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TOASTING NEW YEAR'S, TETE A TETE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

She would precede the oysters with a good rich consomme, for those who feel they need something hot and nourishing, but personally, she says, she finds oysters and caviar nourishing enough by themselves.

Sarah Leah Chase does not stop with oysters and caviar, but would proceed on to that luxury of luxuries, fresh lobster, sauteed in the shell with garlic, saffron, fresh herbs and spices. Because "you don't want to do too much when lobster is the centerpiece," she would follow it with a warm mushroom and arugula salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette and pungent Gorgonzola cheese.

"And champagne, of course," Ms. Chase adds. "Champagne throughout everything. It would go well with everything on the menu."

Instead of a special dessert, Ms. Chase would break out the cookies and sweets she has been baking (and receiving from friends) throughout the Christmas season. Ms. Newman's dessert choice would be "that other great aphrodisiac, chocolate." Specifically, the dense, almost flourless chocolate cake that she calls "bride's cake," because she received the recipe from her mother as a newlywed. A whole cake is, we presume, too much for just the two of you, but it can be made ahead of time, and the leftovers keep well.

Dinner would be served several hours later than usual, on a specially arranged table for two. "Even though it's elegant, you want it to be warm and cozy," Ms. Chase explains. "If you have a fireplace, you can dine by the glow of the fire, and candlelight. You think of metal and shiny things at the New Year, so this is the time to bring out the fine silver, the best crystal and china."

"This is the time you can bring out all the corny props," Ms. Newman says. "If things like music and fresh flowers are time-worn, it's because they work!"

Oysters and caviar

In her menu for a Russian feast, Leslie Newman recommends two or more oysters for each guest. But when the oysters are the main attraction, lay in a larger supply. If you can't get hold of the rare (and very expensive) beluga caviar, use a less costly substitute. This recipe is from "Feasts: Menus for Home-Cooked Celebrations" (HarperCollins, 1990).

FOR EACH PERSON:

2 or more oysters on the half shell, freshly opened

beluga caviar

1 lemon wedge, wrapped in cheesecloth

ON THE TABLE:

small pepper mills, filled with black peppercorns

thinly sliced French bread and/or crustless white bread toast

unsalted butter

champagne, well chilled

Prepare the oysters and caviar just before serving. With a non-metallic utensil (i.e. a porcelain, horn or bone spoon or even a wooden tongue depressor) carefully spoon some caviar around the rim of each oyster shell; gently nudge and plump the oyster to make it appear nestled in the caviar. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prepare the remaining oysters and caviar. Serve at once with a well-chilled brut champagne worthy of the caviar.

To eat, grind a few grains of pepper over the oyster only and squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the caviar only. Lift the shell to your lips and tip the oyster and caviar together into your mouth. The taste is astonishing, so exquisite and intense that you'll want a bit of bread and butter between oysters.

Herbed lobster saute

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

This is the "extravagantly delicious" dish that Sarah Leah Chase would make if she were holed up in lobster country over the holidays with "a passionate friend or two." The recipe can be divided, or make the whole portion and indulge yourselves. The recipe is from "Sarah Leah Chase's Cold-Weather Cooking" (Workman, 1990).

3 live lobsters (1 1/2 pounds each)

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter

2 tablespoons fruity olive oil

1 medium-sized red onion, minced

2 carrots, peeled and minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/4 cups dry white wine

1 can (8 ounces) tomato puree

1 teaspoon saffron threads

1 teaspoon best-quality curry powder

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

pinch cayenne pepper

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup shredded fresh basil

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

Have a fishmonger or a non-squeamish companion kill the lobsters and cut the meaty sections of each (the claws and tail) into large 3-inch chunks. Discard the head and legs.

Heat the butter and oil together in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the lobster pieces and saute, stirring frequently, until the shells turn bright red, about 5 minutes. Stir in the onion, carrots and garlic; cook until the vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the wine, tomato puree, saffron, curry, fennel and cayenne. Simmer until the sauce has reduced by about a third and the lobster meat is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the parsley and basil and cook 1 minute more.

Serve at once accompanied with small forks and picks to help extract the meat from the shells. Be sure to have plenty of chilled French champagne on hand.

Warm mushroom

and arugula salad

Makes 2 generous servings.

This "wonderfully woodsy, warm salad" is also from "Cold-Weather Cooking."

3 1/2 tablespoons fruity olive oil

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thinly sliced

4 ounces domestic white mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 anchovy fillet, minced

1/8 cup pitted Nicoise olives, finely minced

1 tablespoon capers

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 bunch arugula, trimmed, rinsed and patted dry

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and saute, stirring frequently, 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the garlic, anchovy, olives, capers, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. Simmer 5 minutes or so to blend the flavors.

Meanwhile, toss the arugula with the remaining olive oil in a large salad bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the warm mushroom mixture to the arugula and toss until thoroughly blended. Mix in the Gorgonzola. Serve at once.

The bride's

chocolate cake

Her mother gave Leslie Newman this recipe as a bride, although mousse cakes like this one were not the hot item in the late '50s that they would become 30 years later. Ms. Newman has made this cake from Bakers German Sweet Chocolate from the supermarket and elegant bittersweet chocolate from Kron, with good results in both cases. The recipe is also printed in "Feasts."

1 pound sweet, semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, broken into squares or coarsely chopped

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, separated

pinch of coarse (kosher) salt

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter the sides and bottom of an 8-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with a piece of wax paper cut to fit. Butter the paper and dust it lightly with flour; invert the pan and tap gently to knock out any excess flour. Set aside.

Place the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over (not in) hot (not simmering) water. Cover and let stand, stirring occasionally, until melted. Uncover and stir until the chocolate is completely smooth. Remove from the heat. Add the butter. Stir gently until the butter has melted and the chocolate is smooth and homogenous again. Blend in the sugar and flour. Beat the egg yolks lightly and stir them into the chocolate.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until they hold a definite shape but are not dry. Using a rubber spatula, fold about a third of the beaten whites into the xTC chocolate just to lighten it; the mixture will be streaky. Add the remaining egg whites and gently fold them in until the batter is smoothly blended and no white streaks remain.

Pour the batter evenly into the prepared springform pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake in the middle of the heated oven for 15 minutes, no longer. The cake will still be soft, but it will become dense and fudgy as it cools. Remove the cake pan from the oven to a wire rack. Let cool completely, then carefully remove the sides of the springform pan. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold and firm.

Carefully invert the chilled cake onto a flat serving plate. Remove the bottom of the springform pan and discard the wax paper lining. The unmolded cake (or any portion thereof) can be wrapped airtight and kept in the refrigerator for up to a week, but is best served at room temperature or just a little cooler.

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