While it’s true many people stayed in this year for Valentine’s day because of the rotten economy, I do enjoy staying in for a great, homecooked meal. I’ve cooked for a few Valentine’s dinners in the past and blogged about them – 2006 and 2007 – (2008 was skipped because I was on a plane to Argentina), but this year was definitely a challenge. The boyfriend sketched out a menu and chose a few items that he wanted to eat, with my suggestions (and options) along the way, and then I decided we needed a little element of surprise, so I changed some minor details and added a few things.
Then I decided to make everything from as close to scratch as possible. (There was no way that I was attempting pasta dough on this go’round.) So here goes, with as many recipes as your greedy little hearts could desire, and at the end, a breakdown of how I managed to do all this without going insane.
First course: classic Caesar salad with shaved Parmagiano-Reggiano curls, garlic ciabatta croutons, bacon bits, and homemade dressing (scroll down for the recipe; I no longer use the exact measurements but approximate it to taste) and baked clams. If you’re worrying about all the garlic, don’t – we’ve been together for over 5 years, I’m Chinese American and he’s Italian American, garlic is not exactly a rarity in our meals. 🙂 If you plan on making these things for a new relationship… you may want to cut back on the garlic.
Close up of the salad.
Now, to make the clams was surprisingly easy. In fact, I simply thought “I think this is what I would like” and did it, barely glancing at a few recipes online for a frame of reference as to how long and how hot to put them in the oven.
For 6 baked clams:
1 strip of bacon
6 little neck clams
one clove of garlic, minced
one little bit of onion, minced
pat of butter
Toast the breadcrumbs (in the photo above, mine were already toasted, explained later): melt butter in a small, heavy bottomed skillet. Add garlic and onion, when they start smelling delicious, add a bunch of breadcrumbs (I used Italian seasoned ones because that’s what I keep on hand; you can use homemade breadcrumbs as well if you like, I just don’t possess a food processor), and stir around a few times to coat. Keep the heat on low/medium low and turn off when the breadcrumbs are mostly golden-brown. Set aside. (This step can be done ahead of time.)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Scrub your clams; make sure they’re sand free. To achieve the sand-free thing, soak in cold water with a handful of cornmeal or flour (is what the fish monger told me). Steam them gently for a few minutes until they open slightly. Remove from heat and allow to cool a little so you can handle them.
In the meantime, take the slice of bacon and cut it into pieces that fit just over each clam. I had a little bit leftover from covering 6 clams. I put that on the baking sheet (lined with tinfoil) as a “test” piece of bacon to get a good idea of how done the bacon was getting on the clams.
Open up the clams and remove the top shell; discard. Lay the fitted pieces of bacon over the clams; cover with toasted breadcrumbs, patting down slightly to get more on there. Arrange on baking sheet lined with tinfoil; bake for about 20-30 minutes, until the top is golden brown crunchy looking, and the ‘test’ piece of bacon is crispy looking, almost burnt.
Eat test piece of bacon. Serve clams with lemon wedges.
Mmm, baby, these were good. I was extremely pleased with how everything worked out – the bacon working to make sure the clams didn’t dry out, and adding extra flavor overall, and the breadcrumbs were super crispy, with a squirt of lemon, perfect! I won’t say the best baked clams everrr, but pretty darn tasty and I was happy with my first time making these. Super easy too!
The table with our first course — BF knows the way to my heart, he brought over root beer, haha. (I have so much wine in my “wine cellar” – the bottom of my 4th closet – that it really is unnecessary to bring over wine.)
Main course: chicken bruschetta and cheese ravioli
The very foundation of our relationship rests with teasing each other, so I can’t let this opportunity to make fun of him a little bit pass by…
My boyfriend absolutely LOVES chicken cutlets, “the thinner the better,” and will invariably request them if I tell him I’ll make him dinner, his choice of menu. (Chicken cutlets, mashed potatoes, creamed corn; if I ever voluntarily make these things without him requesting them, of course it’ll be “What did you do?” hahaha – I don’t like frying things, thus the hesitation for making chicken cutlets more often, and let’s face it, white meat it may be, but probably the least healthy way of making chicken breasts, barring wrapping them in bacon before deep frying them.) This time, I was set to make chicken cutlets, per his request, and thought I’d parm-them since we had already decided on pasta as the starch. Then, my darling boyfriend said, “Ooh, how about something different? How about putting bruschetta topping on chicken cutlets? That sounds good.”
I don’t deny that it sounds good. I do, however, want to point out that this dish was once featured on many Olive Garden commercials (which I can’t find right now on YouTube, YOUTUBE FAIL), and my boyfriend of Italian descent refuses to eat at Olive Garden. (I, on the other hand, spent many nights there during ages 18-22, and while it’s not amazing or anything, it was pretty good, and well-priced. I maintain that the macaroni was not mushy, the sauces were not gloppy-sweet, and the food was fine. Won’t win any Michelin stars, but so what?) I just found his request of an Olive Garden dish highly amusing and couldn’t stop teasing him with “Why don’t we just go to Olive Garden?” Hehe.
No recipe for this – just make bruschetta the way you normally do, and top chicken cutlets (made the way you normally do) with the mixture. I used petite diced tomatoes, diced red onion, minced garlic, kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper, and Italian seasoning in the above – cheese optional, I was trying to keep the entire meal on the light side since it was a lot of food. And the leftover bruschetta? I added diced jalapenos, some cilantro and lime juice to make salsa 😉
Okay, I know it’s not a pretty picture, but they weren’t very pretty. I made ravioli! The sauce is just my simple red sauce, and the ravioli were made with wonton wrappers. Super simple – I used ricotta mixed with salt & pepper and discovered the hard way why every recipe calls for a beaten egg to be mixed into the cheese – the cheese becomes super runny when hot (DUH! I knew that!), so cutting into the ravioli meant the cheese just ran right out. Haha. Pretty funny but next time, I will be sure to mix an egg into the cheese. Still tasted pretty good. Oh, and I used an egg wash to seal the pockets; boiled for about 2-3 minutes or until they floated.
And now… for dessert, probably the items that make me the proudest.
Wait for it… wait for it…
Ulmo honey panna cotta and hazelnut chocolate wontons.
Okay. Okay! I can’t tell you how excited I was to make this. You may remember I mentioned ulmo honey panna cotta ages and ages ago. Well, I never did receive that exact recipe, but I think I near-duplicated it semi by accident. It came out wonderfully and I foresee this becoming a problem as my weight problems present themselves in full force once again.
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 envelope gelatin
1/4 cup ulmo honey (that above jar cost $8.69 at Whole Foods. IT IS NOT CHEAP. Feel free to substitute your favorite honey but note that it won’t be as heavenly as I’m describing here)
A splash or 12 of pure vanilla extract – to taste, you can even omit this if you like, but I like how vanilla plays off sugars
Sprinkle gelatin over one cup of heavy cream in a small pot. Let sit for 5 minutes. Turn flame to medium low. Stir, adding the rest of the cream and milk. Add ulmo honey, whisking to incorporate. DO NOT LET IT BOIL OR SCALD!!! Once the honey is incorporated, continue whisking, add vanilla extract and turn off heat. Strain into small ramekins (I was able to fill 5 of the above, but those are pretty big). Press plastic wrap to the top of each to prevent a skin forming, then place in fridge and chill overnight or at least 4 hours (or till set). To unmold, run hot/warm water over the bottom of the mold/ramekin – making sure no water gets in/on the panna cotta – before inverting over a plate and tapping ramekin.
So simple, right? I had two issues however. One is already fixed in the above recipe, the other, I’m not sure can be fixed.
A skin formed on my panna cotta almost immediately; none of the top recipes that turned up when I Google’d for panna cotta mention the plastic wrap. However, a quick search of “how to prevent skin on panna cotta” turned up a lot of recipes that say to use plastic wrap! I was kind of annoyed by this, but it’s mostly aesthetic since the skin still, um, tastes good, just slightly denser and “chewier” than the panna cotta itself. The flavor of the skin was actually more intense.
The second one, through Googling, I haven’t found the exact mention but – well – in the above photo of the panna cotta, you see how the top is slightly darker? You thought it was the lighting, right? Wrong. My guess is that it’s the honey settling to the bottom of the ramekins, so when you flip it over, it’s very evident. I Googled how to prevent settling in panna cotta and found a few mentions of vanilla bean seeds settling all to the top (well, the bottom, but again, it becomes inverted). The solutions were to strain the mixture as it goes into the ramekins, so that no seeds would be evident (but they’re so pretty when evenly distributed!), which makes sense for vanilla bean seeds. The other one makes no sense to me and suggested that one constantly stir the mixture while it’s jelling to keep it distributed. Ummm… how can it jell then? And how does any one person stir 5 little ramekins all simultaneously while they are jelling/chilling? Makes no sense to me.
I decided that I had three options for next time: first one, don’t care; it’s just a slight, honey-ish coloring along the top and can be seen as kind of pretty. Two, cover it with fruit puree – which I don’t want to do because this panna cotta is so good, light, delicate, airy all at once, that I don’t want to mask or change the flavor whatsoever. The third one is the most obvious that probably many restaurants employ: don’t invert the panna cotta onto a plate, make them in pretty ramekins or serving bowls, and just serve them that way.
I’m definitely going with option one or three.
(After a lot more thought, I decided that perhaps the honey wasn’t completely dissolved, but I know for sure that I was stirring it and it was dissolved! It was, damn it! Whatever, it didn’t affect the taste, it was pure aesthetic…)
To describe this panna cotta: the texture was perfect, which I’m now beginning to believe has to do with the honey itself. It wasn’t tight, hard, like cheesecake, nor was it soft and mushy like dofufa (the Chinese dessert made with tofu which is most often compared to panna cotta). It was simply perfectly creamy, delicately melting away in my mouth to impart the most fragrant of flavors – a gently ulmo honey taste, which is unlike anything I have ever had – not floral but not not floral either – and just wonderful. Airy, light, brilliant. Heaven.
The other part of dessert was a complete surprise to my boyfriend, but something I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. Easy enough: wonton wrappers (doing double duty that night as both starch in the main course and pastry in the dessert course, what up!), a beaten egg to use for sealing the wrappers, Canola oil to deep fry in… and hazelnut chocolate spread (by all means, use Nutella, but this is what I had in my pantry, and Nutella is expensive, I think).
Dip your finger in the egg wash and run along two corners of the wonton wrapper. Scoop a decent amount of chocolate into the center of the wonton wrapper; fold over, pressing to seal (try not to leave any air in there!). Repeat until you’ve got desired amount, then deep fry. They’re ready when they float to the top.
My big issue with these was that the first one popped open in the oil (not sure if it was my seal or if it got stuck to the bottom and burst when I tried to lift it), so it colored the rest of the the wontons dark even though they weren’t burned by any means. Just ugly. Oh, and I totally forgot to sprinkle powdered sugar on top, that probably would have helped hide the ugliness…
Crispy on the outside, and melty chocolate goodness on the inside, not sure it can get better than that if you like chocolate!
Overall, a very successful Valentine’s dinner, with only a small lapse between first and main courses, due to a timing issue on my part. Speaking of… here is my timeline for what I did to make my life easier!
- Make panna cotta.
- Make hazelnut chocolate wontons; cool completely before placing in plastic container in the fridge.
- Chop and wash Romaine lettuce; dry (I used a salad spinner) and place in plastic bag in fridge.
- Toast breadcrumbs. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.
- Make croutons. Once cooled, store in an airtight container. (I sliced up Trader Joe’s garlic ciabatta and toasted it up the same way I did the breadcrumbs.)
- Make the Caesar dressing.
- Make the bruschetta topping.
- Mix cheese filling for ravioli.
- Make red sauce for ravioli.
- Buy clams (rinse, clean, etc.)
- Start moving fast.
- Make chicken cutlets, keeping warm in oven on a rack at 350 degrees.
- While the chicken cutlets are frying, toss salad with dressing and croutons.
- Steam clams.
- Assemble salad on plate while clams are steaming.
- Assemble clams and bake.
- Assemble ravioli; set aside under damp paper towel.
- Plate clams.
- Set water to boil for ravioli in a big pot. COVER the pot.
- Serve & eat your appetizers while the water is coming to a boil.
- Cook ravioli a few at a time; don’t crowd the pot.
- Assemble/plate chicken bruschetta (spoon bruschetta on top of cutlet nicely; parsley flakes optional).
- Plate ravioli next to chicken – add a bit of sauce on top, grated cheese optional.
- Before serving, pop hazelnut chocolate wontons in the oven (still at 350 degrees) to warm up.
- Serve & eat main course while the wontons are heating up.
- Plate panna cotta; serve with chocolate hazelnut wontons alongside.
This is made slightly easier for the fact that we both don’t tend to drink hot beverages (coffee/tea) with our dessert, but you know, you can slip that in there somewhere.
Happy eating, and I hope everyone had as lovely a Valentine’s Day 2009 as I did 🙂