Growing up, every New Years Day would be filled with party clean-up, hangovers, and the smell of rotting, fetid goat-ass. Or at least, that’s how it smelled. Some tradition that runs in my family, probably the Pennsylvania Dutch part, dictated that eating pork and sauerkraut on New Years Day brought luck for the coming year. While that was hard to appreciate during the trying experience of fighting a delicate, hungover gag-reflex while smelling said goat-ass, somehow the taste of sauerkraut always managed to calm the stomach and comfort the mind after all. And it’s not like my mom didn’t try to manage the odor, choosing to cook the sauerkraut and pork in a slow-cooker that was locked in the garage. Sadly, malodorous cabbage has a way of seeping through doors like a ghost in the night that glides into your bedroom, sits on your pillow, and “breaks wind.” Right by your head.
I’ve tried a lot of things in my adult life to try and contain the smell as well. I only use the bagged, refrigerated Boar’s Head sauerkraut, because I believe it’s the best quality you can find in a regular grocery store. I don’t believe in canned sauerkraut. In a pinch, the Vlasik jarred version will work, but it has to come from the refrigerated deli case. I think the freshness actually keeps the smell down a bit. I’ve tried making bratwurst and then using the residual heat from the grill to heat a cast iron pan of ‘kraut, but that dried it out. I’ve tried cooking it with apples. Who knew apple could meld so undistinguishably with ass? This year, I just sucked it up and warmed it without letting it ever come to a simmer. And it didn’t stink! Very much.
I brined some thick-cut, bone-in pork chops in cider and salt for about 8 hours, then drained them and seared them on a smoking-hot cast iron skillet. After both sides had a decent color, I wrapped them in foil and let them sit on the counter until they finished reaching temperature. And that temperature is about 155 F. I don’t like overcooked pork. I also ground some black peppercorns and dill seeds in a peppermill and sprinkled it over potatoes that had been sliced, parboiled, and brushed with olive oil and kosher salt. Those got a sear as well. The whole mess was plated with a cider jus and a pickle for good, vinegary measure. It was great, and managed to comfort my hangover in the way that only sauerkraut and pork can.
I wasn’t doing too badly compared to some liquor-soaked years. Our New Years Eve consisted of getting dressed up (read: elegantly whorish) with Chris and having a FABULOUS dinner at Ciao Lavendaria, an Italian place that has gotten solid reviews from Fodor’s, NY Times, et. al. While being pricier than I’m typically comfortable with for a single dinner that isn’t served by a manservant you’re allowed to keep, it was worth every penny. The best meal either Chris or I have ever had was served in multiple courses:
Amuse Bouche=A dumpling of potato and truffle oil floating in a porcini broth. Good. Very good. The broth was heavily salted, but played very well with the thick potato filling.
Salad=An Asian pear, parmeggiano and frisee salad with vanilla vinaigrette for me, which was only so-so as it lacked the tang I expect from a dressing, and a grilled quail over panzanella with a balsamic drizzle for Chris. Chris’s was absolutely to die for, and I discovered that I love quail. The cherry tomatoes were in concasse form, as one would expect in winter, but tasted like they had just been plucked off the vine by a group of joyful and efficient garden gnomes. The only thing I would change is that the bread was more crouton-y than chewy on the inside. I like the al dente texture more. No biggie, as the rest of the dish compensated well. I had also had a quarter bottle of pinot grigio at that point, but Chris assures me my judgement wasn’t off. It was that good.
Main course, forgive the photos which came from my iPhone=I had the braised leg of lamb over chive whipped potatoes and a delicate but intense (is that possible) jus.
It was SO good. The lamb, of which I’m not ordinarily a big fan, was cooked to falling-off-the-bone, and tasted rich and decadent without any of the gaminess I usually associate with it. Chris chose like a rock star, with a dry-aged ribeye that had been rubbed in star anise, orange peel, cinnamon, cayenne, and brown sugar. It was cooked to perfection, with a red interior and flakes of crusted rub falling seductively to the side like discarded lingerie. There were a pair of tiny fingerling potatoes sliced and confited on top of the steak, spooning with a dollop of mayonnaise that had thick slivers of black truffle throughout. I was able to coax out a couple of these slices, remove most of the mayonnaise, and eat them with the steak. Of course, Chris was generously sharing. I had never had truffle, and I’ve got to tell you that I was duly impressed. I was worried it would be one of those things like caviar or fois gras that culinarians tend to fawn over like they’re the second coming of Christ, even though I want none of them and don’t think fish ova or diseased liver are really that special. Or palatable. Or ethical. Whatev.
At this point, Chris and I had been discussing each dish in detail, wanting to savor every bite, as well as analyze food ideas we could steal and use at home. I asked the waitress what was in the dry rub, and she said “You’re a chef, right? I told the chef that you were, and he made your dishes especially himself. I’ll go ask him.” That made me blush ferociously, even though I am not a blusher. It’s hard to ever be offended when you’re a brash hussy like myself. I was really embarrassed and pleased and didn’t know what to do. I felt like all of a sudden I had to perform like a chef in some way, and I didn’t know how. But it was fine, and it meant we got chunks of truffle instead of truffle oil (as had been promised). Which rocked.
Dessert was a dense chocolate torte that was so chocolaty that it bordered on uncomfortable for me. It was somewhat bitter, and really needed either some sweet liquor to impregnate it, or at the very least an extra teaspoon of sugar per slice. Chocolate should be rich and assertive, but it shouldn’t rush off of the tart shell and punch you in the gonads. That’s just inconsiderate. It was served with coffee gelato for Chris, which I loathed, and pistachio gelato for me, which was slightly better. The coffee gelato tasted just like coffee, and the pistachio gelato tasted just like pistachios. I know that sounds kind of like “the snozzberries taste like snozzberries,” but it was really remarkable how truly the flavors were captured.
We came home, me slightly tipsy and Chris doing just fine, and watched HGTV until we fell asleep on the couch. I couldn’t have been happier. Sometimes it’s nice to dress up, have a great meal and then lounge around in your pajamas. Even on New Years Eve.