Most change is hard. Ushering in a new year, not so much. A fresh start feels good. So does a look back at the best of the year. For us, we think of time spent with family, our food and adventure travels with friends, a great gardening season, many great beer and wine discoveries, and a comfy new reading chair. Blessed and grateful.
We also find gratitude in friends who like to keep things casual. My favorite parties center around easy-to-prepare food, a modest variety of beverage choices and plenty of conversation. No longer do I feel the need to pull out all the stops on New Year's Eve with lobster dinners or classic French dishes and expensive wines. I'd rather spend the time with friends and family, and eliminate the kitchen intimidation.
Brewpub dining inspires this New Year's Eve cooking. Some of our favorite spots such as Band of Bohemia in Chicago, Greenbush Brewing in Sawyer, Mich., Evil Twin Brewery in Denmark, Local Brewing Co. in San Francisco, Torst in Brooklyn, Deschutes Brewery in Portland, Ore., serve great food along with their inventive beer. Oh, we've happily sampled ales, radlers, IPAs and porters with the likes of charcuterie trays, loaded and truffled french fries, spicy tacos, juicy burgers, and unctuous mac and cheese. Sauerkraut balls anyone? We love this crusty fried and tangy fritter. Especially with a cold pilsner.
At home, I tried my hand at frying perfectly round and crispy sauerkraut balls flavored with dill pickles and smoked ham. To keep them round, they need to be quite bready and starchy. I prefer light and tender, so I flatten the balls before cooking to make thick fritters. This has an added bonus: They fry in minimal oil rather than a deep-fryer. They reheat well, too, in a hot pan. Serve the fritters as a side to grilled pork chops or smoked sausage, or as an appetizer with the smoked paprika and dill dip that follows.
Some variation of macaroni and cheese features prominently on nearly every one of our favorite brew pubs. We especially enjoyed the baked spaetzle and cheese at Liter House in Indianapolis, where they serve contemporary versions of classic German comfort food. Reminiscent of the hot crocks of kasespatzle we discovered when visiting relatives in Germany, this is comfort food for all ages.
Spaetzle, a ragged-shaped egg pasta, lends a toothsome, interesting texture to the dish. My relatives make their own spaetzle for the dish, but I'm happy to use a boxed version sold at Whole Foods and other large grocery stores. Look for boxes or bags at Aldi and World Market or online from Amazon. Small pasta shapes can replace the spaetzle, or you can use small egg noodles.
The cooked spaetzle gets layered with vegetables, bacon and a buttery cheese such as Gruyere or Emmentaler. Liter House adds roasted butternut to the dish for a sweet and colorful element. I saute store-bought peeled and chunked butternut with an onion to save some time, but you'll need to cut the butternut small so it is tender in the final dish. Other options include thin round slices of small carrots or parsnip. Tiny cauliflower florets tastes great here, too, as do roasted red peppers. You can assemble the dish an hour or so before guests arrive and then bake it shortly before serving so it is hot and the cheese melty.
As for beverages, guests can bring their own beer discoveries, and we'll tote a growler or two to our favorite local breweries for fill-ups. Other offerings to go with our beer sampling party include hot links of smoked sausage, such as smoked thuringer or veal bratwurst, and a tray of sliced salamis and sharp cheese with assorted mustards.
As for formal pairing of the beers with the food - we'll just try them all instead. And welcome a new year with friends.
CRISPY SAUERKRAUT-HAM FRITTERS
Prep: 25 minutes
Chill: 1 hour
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: about 20
Look for refrigerated sauerkraut - it has a much better texture than canned. Always rinse sauerkraut very well in a colander under cool running water, then drain it well.
2 large baking potatoes, about 1 pound total
1 cup well-drained refrigerated fresh sauerkraut, about 6 ounces
1 cup finely chopped smoked ham, about 4 ounces
1/4 cup diced drained dill pickle
3 green onions, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill or 1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup each: flour, fine dry breadcrumbs
About 1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
Smoky mustard dill dip, see recipe
1. Pierce potatoes in several places. Microwave on high (100% power), turning once or twice, until tender when pierced with a fork, about 8 minutes. Let cool completely.
2. Put drained sauerkraut, ham, pickle, onions, dill, egg, mustard and salt into a large bowl. Mix well. Cut potatoes in half, then use a spoon to scoop the soft flesh into the bowl. Mash potatoes roughly with a fork. Mix well. Add flour and 1/4 cup breadcrumbs; mix gently until incorporated.
3. Shape 2 tablespoons of the mixture into a ball. Place on a nonstick baking sheet. Repeat to use the rest of the mixture. Refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour or up to a day.
4. Shortly before cooking, heat oven to 200 degrees. Pour 1/2 cup breadcrumbs into a shallow dish. Roll each ball in the crumbs to coat them on all sides.
5. To cook, pour enough oil into a large nonstick skillet to reach a depth of about 1/4 inch. Heat over medium until hot enough to smell but not at all smoking. Reduce heat to low. Add a single, uncrowded layer of the coated balls. Cook, turning frequently with tongs or a slotted spoon (I use silicon tongs so I can be gentle with my turning), until beautifully golden and crisp on all sides, 7 to 8 minutes. Adjust the heat under the pan to keep the balls from getting too dark.
6. Transfer fritters carefully to a paper-towel lined tray. Set in the oven while you cook the other remaining balls. Transfer finished fritters to a platter; serve hot with the dipping sauce.
Nutrition information per fritter: 52 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 2 g protein, 194 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
SMOKY MUSTARD DILL DIP
Mix 1/3 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill. Makes: about 1/2 cup.
This dip also goes well with crispy pretzels or the warm bready German-style pretzels sold in the freezer case.
CHEESY BAKED SPAETZLE WITH BUTTERNUT AND BACON
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 50 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
8 ounces Swiss Gruyere or Emmentaler cheese, with rind removed
4 to 6 thick slices (about 6 ounces) smoky bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) peeled butternut squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup whipping cream, optional
1 package (8 or 9 ounces) spaetzle or small orecchiette or pasta shells
4 cups arugula
Freshly ground black pepper
Small parsley leaves
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Shred the cheese on the largest holes of a 4-sided box grater. You'll have about 2 1/2 loosely packed cups.
2. Put bacon into a large nonstick skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until bacon starts to crisp and brown, about 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer crisp bacon to a plate. Add onion and butternut to the bacon drippings. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables start to soften, 8 to 10 minutes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, and stir in cream if using. Remove from heat.
3. Meanwhile, heat a large pot of well-salted water to the boil. Add the spaetzle (or pasta) and boil, stirring often, until al dente (still a bit toothsome to the bite), 10 to 12 minutes. (Always check suggested cooking time on package.) Drain well.
4. Arrange one-third of the cooked spaetzle in the buttered baking dish. Top with half of the onion mixture, half of the arugula, half of the crisp bacon and a generous sprinkling of pepper. Top with one-third of the cheese. Top with half of the remaining spaetzle, all the remaining onion mixture and arugula. Top with pepper and half of the remaining cheese. Layer on the remaining spaetzle bacon and cheese.
5. Bake in the center of the oven until everything is hot and melty, about 20 minutes. Serve hot, sprinkled with small parsley leaves.
Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 361 calories, 18 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 51 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 18 g protein, 248 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
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