New Year’s Menu 2013: Inspiration and creation

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Something weird (and wonderful) has started happening. Over the last couple of days, I’ve noticed the number of visitors to this site going up, and the number of page views per visitor increasing.

For a while, I was wondering what was going on until today when I started receiving messages along the lines of “Hey, my dad/mom/uncle/self is looking for inspiration for New Year’s Dinner, they’ve had a look at your site for inspiration and found some good clues. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a recipe for (…)”

Turns out people are turning to this site for inspiration. I’m apparently a trusted source of information. Wow, this is so new. I’ll try to mainly use my powers for good!

This brings up two important issues, number one being how awesome you guys are and how humbling this is, the other being how unfortunate it is that I don’t yet have more information or inspiration to offer. I’m sorry, we’re a pretty small operation here, I’ll have more info up for next year and, well, I haven’t really even had much of a chance to blog about New Year’s… Yet!


The most important meal of the year?

Ask people what their most important meal of the year is and I’ll guarantee you opinions will differ! For some it’s Christmas Eve, for others it’s their birthday, for some it just plain varies. For me, it always has been and probably always will be New Year’s Dinner: It’s that one night a year when you celebrate the passing of the previous year while welcoming the new. It’s a night of celebration and of glamor where everything, the food included, gets kicked up a notch.

New years dinnerKicking it up a notch for New Year’s!

… And for me, in particular, it’s a chance to come out and play!

For years now, our tightly knit group of friends have come together on New Year’s Eve to eat drink and be merry, and the concept has been the same since day one: everybody pays their fair share of the food and drink budget and it’s then up to the night’s head chef to come up with a menu to please everybody.


… And this is how we do it

By now, it should come as no surprise to the average reader that I’ve been the head chef for most if not all of these evenings. It’s my New Year’s tradition, my friends trust me to come up with something new and exciting every year and I try not to let them down. I rake my brain for ideas, put them together, break them back up, shake them around a bit and put them back together in new ways. Then I tear a few days out of the calendar and get shopping, preparing and cooking until finally, on the evening of the 31st, I can present my friends with this year’s New Year’s Dinner.

Every year, I try to come up with something new and exciting (or old and peculiar) and every year things seem to get just a little more complicated and/or odd.

It’s a fun, little game that I think everybody should try, but it’s also a lot of work and a lot of planning. That’s one reason why you haven’t seen any posts about New Year’s Dinner on the blog, because quite honestly: the menu simply isn’t done yet. Well, the menu is, but the details and final touches aren’t. Those usually never really come together until the very last minute, literally. It’s always a rush to the finish these kind of things, but a fun rush at that as I try to figure out what to do with the responsibility and money that’s been bestowed upon me.

Dry aged prime ribUsually large parts of the budget are put against one signature ingredient, like this bone-in one-month dry aged prime rib. Spoiler alert: This year, that is NOT the case!

Want the menu? Okay, so like I said, I can’t offer you the complete menu as it’s not done yet. Check back tomorrow, though, and I’ll have a working draft up for you to read!


The rules of our New Year’s Dinner

So, obviously, if you’re going to play a game, you’re going to need rules. Generally, with my New Year’s Dinners as of late, it’s been a bit of an anything goes kind of thing, but I have still  stuck to some pretty simple, dogmatic rules over the last couple of years. It keeps me in check, it keeps me thinking and it keeps me from going completely bat shit crazy with extravagant ingredients that no one can really afford. My rules, generally, are as follows:

  1. Everything should be made from scratch: sauces, soups, side dishes, everything. A New Year’s Dinner is a labor of love. Natural products should be used whenever possible and things built from scratch, artificial additives should be avoided at any cost.
  2. Four drink course minimum: A New Year’s Dinner should contain at least one snack serving and three ordinary servings. More is fully acceptable (but more complicated), less is not. I try to stick with about 5 servings, that’s sufficiently challenging for me while leaving me time to enjoy the company.
  3. No re-runs! I love coming up with new things. Consequently, I made a rule a few years back stating that no matter how great or successful a dish, I wouldn’t attempt to replicate it in coming years. It keeps me thinking and my creative juices flowing. I’ll admit that I have once caved in to peer pressure and served a snack serving up two years in a row, I’ve also served what I believed to be refined versions of old classics, but generally I go for something new every year.
  4. Keep it on the cheap! Everybody can throw together a nice dinner using fancy and/or expensive ingredients. It eases the process so to speak because expensive ingredients generally have more wow factor. Our New Year’s tradition started out when none of us really had much money to speak of (see below) so part of the fun of this exercise is to keep things (relatively) on the cheap while turning as much flavor and wow-factor as possible out of relatively cheap and simple ingredients.


The challenges of cooking multi-course meals

Ah yes, as a lot of you will know there are many challenges involved when cooking a multi-course meal for many diners. Luckily, I have been playing this game for a few years now and have managed to pinpoint and address many of them. Should you feel inclined to host your own cook-a-thon for friends, either for New Year’s or some other time, here are a few things, you should be aware of.

Space and equipment restraints

Normally, multi-course dinners for many people are most easily served in restaurants with full-featured, professional kitchens, not in a small two-bedroom apartment. Running more than three servings for more than four people in a small to regularly sized kitchen can prove exciting at times and it’s not really something you think about until you’re in the process of plating six appetizers while at the same time prepping the next two dishes with well-meaning people buzzing around you.

Suddenly those few square feet of countertop become pretty valuable real estate and suddenly four burners and a convection oven doesn’t seem like an abundance of heat sources. It’s a fun challenge, but actually more of a challenge than you might think.

Solution: Planning will set you free!

  1. Get everything as close to done as possible well in advance. Break your dishes into individual components and finish as many of the components as you can before hand so that only smaller prep jobs and final plating remains.
  2. Write down a battle plan and stick to it. Figure out what you need to do to finish each individual dish, make sure you know where the pieces for each dish are and what should be done to which piece at what time.
  3. Accept that something will go wrong and find ways to work around this. Improvise if need be. No matter how much you plan, things won’t go according to plan, accept that accidents may will happen and learn to work around them.
  4. If need be, enlist the help of one or more friends, work out exactly what they should and shouldn’t do and keep everybody else out of the kitchen as much as possible. Humans are curious creatures and we all know they mean well when they try to keep you company and ask inquiring questions about your cooking, try not to snap at them and tell them nicely that you’re a little caught up in what you’re doing, but that there’s more white burgundy waiting for them in the decanter on the table.


Your hardships grow exponentially with the number of dishes

I’m gonna pull the controversy card here and say that a three course dinner is a relatively easy thing to pull off. It’s a pretty tried and tested concept. You time things so that your main course is pretty much done by the time the starter hits the table, you eat, plate your main dish, eat again and break out the cold dessert after a small break, done.

By the time you start throwing in more courses, your problems grow exponentially. Things like space, time, timing and number of plates in your kitchen, ingredients and components start becoming real issues. The more servings you introduce, the bigger these issues become.

Solution: The art of limitation! Only do as many courses as you can comfortably handle. Three servings is no shame, or two for that matter. Five could be if you fall through half way. Settle on a number of courses you feel comfortable and safe doing, figure out just what needs to be done to finish each dish and write it down on a cheat sheet. That way you’ll know and remember to start re-heating the potato soufflé for your main course once your appetizer leaves the kitchen. Planning will set you free!

The cook wants to party as well

I love cooking and I love spending time in my kitchen. However, I also love entertaining  and most of all, I love my friends. When my friends are over, I want to keep them fed, entertained and happy, but I also want to spend time with them and keep myself fed, entertained and happy.

I want to be able to sit down and eat, drink and be merry and partake in the conversation. It’s a big part of the experience for me and the part that I think back on most fondly. I don’t want to be the kind of host that spends all the time in the kitchen, rushing dishes back and forth, only having time to say cheers and having one cold bite before starting the next dish.

Party on!The cook should party along, too! Okay, uhh, sometimes less IS more, but you get my drift. Don’t forget to have fun!

Solution: Same as above, planning will set you free! A lot of cooking time is in the prepping of ingredients, and a lot of these things can be done well ahead. Figure out which components can be prepped or cooked a day or more ahead and start with preparations as early as possible.

Accept the fact that if you want a fancy, multi-course dinner you’ll probably need to allow most of a day for preparations. When cooking a New Year’s Dinner, I always take the 30th off and spend the day for prepping and cooking as many individual components as I possibly can.

Keeping it on the “cheap”

Like I said, our New Year’s tradition got started a lot of years ago. Way back when we were all pretty much either students or unemployed, meaning that money were pretty tight and we’d have to make do with what we could get for very little.

Luckily, things have since changed and all of us make a very nice living so we’re able to kick a bit more money into things. That’s not necessarily to say that people share my priorities in life, though, so why I’d see absolutely no problem in upping the budget and introducing all sorts of weird, expensive specialty ingredients, my co-diners may not agree with my priorities and I could never expect them to.

As such, I strive to keep costs lower or equal to the costs of having a catering company supply the food. It’s in many ways an interesting lesson in restraint for me as well as a nice personal challenge: can I create three or more interesting servings for less than it’d cost us to order in?

Chicken green pea soupGreat taste doesn’t have to be expensive: Local, fresh stewing hen, a handful of green peas, splash of wine, a buck worth of gourmet bacon and a dollop of sour cream… Soup!

Solution: Shop around and take your time in doing so! Get a general feel for what you want to serve and start buying as early as you can. Keep eyes open when doing your daily shopping and if you spy a good price on something you need, get it. If you need specialty items, a quick internet search may save you a lot of money.

Figure out what your pantry holds and see if it fits the bill. No need buying what you already have or something that can easily be substituted with something straight out of the pantry.

No allergies, but lots of preferences

I’ve always figured that one of the perils of working in a professional kitchen is, every now and then, having to cater to people with allergies. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about such things, but I do have five friends with different palates and preferences.

One can’t stand fish, another can’t eat rare beef, etc. There are quite a few things to take into account and on a big night you really want to try to take every diner into consideration. Five out of six loving one dish really isn’t good enough if it’s inedible to one diner because of some issue you should be aware of as a friend.

On a related note, don’t be afraid to listen to your friends and take notes. If a friend tells you she likes a particular little thing and you surprise her with it as part of a dinner four months later, chances are you’ll score a few extra points in said friend’s book. I try to take personal preferences into consideration, I mostly succeed.

The girlsIt’s your job as the regular chef to get to know your diners… And, uh, why wouldn’t you want to get to know them?

Solution: Get to know your friends! Learn their preferences and pet peeves, and remember them. Then learn to work around them. Get creative and find alternatives. Accept that you won’t be able to serve fish dishes and save that special shellfish dish for some other occasion where your fish-hating friend is off doing something else. If serving red meat, serve the least red parts of the roast to the people who cringe at rare beef and save the rarest cut for the chef. If doing steaks, fry them up to order.

The “secret” menu

I like playing around and I like surprises. That means generally when I start planning a dinner, I don’t know where I’ll eventually end up. Or I may think I know where I’ll end up and I’ll really end up somewhere else entirely. Sometimes I don’t even know all components of a dish before I’m in the middle of cooking.

I thoroughly enjoy this element of surprise and I enjoy surprising my guests as well. So, I often don’t tell them the night’s menu ahead, thinking it’s more fun to surprise them with the dishes as we move along.

Obviously, with the way we do things, the willingness to pay for a meal without knowing in advance what you’re going to get requires some confidence and willingness on the part of the diner. Not everybody loves this game as much as I do which is understandable, so I’ve been known to give off hints of main ingredients. Since this year I’m facing the extra pressure of having the world watching my every move and counting on me for inspiration, I’ve decided to disclose my working draft of the menu.  It will be available on this site tomorrow, so check this space.

Solution: Have awesome friends that are always up for a surprise or a challenge. Or give hints as to what you’re cooking. You could, of course, also drop the secrecy altogether if it’s not really your thing. 


The end results?

With the way this game usually plays out, there’s really no way of saying before rather late on the 31st of December. That’s not to say I’ll keep you in the dark, though. Check back tomorrow, then I should be able to post the preliminary menu for my New Year’s Dinner 2013.

A walk-through of the menu, the dishes, the creation and other fun things will, of course, be posted in early 2014, so stay tuned… And until then: Happy cooking!

What are you cooking for new years?

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave a Reply!