- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What could be more dramatic than New Year’s Eve? Well, opera, for one thing, which makes it the perfect theme for a festive New Year’s Eve party. Pull out the CDs, costumes, lights and recipes, and you have a party that is as versatile as it is creative.

Opera and food have long been the perfect duet.

“Appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart. The stomach is the conductor, who rules the grand orchestra of our passions, and rouses it to action,” wrote Gioacchino Rossini, composer of “The Barber of Seville” and many other operas.

When he wasn’t busy writing opera, Rossini, a true gourmet, immersed himself in the world of fine food and cookery. Just like many modern foodies, he loved eating.

He also loved cooking and searching out rare and interesting ingredients. Rossini’s love of foie gras and truffles was so legendary that the celebritychefsof his day, among them Auguste Escoffier and Marie-Antoine Careme, created dozens of dishes in his honor using those ingredients.

One of the most legendary combinations, tournados Rossini — filet mignon topped with foie gras and truffles — was created for him by a Parisian chef. As the story goes, the dish got its name because of a shouting match while the chef was preparing Rossini’s meal.

Exasperated at Rossini’s constant culinary micromanaging, the chef shouted at the maestro that he couldn’t bear watching him interfere with the food preparation. Undaunted, Rossini yelled back, “Et alors, tournez le dos.” (“So, turn your back.”) “Tournez le dos” became “tournados,” and a new dish and great food-in-opera tale was born.

Famous chefs have a long tradition of creating special dishes for their favorite operas and opera stars. Peach Melba and Melba toast were invented for turn-of-the-century opera diva Nellie Melba. Chicken Tetrazzini was developed for singer Luisa Tetrazzini. Pasta Norma was named in honor of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma.”

Opera cake was introduced at the 1903 Paris Culinary Exposition by a French pastry chef. The opera cocktail was created in the United States in the pre-Prohibition Roaring ‘20s.

The tradition continues today. Many opera lovers across the country show their passion for classical music and food by hosting opera-themed dinner parties.

As the movie version of “Pagliacci,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Placido Domingo, played in the background, more than 150 guests were treated to a feast of Italian foods and wines to kick off the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Opera in 2005. Even the decorations had an Italian accent.

At another fundraiser, this one for Cleveland Opera, amateur singers Sue and Nicholas Peay, two of the Cleveland Opera’s founders, helped organize a gala themed on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” set in Japan. For the party, Japanese kabuki dancers entertained in a room decorated with lovely Japanese paper fans while guests sipped sake and nibbled soba noodles.

Along with her friend, Elaine Gilbert, Sue Peay has organized many opera balls through the years. At their “Die Fledermaus” party, named for the Johann Strauss opera, professional dancers dressed in ball gowns and white tie, waltzed while the lead opera singers, also in costume, sang well-known arias.

Two fountains poured champagne, an ode to the champagne references in the opera, including, “Es lebe Champagner der Erste.” (“Long live Champagne the First.”), which is heard throughout the opera. In honor of Strauss’ birthplace, Viennese delicacies were served, including weiner schnitzel, spaetzle and Linzer torte.

In Seattle, Sherry and James Raisbeck view their breathtaking home as a “fundraising tool.” Their “Elegance Under the Stars” evening in summer celebrated Wagner’s “Ring” operas with an assortment of entertainments, including performances by singers from the Seattle Opera and fire dancers from the Cornish College of the Arts.

Parties of this sort have their roots in the opera house itself, which years ago was not only a place of music but one of eating, drinking and even gambling. Nineteenth-century opera audiences chatted, ate and drank throughout the performance. Italian composers of that era placed unnecessary songs, called “aria di sorbetto” (literally, sorbet arias), at certain spots in the operas to give patrons time for a snack, such as a refreshing sorbet, a popular treat.

When opera-goers weren’t busy eating sorbet or drinking champagne, they could gamble during the show at tables set up in the lobby or at the rear of the theater. Composers even received a cut of the gambling profits.

While it’s no longer possible to enjoy these 19th-century treats in the opera house, you can duplicate the food and drink of the opera in your own home just in time for New Year’s Eve.

Opera cocktail

1½ ounces gin

3/4 ounce Dubonnet Rouge

½ ounce maraschino liqueur or Chambord

Orange peel

Combine gin, Dubonnet and liqueur in a shaker with crushed ice. Pour into chilled cocktail glass. Twist the orange peel over the drink and drop it into the glass. Makes 1 serving.

Linzer torte bars

Linzer torte hails from Mozart’s native Austria. The rich nutty dough comes together quickly in the food processor and the jam filling is store-bought.

3/4 cup almonds

3/4 cup hazelnuts

1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Zest of 1 lemon

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, divided

3/4 cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 cup best-quality raspberry or red currant preserves

Confectioners’ sugar, optional

In a food processor combine almonds and hazelnuts, and process until finely ground. Heat ground nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly toasted.

Allow to cool and return to the processor. Add granulated sugar, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and lemon zest, and pulse until well combined.

Slowly add flour, pulsing until incorporated.

Add 2 of the eggs and all of the butter, pulsing until well combined. Dough will be crumbly. Refrigerate dough, covered with plastic, for at least 4 hours or place in freezer for 1 hour, until very firm.

Lightly butter a 10-inch square baking pan. Press 3/4 of dough into prepared pan. Spread evenly with jam, extending jam to the edges of pan.

Press remaining dough 1/8-inch thick on a lightly floured surface and, using an assortment of small-size cookie cutters, cut out as many topping shapes as possible.

Re-roll scraps and cut out more topping shapes. Beat remaining egg in a bowl. Arrange topping shapes in about 18 2-inch serving-sized clusters over jam and carefully brush them with egg.

Sprinkle shapes with granulated sugar and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 35 minutes, or until light golden.

Cool in pan on a rack and cut into about 18 sections. Top with confectioners’ sugar, if desired. Makes 18 bars.

French canapes

For a French opera party, the perfect appetizer could be French Canapes. These miniature open-faced sandwiches mean “couch” in French, and just about any savory can sit on them: pate, caviar, cheeses and cold cuts of all sorts.

The key to canapes, whether cut into triangles, squares or circles, is to be sure they are very thin and easy to eat. A canape should be one or two bites at most.

Here are two of my favorites: the prototypical French ham with sweet butter accented with a hint of Dijon and cornichon pickle and a pretty shrimp canape with aioli.

Ham canapes

3 thin slices white bread

2 tablespoons butter, softened

3 thin slices smoked ham

Dijon or honey mustard

3 cornichon pickles, thinly sliced

Butter 3 slices of bread and top each with a slice of ham. Using a very sharp knife, cut off the crusts. Cut sandwiches in half diagonally to create 2 triangles and then in half again diagonally, creating a total of 4 triangles per slice.

Top each triangle with a tiny dollop of mustard and a cornichon pickle slice. Makes 12 ham canapes.

Aioli shrimp canapes

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 clove garlic, finely mashed

2 teaspoons lemon juice

½ teaspoon olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

3 thin slices white bread

6 small shrimp, poached

Zest of ½ lemon

To make the aioli, combine mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl until well mixed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spread the aioli onto each slice of bread. Using a very sharp knife cut off the crusts from the bread. Cut the sandwiches in half to create 2 rectangles and then in half again, creating a total of 4 squares per slice.

Thinly slice or chop the shrimp. Top each section with shrimp and a sprinkle of lemon zest. Makes 12 aioli shrimp canapes.

Carmen’s tapas

The opera “Carmen” by Georges Bizet is set in Spain. To pay tribute, why not serve the Spanish appetizers, tapas? Gambas al ajillo, as this dish is called in Spain, is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent.

For a dramatic presentation, cook and serve it in a small iron skillet.

Saffron garlic shrimp

12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil

7 to 8 strands saffron

1 jalapeno chili, sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine shrimp, garlic, oil, saffron and chili in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight so the flavors can mingle.

Heat a small skillet over high heat and saute shrimp with marinade until shrimp is golden, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Melty Manchego with spicy-sweet tomato jam

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

3/4 cup sugar

1 jalapeno chili, sliced

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Cayenne pepper, optional

1 pound Manchego, Ibores, Garrotxa or Tetilla cheese, or a combination

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon sweet sherry

Crusty bread, sliced

Combine tomatoes, sugar, jalapeno chili, lemon juice and zest, and salt in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, until thick.

Allow to cool, and then transfer to a small serving bowl.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. (Cold food needs more spice, so before serving, adjust the seasonings and add cayenne, if desired.) Meanwhile, cut cheese into half-inch sections.

Heat oil and garlic in a small nonstick skillet over low heat until garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove garlic and reserve. Add cheese in one layer and fry until warm and soft, about 1 minute.

Remove skillet from heat and add sherry. Cover skillet and return it to heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Serve right in the skillet or slide the warm cheese onto a serving platter and top with the reserved garlic. Serve with the tomato jam and bread on the side. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Warm marinated olives

Warm olives taste different taste from cold ones. Serve the olives immediately or, if possible, allow them to marinate overnight. Just reheat before serving.

½ yellow onion, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

2 cups Spanish olives, about 9 ounces, drained and well rinsed

1 tablespoon pink peppercorns

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)

2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, saute onion in oil until golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, vinegar and honey, and saute for about 30 seconds, until vinegar evaporates.

Add olives and peppercorns, cover and saute until olives until warm, about 2 minutes. Serve topped with thyme and oregano. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Francine Segan is a freelance writer based in New York and the author of four books, including “The Opera Lover’s Cookbook” and “Shakespeare’s Kitchen.” Samantha Segan is a student and freelance writer.

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