My birthday is December 31. Always has been. For those keeping score, I’m the ultimate tax deduction…my parents got to deduct me from all of 1964’s tax returns, even though I was only breathing for about 10 hours of it. Ba-ha-ha to all you paparazzi-stalked New Year’s Day babies, we 12/31 kids are the real bonus.
People often ask what it’s like to have a birthday on New Year’s Eve. Like those folks who are born deaf or have naturally thick, straight hair, I’ve never known anything different. So even though I always understood that December 31 is celebrated around the world just because the earth has successfully once again made it around the sun, I (naturally) made it all about me.
As a kid growing up, birthdays were spent with relatives in New York City, a pretty exotic locale for this suburban girl. The birthday cake was kept fresh on my aunt’s fire escape. By my high school years, most of my birthdays were celebrated in some wood-paneled Northbrook basement, hoping to score that extra birthday beer-goggled kiss from the cute boy who would never even notice me in the light of sporto hall at Glenbrook North. Once I was legal, I spent every New Year’s with my darling husband, whose done everything from room service in a suite at the Ritz Carlton to throwing me surprise parties hosted by our chef and foodie friends. We’ve gone to big hotel parties and elegant restaurants, and when everyone got too old to want to go out on amateur night, I would convince my besties to compromise with an early seating at some fancy restaurant, with promises that we’d be back at my house by 10 pm for champagne, dessert and Dick Clark.
Here’s the thing: I always felt compelled to go out because it was my birthday and I wanted to get all sparkly and celebrate. But the truth is, even the best restaurants add a little schlock to their service on December 31 — they often don’t serve the regular menu, and they jack up the price on what they do offer. So this year, I finally wised up and said, “Bill why don’t you cater an intimate dinner for 15 right here at home?” Because he’s awesome, he obliged.
We did call in some reinforcements — Roberta and Ally dazzled the tabletop decor, and my Gourmet Club pals brought appetizers of deviled eggs and artichoke dip. Plus, Maria didn’t disappoint with Red Velvet and Salted Caramel Cupcakes from Seattle’s Trophy Cupcakes. And even though Bill forgot to add the bacon to this salad, the fresh herbs just woke things right up. (Plus, we had PLENTY of leftover bacon for a hit-the-spot improvised hangover strata the next day).
The ultimate culinary challenge was really the main course. The side dishes were simple steamed green beans sautéed with shallots and these Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes, which are terrific not only because you can make them in advance and then bake them in the oven, but because they also include leeks and chives, two variations on the onion that move me to tears, in the best possible way.
And then…drumroll please…the center-0f-the-plate dazzler was none other than Beef Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom Stuffing and Port Wine Sauce. Like that ooh-la-la dress or those purple suede pumps with the too-high heel, this is the kind of recipe you save for a special occasion. Multiple steps, exotic ingredients, tricky techniques; oh hell, butcher’s twine…it’s all in there. But Chef Bill handled everything like a pro. Similar to Beef Wellington without the puff pastry, this dish is certainly celebratory. The tenderest beef, woodsy mushrooms bound with just a smidge of chicken liver, and a sauce that melds the acid of balsamic with the depth of port wine. If you don’t eat meat, you need to start, because if you have to grow another year older, this is the way to do it.