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The core of At Home’s philosophy is that sharing a good meal at home is the ideal way to make human connection. And that by planning ahead and spreading tasks over time, preparing food can be a pleasure and not a chore. So it was for My Valentine’s Dinner. Pre-dinner entertainment included watching Pixar’s delightful “Up” — part of Christina’s goal of watching all 10 Oscar nominated films before the Oscars. “Up” turned out to be the perfect Valentine’s foil — an adventure fueled by love with a grouchy Ed Asner providing the voice of the aged hero.
Christina’s dinner requests: A light meal that included the “tea” from our wedding and shrimp. I wanted each course to have some romantic reference that could include the color red.
My Valentine’s Menu
Radish, Baby Mizuna & Belgian Endive with Feta
Red Wine Vinaigrette
Wild Mushroom “Tea” with Fois Gras Stuffed Morels
“Angel Hair” of Parsnips, Carrots & Celery
Grilled Saffron Shrimp
Braised Fennel, Leeks & Artichokes
Winter Citrus Fruit Salad with Candied Kumquats
Burnt Caramel Chocolates with Hawaiian Sea Salt
To Kalon Vineyard I Block Fume Blanc 2004
Robert Mondavi Winery
Most shopping was completed on Thursday and prep gently spread over Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. Flowers arranged on Sunday.
The table was set by mid-afternoon.
Our first course — like much of menu planning — was more a matter of imagination and shopping than any culinary skill. Our lovely light salad was an “appetizing” mix of color, taste and texture. It included a base of shredded Belgian endive leaves, a small nest of baby mizuna that I found at Whole Foods, thin sliced red radishes that spent several hours in cold water prior to thin slicing to maximize their crispness and a topping of Mt. Vikos feta cheese. The dressing — made Sunday morning — included finely chopped shallots, good quality red wine vinegar, Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. This simplest course was probably the course of our dinner that we enjoyed the most. Slightly bitter endive, spicy mizuna, peppery radishes and salty feta and a just a little drizzled dressing that balanced the richness of olive oil with the sharpness of red wine vinegar infused with a gentle onion-ness from the shallots.
We had a spectacularly delicious wedding a year ago November 29th at The Franklin Institute — catered, naturally, by Frog Commissary Catering. Our first course that evening was “borrowed” from a dinner we had a Jean Georges in NYC. It was a Wild Mushroom “Tea.” The wonderfully theatrical element was that after presenting beautifully styled bowls artfully loaded with wild mushrooms and vegetables, waiters poured into the bowls a “tea” made from the soaking liquid from dried wild mushrooms.
Certainly more complicated than our first course, this was hardly difficult to prepare. The “tea” includes the dried mushroom soaking liquid, a touch of fresh thyme and rosemary, a splash of white wine, a few thin slices of garlic and some bits of vegetables leftover from making fine matchsticks of parsnips, carrots and celery that would form a nest in the center of the bowl on which the fois gras stuffed morels would sit. The tea was steeped over low heat to infuse, strained, lightly salted and set aside. I bought a thin slice of duck fois gras mousse from Di Bruno’s and cut shards to stuff into some select soaked morel. I lightly sauteed soaked morels and chanterelles in butter with some chopped shallots. The “angel hair” of vegetables were separately microwaved to soften with a little water in the bottom of covered bowls.
Before we sat down to dinner, I arranged the ingredients in bowls. When it was time to serve, I microwaved each bowl for just under a minute to warm while not melting the fois gras, topped with a few celery leaves and shaved parmesan and brought the bowls to the table.
The steaming hot “tea,” at the ready in a tea pot, was poured into the bowl and the perfume of wild mushrooms exploded. It was a delicious reminder of our wedding dinner.
As tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, I decided that our “shrimp course” would be an homage to the approaching Mardi Gras.
My Thursday night dinner was steamed mussels. Mussel “stock” — the result of steaming mussels in white wine — was to be the basis of my braising and risotto liquid. I added to this the shells from the shrimp that I peeled and strained. On Saturday I braised the leeks and fennel with saffron and some stock. I trimmed whole artichokes down to the “bottom” – just the meaty core, along with two baby artichokes. I blanched the artichokes in lemon water to keep from discoloring. Sunday morning I marinated the shrimp in saffron, crushed pink peppercorn, garlic and olive oil. Sunday afternoon I cut tasso — a spiced Cajun ham — into small cubes and cooked them with shallots in a pot. Next I added aborio rice and cooked until the rice turned from opaque to translucent. I let this sit until just before dinner when I gradually added the rest of my mussel stock and some store-bought chicken stock to nearly finish my Tasso Risotto.
Just before serving, I grilled the shrimp in a pre-heated grill pan, re-heated the braised fennel and leeks along with the artichoke bottoms, added more stock to heat the thin out and finish the risotto. On to waiting plates, an added lemon wedge and off to our table. Yum.
Our Valentine’s dinner concluded with Winter Citrus Fruit – pink Cara Cara oranges, red grapefruit, murcotts, honeybells (a recent gift from my Florida-residing mother) and deep red blood oranges. I segmented all of the fruit Saturday morning so all that I had to do was arrange it in bowls, accented with two luscious chocolates.
Candying kumquats is simple. Pick off any little bit of green stem that remains, cut in half, pick out the seeds, cook in simple syrup until translucent, drain (reserve the syrup — it’s a delicious sweetener ) — and place on rack to dry for at least a day and as much as three days. Unused candied kumquats sit in granulated in my kitchen — a snack at-the-ready. You can find the recipe for candied kumquats as part of the recipe for Tangerine Kumquat Martinis in a December post or on Page 47 of At Home. To candy 1 pint of kumquats, I used 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water.
Our dinner wine was a very special bottle that I had picked up a few years ago at the Robert Mondavi Winery. We needed a wine that could hold up across courses with very different spirits. The wine was a 2004 Fume Blanc. What made this special is that it comes from what are believed to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in North America located in the revered To Kalon I Block plot of grapes at the foot of the Mayacamus Mountains in Napa’s Oakville district.
Overall, I continue to make the mistake of too much food. All the courses worked and it was a wonderful dinner, but by dinner’s end we both felt more stuffed than pleasantly sated. Other than our small salad starter, each course could have been a third less in size.
I suspect that you think this was lots of work. But here’s the point. I enjoy cooking. It only becomes less enjoyable when I feel pressured and over-worked. By planning and spreading out my tasks over several days — and with a few good college basketball games and the start of the Winter Olympics on my kitchen TV — and by being organized, preparing dinner for My Valentine was a pleasure…At Home. Your dinner does not have to be this dinner. But, the moral of the story is the same.
Thank you for visiting.
Your Home Entertaining Coach