New ways to ring in the new year

Inviting friends and family to celebrate New Year's Eve together is a perfect way to forge a bright future — the sense of expectant festivity on this special occasion makes memories and cements relationships and resolutions.

When planned just right, a New Year's Eve party can be easy to arrange and easy on the bank account. The trick is finding new ways to create a celebratory atmosphere and asking guests to chip in.

New year's eve eats

You'll be the host with the most if you fortify the food table with one or both of the following party treats, developed by Executive Chef Juan Murillo of 38 Central in Medford.

Baja Shrimp Cocktail

Shrimp enrobed in a Mexican beach-style cocktail sauce will make you think you're sitting on the beach.

1 lb. Oregon pink shrimp (may substitute bay shrimp), cleaned and cooked

Cocktail sauce ingredients:

12 oz. tomato juice

cup ketchup

1 tablespoon Tapatio hot sauce (or your favorite brand)

1 lemon, grated zest and juice

1 lime, grated zest and juice

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 red onion, medium, finely chopped

1 cup jalapeno peppers, seeds removed and finely chopped

1 avocado, medium, chopped to small dice

Pinch sea salt

1 bunch cilantro sprouts (may substitute other sprouts or julienned lettuce)

1 bag tortilla chips

To make the cocktail sauce, place the first eight ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend. Add jalapenos to taste, up to one full cup. Once flavors are correct, add salt and blend again to incorporate. Pour sauce into large bowl and add avocado and shrimp and mix well. Place in refrigerator and allow all ingredients to macerate for a short while before serving. Fill a serving bowl with sprouts or lettuce then spoon shrimp over; top with more sprouts. Surround bowl with tortilla chips. Serves 8-12 as an appetizer.

Caramel Pecan Fudge Brownies

Each flavor in these brownies is individual and distinct, just like the guests at any good party. Perfect as a standalone dessert at midnight or served as part of a dessert buffet.

6 oz. 70% butterfat chocolate

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate

lb. (two sticks) butter, cut into cubes and brought to room temperature

1 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

cup unsweetened cocoa

teaspoon salt

teaspoon baking soda

teaspoon baking powder

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup caramel sauce (recipe follows or use your favorite store-bought)

Preparation: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease two 8" x 8" baking pans. In a double boiler melt the 70% chocolate and unsweetened chocolate until just melted. Pull off heat and set aside. Using a mixer, beat the butter and sugar until it has a nice ivory color (about one minute). While mixer is on, add eggs one at a time and beat for another minute. Add vanilla and mix to incorporate.

In a large mixing bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Combine well. Fold this mixture into the egg-butter-sugar mixture. When the batter is blended, stir in the melted and cooled chocolate. Finally, add in the chopped pecans.

Divide batter into two equal halves. Fold the chocolate chips into one of the halves and set aside. Take the other half of the batter (without the chocolate chips) and spread it evenly into the bottom of baking pans. Bake for 15 minutes then remove. Add a layer of caramel sauce then add the other half of the brownie batter, the one with the chocolate chips. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.

Note: The brownies may jiggle when removed from the oven but will firm up when cooled. Allow to cool before cutting and serving. Makes 32 brownies or more if each square is cut into two triangles.

Homemade Caramel Sauce

8 oz. sugar

2 oz. water

8 oz. cream

2 tablespoons butter

Pinch salt

Boil the sugar in water until you achieve a medium caramel. Add the cream, bringing up to a boil, allowing caramel to melt down. Remove from heat and stir in butter and salt. Allow to cool.

Start with planning a budget, guest list and general theme. To cut costs, consider a later party, from 9 p.m. till midnight or later.

"Usually people will opt to have a pre-dinner ... then you are just providing snacks," counsels Laurel Walter, co-owner with Jennifer Bright of Twist in Ashland.

For casual affairs, a phone call or e-mail invitation is fine. Homemade invitations are more meaningful; save postage by hand-delivering.

"Maybe make a collage of New Year's Eve-y things like champagne labels and other ideas you find in magazines," suggests Walter. Include time, place and style so people know what to wear and bring.

For an appetizer party, ask guests to bring finger food; the host need only supply champagne and a wonderful dessert.

"Or ask everyone to bring their favorite bottle of wine and make it a tasting party," says Kathy Alexander, owner of Your DJ & Event Service in Jacksonville. "If you put out olives, nuts and such in small bowls, it looks like more food. At the big box stores, you can buy very impressive appetizers at a low price."

A late night dessert party is sweet all around — the host provides three or four lovely desserts (plan for variety in flavor, texture and appearance) and coffee while guests supply the bubbly.

Now turn to décor. First, take down the holiday tree and other seasonal decorations.

Keep party decorations relatively subtle, says Walter. She likes to bring good fortune for the New Year with horseshoe-shaped cookie invitations, bean soup and four-leaf clovers made from hot pink paper with silver accents. The theme is carried throughout the house, with candles for ambiance.

"Favors could be some simple good-luck items or fortune cookies to go," she says. "Who couldn't use a little good luck this next year?"

For an intimate party with a Swiss twist, invite friends for cards and fondue. Start with Irish coffees and end with apple strudel and a champagne toast.

Mexican themes are always budget-friendly. Set out a buffet of chips, dips and margaritas, with champagne supplied by guests. Zing it up with invitations attached to noisemakers and a pre-midnight piñata.

More ethnic flavor accompanies a Chinese New Year theme, with red and gold lanterns, takeout containers and chopsticks. An Indian/Moroccan theme could capitalize on scavenged textiles in bright, hot colors, elephant stamps, gold coins and Indian music.

Celebrate nature with a bonfire party. After obtaining permits, all that's needed are hot toddies and stew.

Go for classic glamour with a black-tie dress code; decorate with black, white and silver balloons, the numerals "2009" and floating candles.

Make a trip to a local bargain store for sparkly hats and noisemakers. "Bags of confetti sprinkled on the linens says 'New Year's Eve Party' but doesn't cost a lot," Alexander says.

If your crowd is game, suggest charades — made all the more fun after a glass of champagne.

Or consider taking your dressed-up guests to Las Vegas — in your own home. "It's casino night," says Walter. "Have tables set up with 21 and poker ..."

Offer chili, cornbread and mini sandwiches to eat at the tables. End with brownies and sparklers.

"Send people home with a box of dice and cards and chips," Walter suggests. "Drinks could be martinis and champagne; have the guests bring the bubbly."

Before any party, find some hip, up-tempo, danceable music. Make a CD or iPod playlist yourself or hire a good DJ.

"Most good DJs have their playlist on-line and you can choose ahead of time," says Alexander.

Finally, have at least one pre-arranged designated driver and prominently display the number to a local taxicab company.

Now put on that party hat, blow that noisemaker and ring in a brand new year!

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