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New Year's Day open house

All Photos: Virginia Willis

A New Year's Day open house buffet


Virginia Willis has the recipe for a festive but low-key New Year's Day open house

There are those that go out on New Year’s Eve and those that do not. I’m a homebody. I’d far rather spend the night in and make a special dinner with my family than go out and pay inflated prices at a crowded restaurant or be on the road with people who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. Heck, there’s been more than one year of late that we’ve fallen asleep before the clock strikes midnight and the Peach Drops!

My favorite way to ring in the New Year is not on New Year’s Eve, but on New Year’s Day with an open house.

A New Year’s Day open house is casual by design. Folks can settle in and stay for a while or pop in and out. The best part is that the ebb and flow of guests creates a party that’s always changing and evolving.

Personally, I think everyone breathes a sigh of relief on New Year’s Day. The holidays are done; it’s time to get back to normal. Everyone’s gotten past the madness of the holidays and is ready to relax. This laid-back vibe sets the stage for a pretty easy party to manage in terms of menu, décor, and libations.
The Afternoon Graze
Many cultures have traditional meals as part of their New Year celebration. Eating black-eyed peas and rice in the form of Hoppin’ John, along with a bowl of stewed greens is a Southern tradition.

And, as Southern culture dictates, without fail, I always serve black-eyed peas, bourbon baked ham, and greens, of course. My grandmother always served her peas cooked separately from the rice, so I do, too. Folklore says the peas and rice bring luck and the greens bring money in the upcoming year. When you're planning your menu, stay away from tedious hors d’ouevres that take a long time to assemble and prepare! The key to a successful menu is to make simple recipes that can be easily be scaled up and are versatile for most guests’ dietary restrictions. My days of pots upon pots of collard greens with and without a hunk of pork are over!

It’s also time to bring out the preserves you’ve made, been given, or purchased, such as spicy dilly beans, ginger pickled beets, and scuppernong jelly for the biscuits. For dessert, I suggest platters of holiday cookies or a couple of sheet cakes or bundt cakes. It’s also time to pull out all those cookie tins that folks have given you over the month of December. Keep it simple.

Remember, for food safety’s sake, it’s important to keep the buffet out of the temperature danger zone over the course of the afternoon. The FDA has identified the temperature danger zone as 41 to 135 degrees. Cold foods should be kept at 41 degrees or below, and hot foods should be kept at 135 degrees or above. It’s important to completely remove and replace perishable foods after they have been at room temperature for two hours.

To keep things cold, have extra platters of food prepared and stored in the fridge or freezer so you can make sure everything stays safe. And, if a dish needs to be kept hot — keep it hot! Inexpensive warming trays and chafing dishes are available at big box stores and a slow cooker can be a handy piece of serveware as well. I’ve also simply kept things simmering in my big beautiful French ovens on the stovetop, as well. Once again, the key to a successful New Year’s Day open house is to make things easy.
Cheap and Cheerful Décor
I like seasonal flowers just like I like seasonal food. I place them small vases and pots around our home. If the camellias haven’t been hit by frost, I love to float single blooms in shallow bowls and small vases. In general, I tend to stay away from a big floral decoration on the buffet. It’s expensive and intrusive. Instead, I might make a piece with fresh cut greens from around the yard such as English ivy or evergreen branches. It’s also pretty to have decorative bowls filled with lady apples, Seckel pears or clementines garnished with a few sprigs of holly. In the South, it's very traditional to decorate with magnolia leaves during the holidays. And, one of my favorites for a New Year's Day open house is to fill vases with bunches of collard greens!

One great idea that can double up as both decoration and party favors are what I call "wish boxes." Wish boxes are small keepsakes for guests to hold wishes, written on small slips of paper, for the New Year. It’s a bit of meditation and mindfulness as everyone says goodbye to the past and hello to the future.

I like them far better than a list of resolutions. Wish boxes aren’t filled with a to-do list. I like to think of them as a way of setting intensions for the year. They can be as simple or decorative as you wish to make. Small lightweight balsa wood boxes are available at craft stores, or you could simply wrap a small box in wrapping or construction paper.  You could even set up a station in the children’s area for the kids to make boxes, too. Wish boxes are, well, what you wish them to be!

Cocktails and Mocktails
One great benefit of a New Year’s Day open house is that it can be easier on the budget because there’s often less alcohol. People simply don’t drink as much during the day, so there’s no need to have a full bar. I suggest serving mulled wine or hot apple cider with bourbon or rum on the side. Serve the wine or cider from a slow cooker or leave it simmering on the stovetop. There’s no need to use expensive wine for mulled wine, so that’s a bonus.

Another fun idea for New Years Day open house libations is to serve mimosas made with prosecco. Who doesn’t love a little bubbly? 

It’s also important to have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages such as juice, sparkling water and iced tea, because what Southerner would ever have a party without a pitcher of tea?

Celebrating at home surrounded by friends and family sounds like the perfect way to ring in the New Year. (Well, that and UGA beating Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl!)

Bon Appétit Y’all!
— Virginia Willis

Five Tips: A Quick How-To for a New Year’s Day Open House

  • A New Year’s Day Open House is an easy way to entertain a lot of people. After a month of parties and dressing up, everyone will welcome a more casual gathering. The whole event can be pretty laid back! 
  • Save a stamp. Instead of mailing invitations, send invites by email or an e-invitation. Host it from one to four or five o'clock in the afternoon. That leaves enough time in the morning to finish setting up the party and cooking the food, but leaves you enough time to have fun — and clean up on the backend.
  • Welcome families with children. Create a kid-friendly area with games and activities for them to play. Want to go the extra mile and give the parents a break? Hire a teenager to help babysit.
  • Since it’s an afternoon graze, keep the menu both traditional and simple. And, remember, you don’t have to do it all yourself! Mix it up with homemade and store-bought items.
  • Lastly, a New Year’s Day open house can be easier on the budget because there’s often less alcohol. Serve mulled wine or hot apple cider with rum or bourbon on the side.

Smoky Vegan Collard Greens
Note: Chipotles are smoked jalapeño chiles and can be found dried whole or canned in a spicy adobo sauce that is made from a combination of chipotles, tomatoes and other spices for a rich, smoky, flavor. You can find canned chipotles in adobo in the international or Hispanic section of most major supermarkets.

Serves: 6
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups tomato or vegetable juice
1 chipotle in adobo, chopped, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce from the jar
12 cups chopped collard greens (about 12 ounces)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a Dutch oven or other large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Stir in the tomato juice, chipotle and adobo sauce. Add the greens and cover.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Bourbon Baked Ham
Note: When shopping for a ham, look for one labeled “fully cooked,” “ready-to-eat” or “heat-and-serve.” Also known as “city ham,” these hams are wet-cured, meaning that they are submerged in or injected with brine, then smoked and sold fully cooked to be glazed and warmed at home. They may be eaten as is, but are more often heated to an internal temperature of 140°F for fuller flavor. A whole cured ham is the entire back leg of a hog and weighs about 20 pounds. Half hams are also available and come in butt end and shank end. The butt end comes from the upper thigh and has a rounded end, whereas the shank end comes from the lower portion of the leg and has a pointed or tapered end. Look for bone-in cured hams over boneless cured hams for more flavor (and a bone for the soup pot).

Serves: 12 to 14
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Total time: 3 hours and 15 minutes

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup honey
1/2 cup bourbon
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
One half semi-boneless, ready-to-eat ham (7 to 8 pounds), preferably shank end
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the bottom of a large roasting pan with the oil.

In a small saucepan, combine the honey, bourbon, orange juice and mustard. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, everything has melted and combined. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Using a sharp knife, make 1/4-inch-deep cuts in the skin in a diamond pattern. Place the ham in the prepared roasting pan.

Brush some of the warm bourbon glaze onto ham. Transfer the ham to the oven and cook, brushing with additional glaze every 30 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest portion registers 140 degrees, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. If the ham starts to over-brown, loosely tent with aluminum foil to prevent it from burning.

Transfer the ham to a cooling rack, tent loosely with foil and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute. Transfer to a cutting board, carve and serve.

Herb and Cheese Drop Biscuits
Note: Drop biscuits are like biscuits with training wheels — you don’t have to worry about overworking the dough. The recipes for drop biscuits are wetter than biscuits you roll and punch out with a cutter; they contain more milk or buttermilk than a traditional biscuit recipe. For uniform biscuits, use a small ice cream scoop to portion the dough.

Makes: About 32 biscuits
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes

4 cups self-rising flour
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoon freshly herbs, such as parsley, chives or sage, chopped
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 2 ounces)
2 cups buttermilk

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Line two rimmed sheet pans with parchment paper or nonstick silicone baking mats.

Place the flour in a medium bowl. Using a fork, cut in the butter until crumbs are the size of peas. Stir in the herbs and cheese. Using the fork, stir in the buttermilk to form a soft dough.

Drop the dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake until lightly browned, about 23 minutes. Transfer to a rack and serve warm.

Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Virginia's newest cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table," is currently available for here. Her previous book, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.