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Updated Southern Cooking:
A Buffet Dinner to Celebrate the New Year

John Tullock

The end of the year also marks a change for the topic of this column. Beginning in January, I will be writing about "Cooking From a City Garden." Drawing upon four decades of experience in growing vegetables, half that time on a small, suburban plot, I plan to share what I have learned about the practicalities of gardening on a small scale, and of making the most of the harvest in the kitchen. We will explore which vegetable varieties make the most sense when both space and the time for cultivation are limited. We will discover new ways to integrate edible plants into the ornamental garden, how to grow many of them in containers, and how to design an edible garden that works with your current routine of food shopping and preparation. I hope you will continue to log on every two weeks or so to find out what's growing in the city garden during 2000.

During December, though, I'll still be writing about cooking with a Southern flair, so I decided to come up with a finale for this series that captures the bold flavors and simple pleasures of holiday cooking in the South.

I've never given a New Year's Eve party. Honest! I have entertained for every other conceivable occasion, but not this one. Like many people, I want to say goodbye to the twentieth century with a flourish, so I have invited a bunch of friends and am planning a Southern-style buffet feast of appropriately Brobdinaggian proportions for the evening of December 31. While this dinner party menu looks like an enormous amount of work, in fact it can be created for the most part in advance. This provides the cook with the opportunity to enjoy both the guests and the champagne without spending the evening hovering over the stove. No one I know enjoys trying to cook in a tux.

Any successful party requires a good plan. I wanted a menu that reflected Southern traditions, that would lend itself to advance preparation, and that would hold up for a couple of hours on a buffet.

Here's the menu:

Grandma Tullock's Deviled Eggs

Good Luck Bean Soup and Skillet Cornbread

Roast Tenderloin of Beef Creole
   Aunt Hazel's Potato Salad
   Glazed Baby Carrots and Snap Peas

Salad of Mixed Greens with Triple Basil Vinaigrette

Assorted Cheeses and Nuts

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Start now by making the oil and vinegar for the vinaigrette, and buying the eggs. (Old eggs are better for hard boiling, because they are easier to peel than fresh eggs.) All the other recipes can be made ahead, with only the cornbread and the carrots and peas requiring last minute attention.

Basil Vinegar

Wash a large bunch of fresh basil and spin dry in a salad spinner. Fill a small jar with one cup of loosely packed leaves plucked from the stems. Add one cup of white wine vinegar. Using a wooden spoon gently compact the basil so it is completely covered by the vinegar, bruising and crushing the leaves slightly to release their essential oils. Tightly cover the jar, and place it in a cupboard for two weeks.

After two weeks, strain the vinegar into a clean jar, adding another cup of basil leaves as before. Leave the vinegar tightly covered in the dark at room temperature until you are ready to use it, at least another week. Strain out the basil leaves before making salad dressing.

This recipe should yield about 2/3 to 3/4 cup of vinegar. If you have any left over after making the dressing, it should be stored in a tightly capped bottle in the refrigerator and used within six months.

Basil Oil

Wash a large bunch of fresh basil and spin dry in a salad spinner. Pluck enough leaves to yield 2 cups, loosely packed. Drop them into a pot of rapidly boiling water, stir once, immediately turn off the heat, and drain the basil in a strainer. Plunge the basil into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright green color. Drain the basil thoroughly, then squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Combine the blanched basil in a blender jar with 1-1/3 cups extra virgin olive oil. Select a rich, fruity Italian oil, if possible. Blend the oil for until the basil is thoroughly pulverized, about 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a storage container and leave, tightly covered, in the refrigerator overnight.

The following day, strain the oil through several layers of cheesecloth, place in a clean container, and store tightly covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.

The recipe should yield about 1 cup of oil, just enough for the salad dressing recipe. Leftovers should be stored refrigerated and used within two months.

Triple Basil Vinegarette

Combine in a bowl, 2/3 cup basil vinegar, two peeled cloves of garlic, slightly crushed, 1 teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Whisk to dissolve the salt. Continue to whisk while adding one cup basil oil in a thin stream, whisking until the dressing is emulsified. Strain out the garlic and add 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves before transferring the dressing to a cruet for the buffet. Taste carefully and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Fresh basil tends to darken from exposure to oxygen within minutes of chopping. To keep it pretty for this presentation, dribble a few drops of olive oil on the leaves, rubbing them gently in your fingers to coat them well, before chopping. The oil will prevent darkening, and your dressing will retain a fresh emerald color.

The recipe yields about 12 servings.

For the New Year's buffet salad, carefully wash and dry 12 cups of mixed field greens. They will keep in perfect condition in the refrigerator for several days if properly stored. To store a large quantity of salad, place a clean, dry kitchen towel in the bottom of a plastic container with a tight fitting cover. Place the washed, dried greens on top of the towel and close the lid. The towel helps to keep the humidity high inside the container without allowing the greens to sit in water, which ruins them.

For the buffet, present the greens in a large bowl and serve the dressing on the side. If the greens and dressing are combined, the salad will wilt and be unappetizing. Additional condiments, such as homemade garlic croutons, shredded Parmesan, or cherry tomatoes can be offered in small bowls. The dressing, however, needs no help from these ładd-ons˛ to make this a memorable dish.

I'll provide the remaining recipes over the next weeks in this space, so don't forget to log again. In the meantime, relax and enjoy the season.

Happy Holidays!

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. He also co-owns "Native Sons Nursery," a retail business that specializes in rare ornamental and gourmet vegetable plants.

A Buffet Dinner to Celebrate the New Year: Part II

A Buffet Dinner to Celebrate the New Year: Part III

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