Toasting New Year's, Tete A Tete

December 26, 1990|By Lynn Williams

This New Year's Eve, let auld acquaintance be forgot.

Send all your auld acquaintances, new buddies and surplus family members off to their too-crowded parties, or to some clamorous nightclub soiree with a cash bar and compulsory party hats. Don't you like baroque music better than noisemakers? Sure you do. Do you really want to kiss a bunch of strangers at midnight? Definitely not. You know who you really want to kiss, so why not invite that delightful someone over to see in the New Year a deux?

There are definite advantages to having a party for just the two of you, and we're not just talking about less dish washing and not having to vacuum confetti out of the carpet. For starters, you can get quite giddy on champagne without endangering the public highways, and if you make a fool of yourself, no one will know but your ever-indulgent significant other.

For ideas, we turned to two creative, highly regarded cooks who both have new cookbooks out -- but who have very different ideas on entertaining.

"Since I've been married for 33 years, I've had some experience with dinners for two," says Leslie Newman, author of "Feasts: Menus for Home-Cooked Celebrations," published by HarperCollins. Ms. Newman, who is also a novelist and screenwriter (she wrote the "Superman" films with her husband David), is known for her New Year's Eve dinners for 200-plus friends. But she maintains that any dinner for two, even the humblest picnic, can be a romantic occasion.

Her theory of feasting, which underlies both her New Year's feasts and her new book, is that the best cooking is home cooking, not gourmet "party food" that really should be prepared by a professional caterer with a full staff.

Her party credo: "No caviar for 200. If somebody gives you caviar, don't spread it on canapes. Eat it yourself in the kitchen, while you make your guests peasant food."

Sarah Leah Chase is not one to go for the peasant gusto, however.

The author of Workman's "Cold-Weather Cooking" and "Nantucket Open-House Cookbook," and co-author of "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," does not disguise her affection for the most haute fare, especially for the holidays. As she writes in the "December Dazzle" chapter of "Cold-Weather Cooking," "I relish the festive incentive to splurge with lavish foods and formal parties. If revelers are willing to defy the encroaching cold and hostile climate by donning black tie, tails, velveteen, silks and satins and taffeta rather than down and long johns, I say greet them with oysters, caviar, foie gras and white truffles -- not dips, chips and canapes."

The two women agree, though, that a romantic New Year's Eve for two is an occasion when the food should be as fancy as you dare. It's not, Ms. Newman says, that peasant food and romance are mutually exclusive. "Look at 'Tom Jones,' " she says, alluding one of the cinema's sexiest dinners, where the couple in question devour each other with their eyes as they devour roast chickens.

But New Year's is a time to make all those foods that may be too expensive, or just too sensual, to feed the crowds and the kids. It's easy to be self-indulgent when you've only one other person to pamper.

"I don't like big New Year's Eve celebrations," Ms. Chase admits during a phone interview from her home in Nantucket. "It's a time to sit back and be quiet and reflect, and have a nice, small intimate dinner. People like to make resolutions to reform on New Year's Day, so get out the last of your epicurean indulgences the night before!"

For both cooks, this means oysters and caviar. Ms. Chase's oysters might be served in the form of a bisque with wild and domestic mushrooms and wild rice, a brew she calls "decadently sublime," or perhaps raw oysters on the half-shell, with a "mignonette" sauce of scallions and chopped fresh cranberries.

Leslie Newman's New Year's feast a deux would begin with oysters on the half shell, nestled on a bed of beluga caviar. "It's the ultimate Tootsie Pop," she jokes. "You just put the caviar in the shell around the oysters, add a squeeze of lemon juice and a grind of black pepper, pop it in your mouth, and say 'ooooh, ooooh.' It's unbelievably wonderful."

This dish has an additional advantage: easy preparation ("If you don't want to risk the kind of injury that would preclude a romantic evening, you can get somebody else to open the oysters for you") and non-existent dish washing ("I'm very big on minimal clean-up. A lot of good recipes have come out of sloth and laziness.")

"The essentials behind a romantic dinner are that one, it not be too filling; it's very unromantic to say, 'I'm so full, don't touch me,' " she says. "It should also not leave you exhausted, with dishes and pots and pans piled to the ceiling. There's a bit of trickery or sleight-of-hand involved in any romantic evening. You want to pretend that something fabulous just appeared in front of you."

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