A survivor's guide to making New Year's Eve delicious and fun

Terry Kirts

How many times has it happened to you? Dateless, with no official invitation to a party, you find yourself at some kind friends' house where your only solace is a bowl of dip, some chips and a dusty bottle of champagne your friends found in their cupboard. Scenes of merry revelers in Times Square flash on the television. People you barely know show up en route to other parties, express regret and then escape to where the fun is. Your friends check their watches. Yawn. No one has touched the dip. The champagne, barely potable, is drained. Dick Clark, or his surrogate for the year, counts down the last seconds to midnight while your friends are off fetching your coat.

Reservations without reservations

Thankfully, dozens of Indianapolis bars and eateries have thought ahead and have some pretty glamorous spreads in the work to ensure you won't be imposing on friends. For instance, who could be disappointed with a salad of seared scallops, fresh fennel and a kumquat-tarragon vinaigrette? How about pan-seared turbot with a risotto cake and broccolini in a vanilla sauce? For just $50, you can have that and more at R Bistro. With seatings at 5, 7 and 9 p.m., you can easily make it to your neighbor's chip-and-dip affair later. If seafood spells good luck for you at the new year, head to The Oceanaire for a tuna-salmon parfait, scallop carpaccio, lobster poached in orange blossom water and classic baked Alaska. This and about 20 more options are just $75 plus gratuity and tax. Montage at Allison Pointe is sponsoring a three-course meal with amuse bouche and hors d'oeuvres with music by Five Easy Pieces. Zionsville's Cobblestone Grill is offering Maine lobster and beef Wellington with music by the Scott Ballantine Trio. Bella Vita will serve four dinner specials, dessert and champagne at $200 per couple.

If you want a little more rollicking fun, head to ultra lounge 6 for live music, cocktails, a champagne toast and passed hors d'oeuvres. Or head to Cibo, "the Italian experience," for a dinner that includes complimentary admission to Vapour Lounge upstairs to ring in 2006. If you want to forgo a bow tie or mink stole, there's no cover at the Mousetrap, and Acoustic Flyer will be rocking in the new year. Want something in between? The Mansion at Oak Hill will have a traditional hors d'oeuvres buffet with poached salmon, chilled shrimp and baked brie ahead of a prime rib buffet and classic hits from entertainers ETC.

Know your bubbles

If you do end up staying in or going to a friend's, promise yourself you'll do it right. First off, spend a few bucks on good champagne. While Veuve Clicquot or Dom Perignon might not be on your budget, California sparkling wines, though not technically champagne, as well as Italian proseccos and the trendy Spanish cavas, can make great toasting. While you might want to engage in "sabrage," the dramatic technique of yore in which champagne was opened with the blunt end of a sabre, you're less likely to end up in the emergency room if you follow a few simple steps.

First, banish the "pop." A cork should merely sigh when opened, and you shouldn't waste any of your bubbly. Instead, remove the foil, place your hand firmly on the cork and turn the bottle, not the cork. The cork will come out easily. Serve in flutes or even oversized wine glasses, but avoid the urge to fill glasses to the top. Champagne, like all wines, needs breathing room. Make sure yours is about 45 degrees F. Brief toasts, followed by frequent refilling, is de rigueur.

What to serve with your champagne? In about 10 minutes, you can create a cheese ball with retro flair that people will actually devour. Give this to your guests, and they'll know 2006 will be a tasty year.

Terry's Nothing-Like-Store-Bought Cheese Ball

1 8-ounce package cream cheese (not reduced fat)

3 slices (about 2 ounces) pastrami, coarsely chopped

1 cup mixed grated cheeses (sharp white cheddar, gruyere, parmigiano-reggiano, romano, etc.)

2 ounces Capriole goat cheese with herbs

2 small shallots, chopped

1 large clove garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme or dill)

1 tablespoon bottled pimentos or roasted peppers

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

freshly ground pepper

a few shots of hot sauce, to taste

drizzle of black truffle oil, optional (available at Trader Joe's)

1 cup slivered almonds

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Cut cream cheese into eight cubes. Place shallots, garlic, mustard, herbs, peppers, lemon zest, pepper and juice in bowl of food processor. Pulse to integrate. Add cheeses and pastrami. Process mixture until you no longer see streaks of cream cheese. Shake in hot sauce and drizzle in truffle oil, if using. Scrape down sides of bowl and place bowl in refrigerator. In small sauté pan, toast slivered almonds until just colored. Do not burn. Cool slightly. Toss with parsley. Remove cheese mixture from refrigerator. Scrape onto plastic wrap and form into shape of a ball. Roll ball in almond-parsley mixture until completely covered. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least two hours. Serve with crackers, seeded flat breads, sliced Granny Smith apples, sliced fennel, baby carrots, celery sticks and plenty of self-esteem.

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