How to Eat for Valentine’s Day

You’re all familiar with it, the Catch-22 that is the romantic Valentine’s Day dinner.  Whether you’re dining out or dining in we tend to indulge in the spirit of the occasion.  We get appetizers, a bottle of wine, and usually order from the occasion-specific menu that caters to stereotypically ‘romantic’ food; large juicy steaks, pastas, lobster drowning in butter.  There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those choices save for one glaring logistical problem, after you’ve eaten that (and probably split a decadent chocolate dessert), you’ve been rendered practically comatose.  Given the romance is expected to culminate in the bedroom for most, or at least with something other than yawns and two alka-seltzers, this hardly seems practical.

Some would you have me fly in the face of tradition and rearrange your evening festivities such that the meal comes last (a recovery if you will for depleted nutrients and energy) but me, I’m a bit of a traditionalist (as is Katie) so I instead opted to reset our expectations of the Valentine’s Day meal, while sticking to the innate romance-generating principles of the meal (nobody ever looked at tacos and said “how romantic”).

(NOTE: We scheduled our celebratory meal for Sunday night, to be able to partake in whatever dietary components we wanted, even if most of the meal was actually compliant with our eating plan).

Observation #1: One must always cook with wine.  So Katie opened a bottle of California Cabernet (I don’t recall what label or year, but I will post it later).

We started with some bacon-wrapped scallops.  Neither of us are huge scallop fans and probably have them twice a year at most.  A couple decent sized (U10-12) scallops wrapped in good bacon and baked for 20-30 minutes with some butter and shallot, then finished with chipotle-lime finishing butter (available at Wegman’s) and served on a crostini made from a slice of demi-baguette toasted in a skillet with some olive oil, garlic, and red pepper, makes for a pretty light start to things while everything else is cooking or being brought together. 

Pacing is key to the don’t-fill-up-on-dinner trick.  Don’t try to impress by having everything come out too quickly (pardon the double entendre).

Once the app was done and I had cleared, on to the main course.  It’s not cheap, but the lamb rack at Whole Foods can’t be beat.  If it can, please tell me where I can get better, and don’t say from a guy in Lancaster PA because I am not driving 4 hours to find out.  Seasoned moderately and seared, then finished in the oven, the meat came out medium rare (as intended) and juicy.

Combine about 8 strawberries, the same number of blackberries, a small shallot, some butter, some sherry (a half a cup, maybe?) along with pinches of salt, sugar, rosemary, and thyme.  Simmer that until reduced to a good thick sauce and the berries are all but completely broken down.  You can do this ahead of time and if it overthickens just loosen it back up with more sherry, red wine, or a fruity hot tea as I did.

In a bowl zest about a tablespoon of blood orange zest, then peel the orange and slice out 2 wedges and macerate those into the bowl as well to generate as much juice as you can, removing any stringy peels.  While whisking, drizzle in some good olive oil (salad olive oil, not the normal cooking stuff), and a couple drops of truffle oil if you have it.  Salt and pepper to taste, then toss 3-4 heaping handfuls of rocket in the dressing.  When coated, mound the rocket on two plates (I’m assuming you’re cooking for two, if you’re not then scale this up to your needs), drop some thinly sliced shallot on it, and slice out wedges of the rest of the blood orange on top.  Squeeze the remaining “skeleton” of the blood orange on top to get as much juice as possible, top with some goat cheese, crumbled bacon, salt and pepper and you’re done constructing the salad.

The only thing left to do is slice and arrange the lamb, garnish with the sauce you had simmering, and serve.  My personal take on the dish is below, you’ll notice it’s not too different from about a million presentations of the same or similar dishes online. 

A very delicious, full-flavored but not too filling, romantic dinner.

As for the result, it was exactly as expected, it was fully enjoyable and every bite was satisfying and tasty, the sweetness of the lamb being amplified by the sauce while not becoming syrupy at all, offset by the wine and herbs, and the salad added all the contrasting elements you’d want to round things out with tart and peppery rocket, smoky bacon, and creamy goat cheese.  And neither of us felt even slightly groggy, bloated, or “stuffed” from the experience, even after some strawberries in calvados-infused cream for dessert.

So there you have it – my take on how to eat properly for romance.  Pass on cream sauces or heavy fattening meals and try to condense your flavors (and your preparation and presentation) into something effortless but still classy.  Pile of lettuce, 4 pieces of meat, a sauce that took 5 minutes to make.  To paraphrase a classic beer slogan; tastes great, less filling.

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Gluttony Thy Name is Bacon

It should come as no shock that a fixture to any true glutton’s toolkit is bacon.  Please, hold all chuckling for later, this insight is no more meant to be witty than it is to be nutritious; bacon makes everything better.

It was with that simple principle in mind that we, Katie and I accompanied by our faithful travelling companion The Leo, ventured to Portland in January of 2010.  While there we discovered a great many thing, not the least of which was Voodoo Donuts.  I’ll spare you the rich tapestry of their history or the details as to how you can be married there, and skip to the punchline: Maple Bacon Donuts.  They sell them in two sizes; Blunts and Spliffs.  If you’re unfamiliar with those references you probably wouldn’t like Portland, Northern California, or heck donuts in the first place (ask your kids, they probably know). 

Flash ahead some 12.4 months to present day.  Last Wednesday to be precise.  Katie leans in, coaxed forward by undeniable will that some would call instinct – “I know what we’re making Sunday for cheat day” she says lustfully, “Maple Bacon Donuts”.  I know what you’re thinking, “Did she really say it lustfully“?  My friends, let me assure you, when your wife leans in to tell you something, and that something involves bacon and fried sweet confections, the term lust practically falls short.

So Sunday morning after breakfast preparations began.  We were rookies to the donut game but citing a basic recipe pulled from the Cooks Magazine book on Baking (highly recommended, by the way) and some obvious creative tweaks, we set forth making the dough.  It took almost 4 hours to measure, mix, rise, punch down, roll, cut, and rise again, but in the end one batch made up about 17 or 18 2-inch by 4-inch bars.  We could have possible done rings, but what we make up for in desire we lack in ability, so bars (aka “blunts” to the hippie crowd at Voodoo) would have to do. 

Note:  I absolutely glossed over that whole dough creation process despite it being the only noteworthy labor-intensive part of the operation.  If you need to know how to make doughnuts I urge you to see the book or contact us, and then immediately use that and other influences to develop a better way, continuing ad nauseum until you’ve reach an enlightened nirvana of doughnut-hood the likes of which I can only dream about.  Me, I’m happy continuing on with a quite good foundation.

After a quick dip in the dutch oven, which is full of such an amount of shortening that it seemed obscene (and my public admission of using it here on this blog may land me in hot water with advocacy groups everywhere), we ended up with 15 or 16 nice rounded, puffy, golden-brown-like-the-old-fashioned-donuts-at-dunkin-not-those-light-beige-abominations-from-krispy-kreme delights.  And 2 possibly mutated specimens that were exposed to the hot oil simply to test the process and to cool the now superheated shortening down to target temperatures of 375 degrees.

Combine in some manner that suits you, and we did this mostly by eye and taste, powdered sugar, milk, and maple extract to achieve a constincy you can work with.  I would advise on what consistency that might be but as of yet we haven’t found it.  We got to a state where it was gooey, delicious, and would smear on top with only minimal running, which we decided was a “feature” rather than a negative because messy, when it comes to donuts, can be better.

Take the beautiful donuts, smear the glaze on, and top with a crisped piece of bacon.  We used some really thick cut stuff, the kind of bacon that intimidates other bacon then eats the other bacon’s lunch and steals their girlfriends.  Seemed to work well

but for you more reserved folks out there your standard hormel might do the job (if the job is to have it’s lunch and girl stolen from it by superior bacon).  The result is trancendant.   Crosses borders and makes you question everything you’ve ever known about food, life, love, and possibly religion (I asked myself “If Eve had these, would she have ever taken a lousy apple?”) (Answer: No).

Math, together with time, proved our enemy.  Even after summoning Michelle for testing and approval we found ourselves with at least 8 or 9 of these things left and a fear if we ate all of them we might actually die.  Thankfully they found loving homes through our “Adopt a Culinary Health Risk” program and were devoured happily.

Again if anyone wants the recipe, please contact us (easiest way is using the comments below) and we can scratch it together.

You may also notice that despite doughnuts often being percieve as a baked good, these are in fact fried.  Which negates the baking tag, and for efforts of my own health I’m refusing to create a Frying category for fear I will be tempted to fill said category with artery-clogging awesomeness.

Aside

So with V-Day looming there’s always a need for that “OK – now what?” activity between heart-shaped pancakes and the romantic dinner at night.  So if you’re not going to be wrapped up in the kitchen all day, lucky you, and head out to Gray Ghost vineyards in Amisville for their Chocolate and Cabernet event.  Red Wine and Chocolate is an obvious pairing and Al and the gang do a phenomenal job.  The Leo isn’t pouring this year, but he is attending, so you know it’s classy.

If that’s too far a haul head over to the Westfield’s Marriott for the VA Wine and Food showcase.  Regional wineries, food demos, samples and classes.  It’s a bit more pricey at $45 at the door but money has no object when we’re talking about amore, right?  RIGHT?!

Supper Club – January 29, 2011

The theme for this gathering was Hawaiian.  Seeing as it was the middle of winter, we couldn’t exactly roast a pig on a spit….but “the Leo” (aka host this time around) came up with a pretty good subsitute.

APPETIZERS

Sake and Gingerale Cocktail

Poke Poke Tuna and Spam Nageri

Jeff and I were in charge of the first course.  Jeff is the creative genius on this one.  I threw together the cocktail with the ingredients he picked out:  Asian Pear Sake, Gingerale, and Lime juice.  Add a little cocktail umbrella, a slice of lime, and wallaaa.

Jeff prepared a Poke Poke Tuna using sushi-grade Ahi Tuna from the Sushi counter at Wegmans as well as a Spam Nageri.  Sprinkle pink sea salt and black sesame seeds along with a splash of a Wasabi sauce and there you have it. 

SOUP

Sally's Soup

Sally and Brian were in charge of the Soup/Salad course.  They served a phenomenal soup and I can’t for the life of me remember it’s name or it’s ingredients.  Either way, it was delicious.  Even Alex, the world’s pickiest 3 year old, was chowing down.  The beverage pairing for this was a scrumptious prosecco and ginger liquer cocktail. 

MAIN COURSE

Roast pork et al.

The Leo and the lovely Michelle were in charge of the main course.  The pork was slow roasted with a number of ingredients that I can’t remember.  On the side were grilled pineapple, jicama, macadamia nut and coconut sweet rice, and purple potato chips.  The edible flowers were pretty but taste about as you would expect a flower to taste.

Their beverage pairing was a red wine straight from Hawaii.  How fitting!  And delicious as well.

DESSERT

Pineapple with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, macadamia nuts and coconut

Aaron and Katie were in charge of my favorite course….dessert.  This was a sundae lovers’ dream (and might I add, that I am a sundae lover….especially banana split sundaes).  This was a slice of pineapple heaven covered in toppings.  Along side it was a cup of coffee smothered in amaretto and cream.  Divine.

Next meeting of Supper Club is scheduled for mid-March.  Jeff and I will be hosting and the theme is BACON.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

Carrot Cake Cupcake with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

I made these cupcakes for our weekly cheat day (the one day each week that Jeff and I get to go off diet and eat whatever the hell we want!).  They were phenomenal.  This recipe comes from a cookbook I received as a Christmas gift called Baking Illustrated. 

I opted for NO nuts and NO raisins, but if you feel like it, throw them in!

INGREDIENTS

Carrot Cake:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound (about 6 or 7 medium) carrots, peeled

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (or safflower or canola oil)

Cream Cheese Frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool

1 tablespoon orange juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon orange zest

1 1/4 cups confectioners sugar

TO BAKE THE CAKE:

Put your oven rack in the middle position and preheat to 350.  You can either use a muffin pan or you can use foil liners on a cookie sheet (the foil ones will hold the weight of the batter, but the regular paper ones will not). 

Whisk together the flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.

In a food processer fitted with a shredding disk, shred the carrots.  Add the shredded carrots to the dry ingredients and set aside.  Wipe out the food processer and fit it with a blade.

In the food processor, process the eggs and both types of sugars until it is fully combined and frothy.  With the machine running, add the oil through the feed tube.  Process until well emulsified, about 20 seconds.  Scrape the mixture into a large bowl and stir the carrots/dry ingredients into the mixture until well combined with no streaks of flour remaining.  Pour into the pan or liners and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  I rotated the  cupcakes about halfway through and I think my cooking time was close to 25-30 minutes total. 

Cool the cupcakes on a wire rack.

MAKING THE FROSTING:

In a mixer or food processor, combine the cream cheese, butter, orange juice, vanilla, and orange zest and blend/beat until combined.  Add the confectioners sugar and beat/blend until smooth.

ENJOY!

Rosemary Caramel Sandwich Cookies

This recipe has become a sort of tradition around Christmas for our household.  We love to hand these out to friends along with a variety of other treats.  Make sure you have a candy thermometer to accurately check the temperature! 

Rosemary Caramel Sandwich Cookies

Ingredients:

Cookies:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, divided

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Caramel Filling:

1/2 cup butter

4 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup corn syrup

1 cup sweetened condensed milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, over low heat, melt 1/2 cup butter until brown.  Remove from heat and cool.  In a bowl, cream together 1/2 cup butter and sugar, until light and fluffy.  Add browned butter and mix well.  Add egg and vanilla and beat until blended.  Add flour and baking powder and mix until blended.  Flatten dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill dough until firm (about 1 hour).

Preheat oven to 350. 

Roll out dough and cut into small scalloped rounds (cookie cutters work nicely).  Bake on a parchment-lined cookie sheet about 8 to 10 minutes or until edges begin to brown.  Cool on a wire rack.

To make the caramel, melt butter over low heat in a saucepan.  Pound the rosemary sprigs until flattened and add to butter.  Cook over low heat about 10 minutes.  Remove the rosemary.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Increase heat to medium-high and bring mixter to a boil, stir frequently.  Reduce heat to medium and continue boiling (keep stirring frequently) until caramel reaches 242.  Remove from heat.  Quickly put a spoonful of caramel on a cookie and top with another cookie.  Continue until all the cookies have been sandwiched.

ENJOY!

Beer Cupcakes

Beer cupcakes!

Huh?… Yes, you heard me. BEER CUPCAKES. Quite possibly the best food invention ever (next to red wine of course). I made the following recipe a few years ago for St. Patrick’s Day and it was a big hit. I’ve been meaning to make it again but haven’t gotten around to it. Someday, beer cupcakes, you will be mine again.

P.S. – When I made these, I added irish whiskey to the frosting recipe and it was heavenly.

INGREDIENTS

Cupcake:

1 cup Guinness
1 stick, plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups dark brown sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Frosting:

8 oz cream cheese
1 1/4 cups confectioners sugar
1/3 cup milk
A smidge of Irish Whiskey if you please

1. Preheat oven to 350. Put your liners in the muffin pan OR here’s a tip I learned from Cook’s: if you buy foil liners they can stand up on their own on a simple cookie sheet (the light color coating kind is usually better for baking). Then you end up with browning on the bottom but not too much on the sides. GENIUS!

2. Combine the Guinness and the butter (chopped into 1-inch chunks), in a large sauce pan, and heat the butter to melt it. Remove from heat. Whisk in cocoa and sugar. In a seperate bowl, whisk the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla. Add beer mixture.

3. Sift together the flour and baking soda. Fold into the batter.

4. Pour into cupcake liners/pan, and bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of one comes out clean.

5. With a mixer, whip cream cheese until smooth, sift in the sugar, and beat. Add milk, and whiskey if so desired, and beat until smooth. Spread over cooled cupcakes.

ENJOY!!!