This New Year’s Eve, Stay Home and Cook

New Year's Eve cooking-Valery Rizzo

“This New Year’s Eve, I dare you to turn down every invite to barhop in Williamsburg, steer as far away as you possibly can from Times Square, and make your own elaborate meal at home.” Photo by Valery Rizzo

Most major holidays seem to have a prescribed large-format menu. Ham for Christmas. Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing. A Passover brisket. Fourth of July burgers and dogs and plenty of potato salad.

These dishes help pass the time with family and friends by eating (and eating and eating)—in hopes that if you’re going to share differing political opinions and weird significant others and kids that stick their fingers up their noses before reaching for the cookie plate, at least the food is really good. But you know which holiday doesn’t have a celebrated dish in the general American vernacular? New Year’s Eve. (Champagne doesn’t count.)

Though black-eyed peas are often eaten on New Year’s Day, the unwritten rules for the final day of December are relatively sparse when it comes to nourishment: Drink like you just got your first fake ID, and stand in line after line after line to pay extra money to get into restaurants filled with employees who wish they were allowed the day off to stand in line somewhere else. For many, it’s a last-ditch effort to have fun before you do the year all over again. But—and remember just how cold it was last year as you waited for a cab at 4 a.m.—is any of that really fun? Every dang New Year’s Eve, as I stand outside shivering, surroundings fading into the black and white of a late-night infomercial, I think to myself, “There’s got to be a better way!

And there is. This New Year’s Eve, I dare you to turn down every invite to barhop in Williamsburg, steer as far away as you possibly can from Times Square, and make your own elaborate meal at home. Dress up if you wish, but I’ve always found that really good food tastes better when wearing pajamas.

New Year's Eve cooking-Valery Rizzo

Plant-based folks could try a ratatouille, the variation that involves a time-consuming spiral of eggplant and squash tiled over a thick tomato and red pepper sauce. Photo by Valery Rizzo

When it comes to making an over-the-top meal, New Year’s Eve is the ideal holiday. You might have the day off, with midnight hours and hours away. Unlike other wildly busy holidays (where you could end up in a fistfight over the last 15-pound turkey or a traffic jam in the Costco parking lot), on December 31, you can stroll into the store at a godly hour, latte in hand, and calmly gather your ingredients. There may be some folks huddled around the cheese section, but for the most part, you’ll have your pick of the litter when it comes to cuts of meat and prime wintry produce.

But first, you’ll have to decide what to make. With hours to cook and chilly weather outside, there’s no better choice than to crank up the oven, flick on several burners and really get into a recipe or two. When it comes to rich, detailed recipes, classic French cooking is always a solid option. If you’re a meat eater, I propose you make an enormous, multistep cassoulet, complete with poultry, pork and beans. Plant-based folks could try a ratatouille, the variation that involves a time-consuming spiral of eggplant and squash tiled over a thick tomato and red pepper sauce.

Cassoulet is a dish native to southern France. So-named for the large earthenware pot known as a cassole, in which the dish is traditionally cooked, cassoulet is hefty and slow-baked. Recipes for the layered casserole are known to contain meat from goose, duck or chicken; pork sausage and salt pork or bacon; maybe roasted lamb or mutton as well. Beans, too, in case it didn’t feel like enough food. Typically, cassoulet has one meat from the poultry category, one or two from the pork, and sometimes one more from the game section, which are layered between creamy little white beans cooked from dry in a well-seasoned broth before being tossed with a light tomato sauce. The mixture is topped with bread crumbs and baked until bubbly.

Though you can use canned great northern or cannellini beans and chicken broth, there’s no comparison to the flavor of cooking your own beans from dry and moistening the cassoulet with bean broth. Soaking the beans overnight is the only item to put on your December 30th to-do list right before heading to bed—unless of course you prefer to do all your shopping in advance. You’ll cook the beans with aromatics until tender, and as you taste, you’ll understand why you left the can opener in the drawer.

Some may disagree with my choice of chicken thighs and drumsticks instead of more traditional duck confit. There’s nothing stopping you from ordering six legs of duck confit in advance of New Year’s Eve from your butcher, or even making a batch on your own, but both are impossible to do day-of, and since the idea is for this meal to be a one-day (and one day only!) extravaganza, instead I opt for searing off chicken. Since the fat on the bone of duck legs melts off as the meat confits, if you want your chicken legs to look as close as they can to duck, you can French the legs by slicing all around the base of the drumstick to the bone, then pulling the meat off the leg bone with a towel, leaving the top meat in tact. Still, this is purely presentational, and you really don’t need to bother. Perhaps the best part of cassoulet is the topping, a layer of garlicky bread crumbs that are basted with fat from the casserole as it bakes to create an enticing golden brown crust.

New Year's Eve cooking-Valery Rizzo

Flavor-wise, any summer squash, eggplant and tomato will work for the topping; in terms of what will look the most stunning, it’s best to pick vegetables that are comparably sized

Ratatouille, a French Provençal dish, is typically a rustic tomato-based stew of chopped squash, eggplant, onion and bell pepper. The French chef Michel Guérard elevated the dish into what he called confit byaldi, a delicate casserole of thinly sliced vegetables instead of rough. In The French Laundry Cookbook, chef Thomas Keller added a layer of tomato-red pepper sauce to the bottom of the dish before topping it with sliced vegetables arranged in rows or a spiral, quite similar to tian, another Provençal dish with comparable ingredients. When Keller served as a consultant for the movie Ratatouille, it was imperative to him that the title dish—which, in the film, is served to the toughest food critic in Paris—be showstopping, yet familiar. He settled on the confit byaldi style. Referencing Proust’s “madeleine moment,” Keller cites this presentation as a method of transforming a comforting dish into something magnificent to behold.

Flavor-wise, any summer squash, eggplant and tomato will work for the topping; in terms of what will look the most stunning, it’s best to pick vegetables that are comparably sized: green and yellow zucchini, Japanese or Chinese eggplant and Roma tomatoes roughly 1½ to 2 inches in diameter are all easy enough to find in a well-stocked grocery store or farmers market.

If you’re only serving ratatouille, toast is perfect for scooping up the mixture, but consider making a batch of beans from the cassoulet recipe (swapping the bacon fat for olive oil if you’re plant based) to round out the meal.

By this time, after making both or either dish, it’s probably barely 4 p.m. Should you make dessert? Of course you should! And if you’re down for another project, scorched on the outside, ice on the inside Baked Alaska might be right. Perhaps a towering croquembouche, each choux pastry bursting with cream and enrobed in spun sugar? A fat chocolate layer cake, filled with pudding and ganache-frosted rarely disappoints. You’ll probably finish up around 9 p.m., just when you’re starting to get a little hungry. Still, after the enormous savory meal you’re about to devour, dessert may just be a bowl of fruit or another glass of bubbly.

Gather round the table (or recline on the couch), don your silkiest pajama set or most pilled pair of sweats, pour a glass of something special, and ring in the New Year with the fullest possible belly.

New Year's Eve cooking-Valery Rizzo

Cassoulet is a dish native to southern France. So-named for the large earthenware pot known as a cassole, in which the dish is traditionally cooked, cassoulet is hefty and slow-baked. Photo by Valery Rizzo

Cassoulet
If you don’t have 4- to 6-quart Dutch oven, use a stockpot to cook the beans and a cast-iron skillet to sear the chicken, then assemble the cassoulet in a large casserole dish.

Serves 6–8

INGREDIENTS

For the beans:
1 pound dry cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over
2 tablespoons olive oil, optional
6 whole cloves
1 large white onion, halved lengthwise through the root end, divided
6 cloves garlic, divided
1 lemon, halved
1 medium carrot, cut into thirds crosswise
2 stalks celery, halved crosswise
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

For the meats:
8 ounces thick-cut bacon or pancetta, sliced into 1-inch pieces or cubes
6–8 chicken thighs or drumsticks (Frenched if you really care about classic presentation), or a mix
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces cooked garlic sausage or smoked kielbasa, cut into 1-inch chunks
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For casserole
1½ cups panko bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, grated
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly chopped parsley, for serving
Toasted French bread, for serving

DIRECTIONS

The night before, place the beans in a large bowl and cover with water by 2 inches. Let sit in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, drain and rinse the beans and set aside.

Place the bacon or pancetta in a 4- to 6-quart Dutch oven. Cook over medium-low heat to slowly render fat, tossing occasionally until browned and crisp. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate with a slotted spoon, keeping the fat in the pan. Carefully pour out the fat into a heat-safe liquid measuring cup or bowl.

Depending on what kind of bacon you used, you should have at least ½ cup of rendered fat. Return enough fat to the pan to coat the surface. If you don’t have enough, add 1 to 2 tablespoons oil. Shove cloves into 1 onion half and smash 3 cloves garlic. Place lemon halves, onion half, smashed garlic cloves, carrot and celery over medium high in the pot and cook until browned, about 6 minutes, flipping everything except the lemon halfway through. Add beans, thyme and bay leaf, then cover with water by 2 inches and stir in 2 enormous pinches of salt.

Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender, which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, stirring regularly and adding more water to the pot if it dips below 2 inches. Taste the beans every 15 minutes or so after the 30-minute mark to ensure they’re tender and creamy, but not mushy.

Meanwhile, make the bread crumbs: In a medium bowl, combine panko, grated garlic, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Drain the beans, reserving the bean-cooking liquid (you’ll use some here; save any leftovers to use as stock for another recipe if you want!). Remove and discard lemon, clove-stuffed onion, carrot, celery, thyme stems and bay leaf. Hang onto the Dutch oven. Leave the beans in your sieve or colander for now.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Set aside at room temperature (for no more than 15 minutes).

Wipe out any liquid from the Dutch oven and heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, place the chicken (thighs skin-side down) in the pot. Sear thighs on the first side until deeply brown, about 6 to 8 minutes, then flip and cook for another 3 minutes; turn drumsticks every 3 to 4 minutes until deeply brown, then transfer to a plate. It will not be fully cooked, but don’t worry, it’s going in the oven soon. When all the chicken is cooked, carefully pour out the rendered fat into another heat-safe liquid measuring cup or bowl and set aside. You should have about ¼ cup; if it’s any less, supplement with olive oil to reach ¼ cup.

Roughly chop remaining onion half and thinly slice remaining garlic cloves. In a skillet large enough to hold all the beans, heat 1 tablespoon reserved chicken fat over medium heat with chopped onion and sliced garlic. Cook for 3 minutes, then stir in tomatoes and ¼ cup reserved bean-cooking liquid, season with salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, until the sauce reduces a bit. Stir in beans and another 2 cups of bean liquid and cook until slightly thickened, like a ragout, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

To assemble the cassoulet, preheat oven to 375º. Scatter ⅓ of the bacon in the bottom of the Dutch oven, then ladle in about ⅓ of the bean mixture. Nestle in half the cooked chicken and half the cooked sausage. Scatter ⅓ of the bacon over the meat, then repeat with ⅓ of the beans and the remaining chicken and sausage. Scatter the final ⅓ of bacon over the meat, then cover with remaining beans. Top with bread crumbs and drizzle with remaining 3 tablespoons of reserved chicken fat.

Bake uncovered for 25 minutes, until bread crumbs have just started to turn golden. Use a large spoon to gently break up the crust, then scoop up some of the fatty liquid pooling on top of the cassoulet and drizzle over the crust. If the mixture seems too dry, pour ¼ cup of bean broth around the edges. Return to the oven and bake for 1 hour, stopping to break up and baste the crust every 20 minutes, until bubbling and golden brown. If it starts to get very charred on top, tent the pot with foil.

Let cool for at least 15 to 20 minutes before topping with freshly chopped parsley and serving with toast.

New Year's Eve cooking-Valery Rizzo

Ratatouille, a French Provençal dish, is typically a rustic tomato-based stew of chopped squash, eggplant, onion and bell pepper. Photo by Valery Rizzo

Ratatouille (in the Confit Byaldi Style)
To get even, super-thin vegetable slices, use a mandoline to slice zucchini, yellow squash and the eggplant, and a sharp serrated knife for the tomatoes.

Serves 6–8

INGREDIENTS

For the sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 red bell pepper, halved, ribs and seeds removed, chopped
1 large white onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
½ cup roughly chopped basil leaves
5 sprigs thyme
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

For the vegetables:

2 Japanese or Chinese eggplants, 1½ to 2 inches in diameter
2 yellow zucchini or yellow squash, 1½ to 2 inches in diameter
2 zucchini, 1½ to 2 inches in diameter
4 Roma tomatoes
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Freshly chopped parsley, for serving
Freshly torn basil leaves, for serving
Toasted French bread, for serving

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 375º. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a 12-inch cast-iron (or other oven-safe) skillet. Sauté the peppers, onion and garlic until soft and starting to take on color, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add red pepper flakes and tomato paste and cook until paste turns brick red, about 90 seconds, then add crushed tomatoes, basil and thyme sprigs. Season with salt, and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer until mixture reduces a bit, about 15 minutes. Remove mixture from heat, stir in vinegar, pick out thyme sprigs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Slice the eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini and tomatoes very thinly, as close to ¹⁄₁₆ inch as you can get. It may be easier to use a mandoline for the first 3 vegetables and a sharp serrated knife for the tomatoes.

Arrange the sliced vegetables in a tight swirl around the pan, alternating so that no same vegetable sits next to itself. Depending on the size of your vegetables, you’ll get about 4 layers. (If there are any leftover vegetables, bake them off separately on a sheet pan drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.) Season with salt and pepper, and then gently brush the vegetables with olive oil and top with a teaspoon of thyme.

Cover the skillet with foil and transfer to the oven. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and broil for 5 minutes, or until vegetables are browned.

Drizzle with more olive oil and top with freshly chopped parsley and torn basil. Serve with toast.

 

Photographs by Valery Rizzo.

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