NyeFeeling a little pinched after all the gifting and tipping over the holidays, but don't want to lay low for New Year's Eve? Don't sweat it; there's no need to send your checking account into overdraft for French Champagne and the best caviar. Take it from a pro--many a time I've cut corners in price, dressed up my food with the fancy trappings, and the party's still been a rousing success. Here are a few tips for a toast to 2014 that won't break the bank:
Bubbly: Does it really need to be Champagne? No! Opt for a beautiful dry Cava from Spain or a delicious Prosecco from Italy curly wigs. Even New Mexico produces a really good sparkler--Gruet. Stay tuned to the Epicurious blog on December 30 for a list of some of the best sparkling wines under $25.
Caviar: Forget about the pricey classic, sturgeon caviar, whether imported or domestic. Even the cheapest, hackleback, will cost you about $45 an ounce. Instead, consider trout roe caviar, which is slightly smaller and paler than salmon roe caviar and pops delightfully on your tongue. It runs about $40 for twice the weight. Salmon roe caviar is probably the most accessible; it is readily available in fish markets and supermarkets, but sniff around for the freshest selection. It will run you around $24 for 4 ounces.
Another fun choice is tobiko, the teeny weeny roe of flying fish served astride maki rolls in sushi bars. It comes in a variety of colors: green from wasabi, red from beet juice, yellow from yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), and black from squid ink. It's inexpensive enough--about $16 for 4 ounces--that you can afford to have a rainbow display. For your caviar purposes, allow about 1/2 ounce per person for hors d'oeuvre portions, or 1 ounce per person if that's all you're serving.
Blini-with-Beluga-LentilsVegetarian Mock Caviar: Honor the growing trend among your friends and put out a vegetarian option that will satisfy the vegans, too. Eggplant caviar is an old Provencal favorite or go for beluga lentils (shown at right).
Blini: Caviar is traditionally served on blini (little buckwheat pancakes), or buttered toast points (long triangles of toasted white bread). While classic blini are made from a yeast batter, there's no reason why you can't approach them like regular pancakes with baking powder. They are super-easy to prepare several hours ahead and then you just rewarm them wrapped in foil in a low oven. Blini, more than toast points, telegraph the "I care about you" message, so make a lot.
Smoked Salmon: Not everyone loves caviar, so pad your party options with smoked salmon Natural stone. Don't be embarrassed to buy the pre-sliced sides. Costco sells a good one for about $10--it's yet another reason to love Costco. Pair it with thin slices of the dark German-style rye or pumpernickel bread if you can find it, or go with the adorable little squares of party rye. Spring for fresh cream cheese if that's around or make sure your Philly is well softened and beat it out of its telltale rectangular shape.
Presentation: The most important rule is this: Remove any hint of the packaging your choices came in. Up the snazz factor by bringing out your best platters and trays; well-polished hand-me-down silver or silver plate is classy, but simple white ceramic works well, too.
? Caviar: Transfer it to a small glass bowl and set the bowl in a larger bowl of crushed ice. A small mother of pearl spoon is the classic utensil for serving it; they're inexpensive so look for one or more at a kitchenware store, or bum one from your parents, neighbors, or friends. Connoisseurs avoid metal spoons, but the jury's still out on that detail, so don't worry if all you've got is silver or stainless. Surround the caviar with small bowls of crème fraiche if you're feeling generous or well-stirred sour cream (this is not the time for reduced-fat options!), chopped fresh chives or scallions, and lemon wedges.
? Blini: Line a beautiful basket or serving bowl with one or more of your largest and most beautiful napkins, pile in some hot blini, and fold the ends over them. Replenish with warm ones often.
? Smoked Salmon: Slide it off its cardboard rectangle and separate the slices so that your guests don't mutilate it. Make sure it's at room temperature for serving.
If you want to make a full dinner of it, go for a beef tenderloin roast--it's all meat and no waste--and slice it thin. Add green beans and a colorful salad panamanian foundation, then finish it off with homemade chocolate truffles (they're easy!) and more bubbly. Have a blast and don't forget to sing Auld Lang Syne!