Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and when asked about upcoming plans to celebrate, you get a wide range of commentary. One of my friends refuses to celebrate the day, saying: every day is Valentine’s Day. (I have to admit that is pretty romantic!) I on the other hand like celebrating the day. Sending and receiving flowers and cards .. much like our anniversary and birthdays, but a wee bit more romantic. Eating out can be daunting on the big holidays. Many restaurants offer tasting menus which is very nice, but can sometimes break the bank. So why not stay in this year? I can’t think of a more romantic evening, with that special someone in your life, than creating a stunning dinner. So light a fire in the fireplace, break open a bottle (or two) of wine and cozy up to a fabulous 4 course menu, that won’t set you over the cooking edge. I have a few ideas that incorporate some of the recipes I’ve shared in my Seasonal Chef column, that have been tweaked a bit. If you take a little time the night before, to do a few things in advance, you will keep your romantic dinner at home easy and stress free. In addition, since you will be staying home and not worrying about driving, I have a few ideas for you to pair these dishes with some wonderful wine. With the help of my go-to wine expert Peter Hoyt, at Tarry Wine, I made a few suggestions for the dishes below.
To begin, our FIRST COURSE is a sweet and lemony salad to get your taste buds going. I like doing salads first when I have dinners at home or even when I cater. The salad can go down on the table while the guest are still chatting and meandering to their seats. I started with the idea of my Kale and Quinoa Salad and changed a few things. I always keep a few packs of pre-cooked quinoa in my cabinet to toss into salads at the last minute. Don’t get me wrong, quinoa is a quick dish to make, only taking about 15 minutes; but every now and then it’s nice to cheat that one out. Pair this with a nice crisp White Burgundy or Champagne. Look for tasting notes that have fruit and lemon.
Ingredients for 2 servings:
4 loose cups of organic baby spinach
1 cup of cooked quinoa
1/2 cup chopped dry apricots
Dressing: 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice and 1/2 cup olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts
In a large bowl toss together the baby spinach, quinoa and apricots. Dress the salad, divide on to the plates and garnish with the hazelnuts.
For our SECOND COURSE a nice light soup is perfect. My pick for the evening is Red Lentil, Apple and Chestnut Soup, with a couple of changes: Substitute the chestnuts for glazed walnuts, found easily in the produce section of the supermarket, and garnished with chives. For this course look for a Vouvray wine. Apple and quince tasting notes will bring out the best in this soup.
This soup will take you 30 minutes to make, and perfect to do the night before. Save the walnut and chive garnish for serving.
On to the THIRD COURSE. There are several components to this dish, most of which can also be made ahead of time. The finished plate will make you look like a rock star chef, guaranteed!
Click this link to see my recipe for: Grilled Lamb Ribs, Polenta and Shiitakes.
Look for small shiitake mushrooms for this dish. After removing the stems slice the caps about 1/4″ and sauté with shallot and garlic. Shiitakes are a favorite of mine. The flavor is mild and they retain their shape beautifully. This part of the dish holds up well, made in advance. Rewarm in the oven right before serving.
Polenta cakes are a great side dish to make in advance and using instant polenta makes them a snap. Simply add your instant polenta to boiling salted water (ratio of 1:4) and stir vigorously with a sturdy whisk for three minutes. You can add a bit of butter or parmesan at the end, if desired. Pour into a parchment lined 9″ x 9″ pan and cool completely. Pop out of the pan and cut into your desired shape. I like to pan fry these in butter to crisp them up a bit. Use your leftovers for breakfast with a little butter and maple syrup.
The centerpiece of your main course should be something you can cook quickly, while all your pre-work is warming up. I picked lamb ribs for this dinner, as they are a favorite in our house. You can purchase these either with the rib in one piece, and slice them yourself, or you can find them pre-cut.
Dry herbs are the way to go with this dish, and my suggestion is Herbes de Provence. If you read my column regularly you know that I am a big fan of spice and herb blends. They take the mystery out of seasoning when you are crunched for time. All you need is a little drizzle of olive oil, and a good pinch of salt, pepper and herbes de provence. While you are pan searing your ribs you can get the polenta and mushrooms warming in the oven. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions and a drizzle of good balsamic, or a balsamic glaze. Don’t over cook those ribs! A beautiful medium rare is your goal. For this course a lovely Bandol Rouge (or Bandol Red) will pair well, with the aromas of cinnamon and dark fruits it will bring out the very best flavors of your lamb and polenta.
Last, but not least is dessert, our FOURTH COURSE. After much deliberation I chose a panna cotta for this evening. This is another make-ahead dish that is just amazing. Click here for my recipe: Decadent Chocolate Panna Cotta. This dessert is prepared in under 15 minutes and sets up in your ‘fridge. I adapted a Martha Stewart recipe, reducing the chocolate and adding a little Frangelico liquor. Pair this dessert with either Port, Madeira or Vin Santo.
Don’t skip the very important step of draining the mixture through a sieve. Your goal is a creamy, dreamy custard. If you fancy a bit of whipped cream on top of this sinfully rich dessert I highly recommend whipping a cup of heavy cream from scratch. It only takes 2 minutes. If you are going to go to all this trouble, you might as well come in with a strong finish. You only need 1 cup of heavy cream for this dessert. Purchase the 16 oz carton and you will have enough to whip for garnish.
Whether you create your romantic dinner at home on Valentine’s Day, or another day, cooking for that special someone is your life is always a labor of love, and will always be appreciated.