I don't know about you, but all I want to do in January is snuggle up on the couch wearing woolly socks, with a pot of soup on the stove and a movie on the television. Maybe, too, some low-intensity creative projects and quiet reading, but that's it. The hyper-insanity of December leaves me so exhausted that I'm quite relieved to not leave my cozy living room for a while, with the windows all fogged up and candles burning blurrily in the corner of the room.
But we can't exactly hibernate until the buds come out and the birds chirp again, can we? It wouldn't be much fun in the long run. Instead I invite people over, figuring that the equation's not half bad: we ply our friends with good food and plenty of wine and in return, they don't make us venture out into the chilly evening - at least not for a while. Everybody wins.
Planning the menu for an evening like that is always a bit of a challenge. Cooking for two is a cinch, cooking for four is pretty easy, cooking for six starts to get a little hairy, and by the time you get to eight whole people it's tough to keep your head on the ground. You don't want to be stuck in the kitchen the entire day, making things that are too time-consuming, too complicated, too harrowing. The larger the group, the simpler the food should be.
But I do like to choose recipes that I wouldn't get to make ordinarily - it is a party, after all. So I pull out the binders that have appetizers and hors d'oeuvres recipes tucked away in them - roasted, spiced chickpeas or pickled shrimp or home-cured olives - and I pore through them, delighting in my choices. The recipe I alighted upon last weekend was one that I'd actually meant to make at Thanksgiving - salmon rillettes.
Now doesn't that trip just beautifully off the tongue? Rillettes, rillettes. Ree-yett. We don't eat much salmon around here - Ben doesn't like it and since there are so many other types of fish that we both really love, I'm happy to forgo salmon most of the time. But this recipe had lodged itself in my mind ages ago (briefly supplanted by Thomas Keller's somewhat more complicated version) and I just couldn't shake it. Ben would have to eat olives instead.
It's such a lovely little recipe: you very briefly cook wild salmon in vermouth (or wine, as I did), then mash it up with smoked salmon, chopped chives, lemon juice and creme fraiche. The fresh salmon tempers the smoky stuff beautifully and the creme fraiche gives it some elegance without getting goopy or rich. The few drops of hot sauce are a genius touch - the heat sasses the rillettes right up. No Plain Jane pate here, move along now. The mixture is bright and flavorful, improves with a few hours in the fridge, and best of all, can be arranged on good bread by your guests.
I read somewhere once (was it Laurie Colwin? No. Someone else. Who, though?) that a good dinner party can always be guaranteed if you enlist your guests' help in the kitchen just after they arrive. It keeps them busy, so you can finish up whatever else you're still working on without having to worry that they're all standing around in the living room feeling bored, and it keeps your stress levels down, because now at least someone else is dealing with the hors d'oeuvres and you can stop worrying that the whole meal is going to hell in a hand basket in about three seconds flat.
Arm them with a glass of champagne while they're at it, and who knows - they might even want to come back next time.
Serves 8 to 10
2 cups dry vermouth or white wine
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
4 white peppercorns
8 ounces fresh wild salmon, skinned and boned, cut into 1-inch cubes
8 ounces wild smoked salmon, minced
3 - 4 tablespoons crème fraîche (or more to taste)
4 tablespoons chopped chives, divided
4 tablespoons lemon juice (or more to taste)
Hot sauce to taste
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 ficelles, thinly sliced
1. Combine the vermouth or wine, bay leaf, sea salt and peppercorns in a nonreactive saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the salmon cubes and cook 15 seconds exactly. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well, then place in a mixing bowl.
2. Mash the salmon cubes with a wooden spoon until chunky-smooth. Add the smoked salmon, crème fraîche, 2 tablespoons chives and the lemon juice and mix well. Taste and add the hot sauce, salt and pepper. Add more lemon juice and/or crème fraîche if you like. Chill 1 hour to meld flavors. Makes about 3 cups.
3. Return to room temperature before serving. To serve, spread on ficelle slices and sprinkle with the remaining chives.