and that it had to be somewhat unusual and dazzling. I looked through my recipes and found one that I had never made before. It is from a book called Restaurant Favorites at Home that I took out of the library about 20 years ago. I never tried making it because it looked sort of intimidating. I took a closer look and noted that it involved making a ratatouille and a roasted red pepper sauce - two components that can be prepared the night before. Indeed, I have found that ratatouille tastes better when made in advance.
The most difficult part of the recipe appeared to be the plating, especially because I was doubling the recipe and so had to prepare 8 plates instead of 4.
The instructions called for placing a long, skinny rectangle of ratatouille on each plate, followed by a large fillet on top, a second long rectangle of ratatouille on top of the fish, a smaller fish fillet on top of that, and a red pepper sauce drizzled on top of everything.
I managed to efficiently plate the fish by separating the 8 larger fillets from the 8 smaller fillets on the sheet pan before baking, and by setting up an assembly line with the 8 plates on my kitchen counter.
Here’s the recipe for the fish:
LAYERS OF SOLE AND RATATOUILLE WITH ROASTED RED PEPPER VINAIGRETTE - serves 4
Red Pepper Vinaigrette:
2 medium red bell peppers
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and ground black pepper
Sole and Ratatouille:
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
9 tablespoons olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
Salt and ground black pepper
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2” dice
1 small yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2” dice
1 baby eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2” dice
1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into 1/2” dice
1 small yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into 1/2” dice
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
8 (3 oz.) gray sole fillets (I used lemon sole)
For the vinaigrette: Adjust oven rack so it is 6” away from the broiler element and heat the broiler. Cut off 1/4” off the tops and bottoms of the bell peppers and remove the seeds. Slice through one side of the two peppers so they lay flat, and trim away the white ribs. Lay the bell peppers skin-side up on a rimmed baking sheet lined with heavy-duty foil and broil until the skin is charred and puffed but the flesh is still firm, 8-10 minutes, turning the pan around halfway through. Remove pan from oven, cover with foil, and allow peppers to steam for 5 minutes. Peel and discard the skins and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the roasted peppers into large pieces and puree with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a food processor. Combine the puree with the remaining 5 tablespoons of olive oil and the vinegar in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside. Wash the processor.
For the sole and ratatouille: Measure 1/2 cup of the diced tomatoes into a small bowl and set aside. Puree the remaining diced tomatoes and their reserved juices in the food processor. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and half the garlic together in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the garlic is sizzling, about 1 minute. Stir in the pureed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is very thick and has reduced to 1/2 cup, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Heat the broiler. Heat 2 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the remaining garlic, onion, and red and yellow bell peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside. Return the pan to medium heat, add 4 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil and heat until shimmering. Add the eggplant, zucchini, and squash, cover, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the reserved diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, onion mixture, and 1/2 cup of the basil. Cook, uncovered, until the flavors have melded, 1 to 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, brush a baking sheet with 1 tablespoon of the remaining olive oil and lay the fish on it in a single layer. Brush the fish with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Broil until the fish is cooked through 2-5 minutes.
To serve, spread about 1/2 cup of the ratatouille across the plate in a straight line. Using a long, metal spatula, remove a large fillet from the baking sheet and lay it atop the ratatouille. Spread another 1/2 cup of ratatouille on top of the fish and lay a second, smaller fillet over the top. Drizzle with the roasted red pepper vinaigrette and sprinkle with some basil. Repeat with the remaining ratatouille, sole, vinaigrette, and basil. Serve immediately.
Dessert was made by my friend Sheila. It was a luscious, creamy chocolate cake. The recipe was based on an Epicurious recipe that she altered, eliminating a white chocolate component, to produce a double chocolate mousse torte, made with milk and dark chocolates.
And that is how I was able to produce this easy, dazzling dinner without actually cooking anything on the day of the dinner before the guests arrived: with the contributions of the guests and by making things in advance.