January 02, 2007

The courses of life

New Year’s Eve. Not my favourite. I feel forced to reckon – with the year, with my place in the world, with my life. I feel forced to be happy.

And I am happy. Dammit.

I just don’t like being told what to feel, and when, and how, and just because it’s December 31st.

So I think many, if not most of us, plaster a smile on our face – adhered best with champagne I believe - and go forth into the night and into the dawn of a new year.

I’ve spent money on the big blowout parties downtown (and been reimbursed with 5 hours of techno, pounding, crappy music), I’ve been to small bars with live music but with about as much room as carp in an aquarium (okay the dancing was fun), I’ve been blottoed into a new year by a pitcher of killer cosmopolitans by an expert friend who had been a bartender in college.

And I’ve woken up resolving: I will NEVER, EVER drink again…I will exercise more, will never drink again, will be nicer, will never drink ever, will save money, especially by not drinking, and reduce debt, again, not ever drinking ever will help…these are not in any particular order.

Last year my resolution was to use the f word less. Seriously. It’s the television folks, I swear.

This year I’m hoping to defeat my tendencies to live by two ethos(es? ethies?): flying by the seat of my pants at the last minute...and the "that'll do" tendency. They're often related -because that's the best I can do if it's at the last minute...if I'd had more time, I'd have done it better...you see the circle circling eh?

So far so good - wait a minute. I just paid December's phone bill today...

So. Resolutions are f... stupid.

Last new years was the year when my friends Jain and Andy first asked if we could cook together for a table full of their friends. I thought that sounded like fun. So we did…long, slow, small courses, with rests in between – it was so successful, I knew we were in danger of having created an exhausting tradition.

We feasted on: Andy’s lentil/lemon soup with homemade yogourt, I found Donna Hay’s recipe for balsamic lamb, roasted and served on a bed of roasted potatoes with green beans, then I made roasted butternut squash risotto with wild mushrooms and my own chicken stock proudly simmering in a big pot at the back, Andy roasted a pork tenderloin with a wondrous mustard sauce and asparagus roasted in balsamic butter. People were lolling around like they were at a food orgy…it was very satisfying. And exhausting. But satisfying.

I hear time dulls pain and tired feet. It is the great healer.

So, almost 360 days later, just before Christmas, we went over to Andy and Jain’s and Andy’s eyes were positively twinkling in anticipation of our new year's eve dinner – like an 8 yr old who can tell it’s a toboggan under the tree.

So the menu negotiations started by email last week:

Lamb cutlets on spicy rice noodles? Did lamb last year.

Roasted veal tenderloin? Veal? Like No.

Wild mushroom risotto? Ditto, risotto last year. And Jain not so much into the ground fungus.

A winter salad with roasted nuts, goat cheese, pomegranate on greens? I’m saladed out. How does anyone get saladed out?

It all sounded good to me. Well, except for the veal.

Back and fork we went.

On the day, we went over early to start prepping…and Andy plastered a smile on my face with a delicious, crisp glass of sparkling wine. Just to get the creative juices flowing. No forced happiness here. I threw on my apron with élan.

We were feeding seven. The table looked like nature had spread itself open in anticipation – Jain has a natural gift for flower arranging and table setting – dried rose petals had settled down the centre, two small bouquets of flowers anchored each end and tea lights flickered here and there.

So my dear Steve and I joined our friends and did what seems to give me great pleasure and comfort and happiness - we ate our way into 2007 – a year that promises change, risk, challenge, and overflowing with potential…

I made a creamy butternut squash and pear soup, pushed a little with fresh ginger and nutmeg.

Steve then prepped pan-seared scallops in herb butter that we served on basmati rice to which I’d added caramelized onion and dried cranberries. We were going to kabob these on the bbq so they'd have that great smoky flavour, but the weather was not cooperating, so we pan fried some red/yellow peppers and some cherry tomatoes to dot over the rice as well.

I got the salads plated after that. Arugula with granny smith apple and fennel slices, bejeweled by pomegranate seeds and finished with curls of parmesan cheese and a drizzle of raspberry vinaigrette.

Then Andy and I thought pasta or something close would be timely. I made a tomato sauce that morning with a slight kick. Then I found a recipe from Jamie Oliver for a ravioli filling - ricotta, roasted pine nuts, generous portions of grated parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Polenta sandwiches...of course.

I took two slices of polenta and sandwiched the ricotta filling on the inside. I baked them for 15 minutes, then ladled some tomato sauce over it, and topped it with some roughly ripped basil leaves – and a little more grated parmesan to finish it off…people actually gasped...wow.

Then the front door opened and our friends Karen and Steve arrived from their flight home from Vancouver (where Karen had made the tagine recipe for her family). So we set two more places and the main course came to the table.

Andy brought out a magnificent sirloin roast that he’d cooked with a fig wine sauce. He served it with green beans doused in pine nut butter and roasted potatoes we’d cut into fingers that could be dipped in a thickened garlic/spring onion yogurt sauce.

By now it was 11:50pm…and 2007 was going to be brought in with champagne and dessert…it was perfect.

We did it without the television – just relying on our own sense of time and the clock on the DVD player…that was as close as we got to Times Square.

Once we’d settled down, Jain brought out martini glasses filled with tiramisu…smooth, creamy, with a kick…and she says she doesn't cook.

By about 2:30, I was still sitting at the end of the table, leaning back in my chair, almost sliding out of it but for the need to nurse my second cup of coffee, looking at the refuse of a table after a feast - looking at people's faces glowing in the last of the tea lights - everyone wiping tears of laughter as they listened to stories by a couple of gifted, natural storytellers - catching Steve's eyes and locking on for a few seconds - and thinking.

New Years. I reckon crossing the divide with a full belly, a champagne flute, a great love of my life to kiss is just about all the reckoning I need. My tastes and philosphies are simple.

This is how traditions start. Beware.

Or at least wear comfortable shoes.

And Happy New Year.

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