There are a lot of conflicting thoughts out there about Valentine’s Day. Couples in relatively new relationships wonder how big a deal they should make about it, longstanding couples may decide to skip the chocolates and roses (although I’d never recommend skipping chocolates). But they all seem to agree they’d like to have a good, special meal that evening.
Lots of restaurants seem eager to help, and I’ve been seeing Valentine’s Day restaurant specials advertised for nearly a month now. Some look like fun and are even a good deal. Cy and I have been eating at home on V-D since we first started dating, so I haven’t had a restaurant meal on V-D for many years. But an informal survey of friends tells me that going out for V-D rarely lives up to expectations.
It makes sense to me. It’s an easy proposition to have a special time at a restaurant for anniversaries, birthdays, and even New Year’s Eve. For the first two, chances are you’ll be the only people there celebrating, and New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a more or less communal experience anyway.
But it’s different if everyone in the room is trying to feel special. Not only may there be a bigger-than- normal crowd at a restaurant you know and like, but there also may be a limited menu so that the kitchen can cope with the extra traffic. That doesn’t mean everything won’t be good. Still, chances are you’ll be looking around at other (very close) tables and seeing that people have pretty much the same things on their plates. And there’s also the potentially unfortunate decorations. If you don’t festoon your home with red hearts, balloons, and streamers, why would you want to be surrounded by them at a restaurant?
You’d think that cooking at home would be the obvious choice, but for many people it’s not a slam-dunk. Half the time, V-D falls on a school night and it’s often tough to find the time to make a nice meal. Also, if you don’t cook a lot you won’t necessarily have the pantry staples and might not want to buy them to use for only one meal. And if you don’t have experience multitasking in the kitchen it can mean more time preparing the meal than you’d like, particularly since you’re not looking to have only a single thing to eat.
So for this post I’m going to set out a V-D meal that even inexperienced cooks can make at home with not too many ingredients, but that still gives you a salad and a choice of entree, plus a cheese course and an optional dessert. You can have it on the table in 45 minutes or so. There’s only one “exotic” ingredient, smoked paprika, and that’s only if you choose the entree that has it. Best of all, you will use an entire bottle of champagne. Since champagne gets you tipsy more quickly than still wine, you’ll be glad to know that you will use some of it for a drizzling sauce for the cheese course and the dessert (if you make it), so you can easily finish the rest of the bottle, even on a weeknight.
Because of where the grapes are grown, French Champagne has a nice bit of acidity which makes it a great accompaniment for most meals, from salads to seafood, meats to cream sauces, so we’ve got everything covered. The yeastiness and great flavor also make the base of a wonderful sweet sauce. Naturally, I’m going to recommend you buy Champagne Bernard Mante from first vine, either the Brut ($32) or the Brut Grande Reserve ($38). They’re not bone dry, so that makes them a wonderful accompaniment to the recipes here. But if you already have a nice bottle at home, go ahead and use it.
Before I start, I have to give credit where it’s due, to Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table” radio show and podcast. In addition to having the friendliest voice in radio, I think Kasper is the only person on the air who takes live questions about cooking and often the questions are about quick meals. Both of the entree choices are dishes Kasper has mentioned to callers over the past six months or so. I’ve taken her basic guidelines for Scallops in a Light Tomato Sauce and Fettuccine “Alfredo” and fleshed them out so you can integrate them into a weeknight V-D meal without difficulty.
Here’s the menu:
Romaine Salad with Chopped Vegetables and Tiny Croutons
Seared Sea Scallops with a Light Tomato Sauce — or — Pasta “Alfredo”
Manchego or Bleu Cheese Crostini Drizzled with Champagne-Honey Sauce
Chocolate Truffles — or — Individual Bread Puddings with Champagne-Honey Sauce (both are optional)
A couple of things you’ll want to do: read everything over, twice, before you head to the store and buy anything, much less start making food. The other is to start thinking early, in case you don’t have equipment or ingredients you’ll need and might be able to borrow them from other people.
What follows is the recipe ingredients and any special equipment, step-by-step preparation instructions, and a few additional notes. The sequencing isn’t set in stone, so don’t worry if things are taking more or less time. If you’re running ahead of schedule, start prepping something else. If you’re falling behind, don’t worry. You’re making a wonderful meal and a few extra minutes isn’t going to matter. Have a piece of baguette with some butter on it and move on. (I think bread with butter makes everything better.)
I hope you’ll try the meal, even if you don’t make it for Valentine’s Day. You can save it for another occasion or easily double the recipes and serve it to company. Just take it easy and have a good time.
Bon Appetit and Happy Valentine’s Day!
Valentine’s Day Menu for Two
1 750 ml bottle champagne, chilled for at least a couple of hours (for the cheese crostini, bread pudding, serving with meal)
1 baguette (salad croutons, cheese crostini, bread pudding, serving with entree)
1 stick butter, salted or unsalted (cheese crostini, fettuccine, bread pudding, serving with entree)
Olive oil (salad croutons, salad dressing, tomato sauce)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
3-4 ounces Manchego or Blue cheese (cheese crostini)
1 tablespoon mild honey (cheese crostini, bread pudding)
1 large head romaine lettuce, or a 5-ounce bag cleaned and chopped romaine (salad)
10 grape tomatoes (salad)
1 small cucumber (salad)
6 radishes (salad)
1 scallion — optional (salad)
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard (salad)
1 tablespoon Red wine vinegar (salad)
6-8 large sea scallops, depending on size and your appetite (scallops)
1 small onion, diced (scallops)
1 15 – 16 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes in juice (scallops)
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon sweet smoked Spanish paprika (scallops)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (scallops)
6 – 8 ounces dried flat pasta such as fettuccine, linguini, or pappardelle (fettuccine)
1/2 cup heavy cream (fettuccine)
1 small garlic clove, put through a garlic press (fettuccine)
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese, about 1/2 cup, plus extra for the table (fettuccine)
1 cup milk (bread pudding)
1/4 cup granulated sugar or light brown sugar (bread pudding)
2 eggs (bread pudding)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (bread pudding)
2 teaspoons apricot or raspberry jam — optional (bread pudding)
4 – 6 excellent chocolate truffles, your choice of flavor (optional but always welcome)
Two baking sheets (for toasting and drying out the bread)
Pastry brush (for brushing the bread slices for the crostini)
1 large nonstick skillet (scallops or fettuccine)
1 heatproof spatula
2 ramekins, 6 to 8 ounce capacity (for the bread pudding)
1 8-inch square baking pan, glass or metal (for the bread pudding)
2-3 small to medium-sized heatproof (preferably microwave safe) mixing bowls
2 small to medium saucepans with lids (for the champagne sauce and the bread pudding)
A wire whisk
One hour before dinner
Arrange two racks evenly spaced in the oven. Preheat to 400 degrees F. Melt a tablespoon of butter and set it aside. If you’re making the fettuccine, fill a large pot (at least 6 quarts) with water and add a tablespoon of salt. Cover the pot and put it on the stove over high heat. It’ll be boiling before you’ll need to use it, but just turn it off when it starts to boil.
Start preparing the bread. Cut off one end of the baguette and either eat it (my choice) or save it to serve at the meal. Cut 8 1/2-inch slices and then cut the slices into 1/2-inch cubes. You should have about a cup of bread cubes. Put them on one end of one of the baking sheets. Then cut 6 to 8 more 1/2-inch slices for the crostini (depending on how many you’d like). Put them on the other end of the same baking sheet and brush them with the melted butter. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the bread cubes along with a little salt and pepper. Using your hands or a big spoon, mix everything together — the cubes should have just a little oil on them, you can add a bit more if you need it. Spread out the bread cubes and set the pan aside until the oven is preheated.
If you’re making the bread pudding, cut off two 3-inch pieces of baguette. Set each one cut-side-down on the cutting board and cut off the browned part of the bottom crust. (This part of the crust is really hard and will be too tough in the bread pudding). Cut the trimmed pieces into 1/2-inch slices and then cut or tear each slice into 4 pieces. You should have 1-1/2 to 2 cups of bread pieces (cut a little more bread if you need to). Spread the bead pieces on the second baking sheet.
Once the oven is preheated, put the two baking sheets in. After 5 minutes, take out the sheet with the bread pudding pieces and set it aside. (You only want to dry the bread pieces out a little, that way they’ll absorb a little more of the egg and milk mixture). Stir up the crouton cubes and check the slices. The slices may already be lightly browned, if so, take them out and set them on a plate. You want the crouton cubes to be a light golden brown, this will take another 5 minutes or so. When they’re done, put them on a plate to cool.
Slice up the cheese and put it on the toasted bread slices, then put the bread slices back on the baking sheet and put them in the oven for about 5 minutes to melt the cheese a little (you’re not going to serve them warm, but heating the cheese up this way makes it stick to the bread better. Set the cheese-covered slices on a nice serving plate and set them aside.
While the bread is in the oven, start making the champagne sauce. Open the champagne and measure out 1 cup. (Put a champagne stopper in the bottle after this, or use a piece of plastic wrap that you secure over the top with a rubber band. Put the bottle back in the fridge standing up.) Combine the cup of champagne with 1 tablespoon of honey in a small saucepan. Heat the mixture until it boils over medium heat, then turn the heat down to low and let the mixture simmer. You want to reduce it by at least half so that you end up with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of liquid. This will take about 10 minutes. Set the sauce aside to cool.
45 minutes before dinner
If you’re making the scallops, take them out of the fridge and check them over. If there’s a tough little piece on one side, cut it off with a knife. Put two layers of paper towels on a dinner plate and put the scallops on the towel. Cover with two more layers of paper towel and press down lightly to dry the scallops. Set them aside.
If you’re making the fettuccine, combine the garlic you’ve put through the garlic press with the heavy cream in a small saucepan. Put the pan over medium heat and let it heat up until you see bubbles around the edges. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the cream sit with the garlic — this will soften up the garlic flavor.
If you’re making the bread pudding, turn the oven down to 350 degrees F. (If not, you can turn the oven off.) Smear a little of the butter inside each ramekin and set the buttered ramekins in the small baking pan. Set the pan aside.
Also for the bread pudding: In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla with a wire whisk until they’re nicely mixed. Put the milk in a small saucepan with the sugar and 1 tablespoon of butter and heat it over medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon until the butter is melted and the sugar is just dissolved, about 2 minutes. (Note that if you’re making the fettuccine, you can use half a cup of heavy cream and half milk, since you can’t buy heavy cream in amounts less than a cup anyway and you’ll have a half cup left in the carton.) Start whisking the eggs again, and pour a little amount of the warm milk into them, whisking constantly. Pour a little more in, and continue whisking. Then you can add the rest of the milk, still whisking, until it’s all combined. Stir in the bread pieces that you set aside for the bread pudding, and let the bread soak up the milk and egg mixture for about 15 minutes. Check it a couple of times while it’s soaking and stir it up to get things evenly soaked.
Whisk together the Dijon mustard, vinegar, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a little salt and pepper in a small bowl. Cut the grape tomatoes in quarters and add them in. Cut each radish in half, then each half into 4 pieces and add them to the tomatoes. Cut the cucumber into small dice and add it to the bowl, also slice up the scallion and add it if you’re using it. Stir everything gently to combine and set it aside.
If you want to use the whole romaine leaves for the salad, cut off the root end of the head of lettuce and discard the two outer leaves that look ragged. Separate the rest of the head into leaves until you get to the heart, which you can cut in half. Run the leaves under cold water to rinse them, then wrap them in a kitchen towel and set them aside to dry off. (If you’re using the bagged cut lettuce, take it out of the fridge at this point, open the bag, and set it aside.)
A half hour (or maybe a little less) before dinner
If you’re making the bread pudding, spoon the soaked bread into the prepared ramekins. If you want to use the apricot (or other) jam, push a teaspoon of the jam down into the middle of each ramekin, and then pour any soaking liquid still left in the bowl over the top of each one.
If you’re making the scallops, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add the diced onion along with a little salt and pepper. Turn the heat to medium low and cook the onion until it’s very soft but not brown, about 6 minutes. While the onion is cooking, drain the can of tomatoes (you can drink the juice or save it in the fridge for a couple of days, it’s better than any canned tomato juice you can buy). Pick up a tomato and squeeze it right over the onions in the skillet to crush it, then drop it in. Repeat with the rest of the tomatoes (there will be 4 or 5 of them in the can). Add 1/8 teaspoon of the smoked paprika and a little salt and pepper. Turn up the heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until the tomatoes look almost dry — about 3 minutes. Taste the mixture for salt and pepper and add a little more smoked paprika if you like (it should be lightly smoky). Scrape the tomato mixture into a small heatproof bowl using a heatproof spatula, you’ll want to get it all out of there. Wipe the skillet out with a paper towel. (You’re going to cook the scallops in this same pan and you don’t want any of the sauce left in it or it’ll burn.)
Fifteen minutes before dinner
If you’re making the fettuccine, bring the pot of water back to the boil. You’re going to cook the pasta for about a minute less than the smallest amount of time indicated on the package. (For instance, if the package says “Cooks in 9-11 minutes,” you’re going to cook it for 8 minutes. ) Take the cooking time and add 3 minutes to it, that’s how long before dinner you’ll start cooking the pasta (it takes about a minute for the water to start boiling again when you add the pasta, and you’ll need a couple of minutes afterward to put the dish together).
While the water is heating back up, put 4 tablespoons of butter in a large nonstick skillet. Turn the heat on low and let the butter melt. It needs to melt slowly, and you don’t want the butter to separate so that you see a layer of butter oil on top of milk solids. It should stay uniformly whitish-yellow, so keep watching it and stir it a little. (This is the most common mistake people make when they prepare this dish. If the butter separates into oil and solids, the dish will be greasy and you can’t fix it. You’re better off starting over with more butter.) When it’s nearly all melted, turn off the heat and slowly pour in the slightly warm cream, stirring constantly.
Twelve, eleven, or ten minutes before dinner
Drop the pasta in the boiling water and stir it up. When it comes back to the boil, turn the heat to medium and set the timer for the proper cooking time as described above. Set the colander for draining the pasta in the sink. Stir the pasta every couple of minutes while cooking. After a few minutes, ladle out about 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water into a coffee cup and set it aside.
At this point you can plate the salad. Put 6 romaine leaves, or a nice pile of cut romaine, on each salad plate. Spoon the vegetable dressing mixture over. Put the croutons on a small plate and take everything to the table.
About three to five minutes before dinner
If you’re making the bread pudding, pour some hot tap water into the pan holding the ramekins (be careful not to splash inside the ramekins). You’ll want the water to come about 1/4 inch up the side of the pan. Put the pan in the oven and set the timer for 35 minutes.
For the scallops: heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil over high heat until it shimmers. Put the scallops in the hot pan and cook for 2 minutes. Don’t move them around, but check them after a minute and a half to see how brown they are. When they’re nice and brown, turn them over and cook for another minute to a minute and a half until nicely browned on the second side. Divide the scallops among two small plates (they’ll finish cooking as they sit). While the scallops are browning, put the bowl with the tomato sauce in the microwave and heat it for 30 seconds to a minute until it’s good and hot. Right before serving, spoon the sauce around the scallops on each plate and serve.
For the fettuccine: turn the heat under the butter/cream mixture to low. Drain the pasta, and pour it into the skillet. Sprinkle with a good amount of freshly-cracked pepper. With coated tongs or two wooden spoons, toss the pasta with the cream sauce for about minute to make sure everything is coated. If the skillet looks completely dry, add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water you set aside. There should be just a tiny bit of liquid in the pan — the pasta will keep absorbing it. Turn off the heat and add the grated Parmesan cheese and mix well, adding a little pasta water if you need it. Divide the pasta onto two small plates and serve.
To Serve Dinner
Put the entree out on the table along with some additional bread and butter if you like, and of course the Champagne. Sprinkle the croutons on your salads and dig in. You’ll have a half hour of uninterrupted eating time until the bread puddings are ready. They should be lightly brown on top. Take them out of the water bath and let them sit for at least 10 minutes to cool a little.
Ah yes, remember the crostini? Drizzle a little of the champagne sauce over the crostini, then enjoy with more champagne.
Now is the time to put out the chocolate truffles if you bought them. Put each ramekin of bread pudding on a small plate and pour the remaining champagne sauce into a small bowl to spoon over each bread pudding. If you’re run out of Champagne, you can open a nice liqueur, cognac, or even single-malt scotch to enjoy.
Warm plates — When it’s cold outside, the cabinets you store your dishes in can get chilly, particularly if they’re on an outside wall. You may want to warm the plates up before you serve the entree on them. (No worries for the salad plates, they can stay cold!) If you’re making the fettuccini, you can put the plates in the sink and set the colander on them. The hot pasta water will warm the plates up. Dry them off quickly and serve the fettuccini on its self-warmed plates.
There’s no built-in warmer if you’re making the scallops. You can run hot tap water over the plates in the sink. Or, if you have big radiators like Cy and I do, wrap the plates in a kitchen towel and put them on top of the warm radiator for a half hour or so. I have tried all sort of other things, including microwaving the plates with some water, and they don’t really work. You also don’t want to put your nice dishes in the microwave. If all else fails, put the plates near the stove and that’ll at least take the chill off them.
Fresh herbs — These dishes don’t call for fresh herbs, but a little chopped parsley would look beautiful on the entrees. You can also add a small sprig of fresh thyme or a few fresh rosemary needles to the champagne and honey when you start cooking the champagne sauce. You can also add a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme along with the onions in the sauce for the scallops.