Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Food (and Drink) of Love

A number of years ago, my husband and I began a Valentine's Day tradition of cooking for each other. We make a series of small plates, alternating courses, often pairing at least a few of the courses with wine or a cocktail. Here are a few of my favorite recipes for some of the special dishes we've made for each other. Share one with your sweetheart, or indulge yourself if you're your own sweetheart this year - you're worth it!! (But don't have a full-sized drink with EVERY course. You probably shouldn't be indulging quite that much, even on Valentine's Day.)

Artichoke-Stuffed Mushrooms and French 75
I love stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer, and there are so many different kinds of stuffing options: crabmeat, bacon, fancy cheeses...the list just goes on and on. But with a multi-course meal like this, I like this lighter, meatless recipe. (It's also nice because you can make them a few hours ahead and just pop them in the oven when it's time to eat.) The mild flavor pairs nicely with the light flavor of a French 75 cocktail (not to mention that champagne is always a good addition - plus you'll have some left over for later).
Note: You may wish to half this recipe if making it for only 1 or 2. Any leftover mushrooms can be refrigerated and reheated the next day, but they lose texture after that.

24 medium cremini mushrooms
4 teaspoons olive oil (divided)
2 tablespoons minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup drained marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs, divided
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Position rack in upper third of oven and preheat broiler to low. Coat a 9x13" metal baking dish with cooking spray.

Remove and finely chop mushroom stems. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add stems, shallot, and garlic and cook, stirring, until the liquid is evaporated (about 5 minutes). Transfer to a bowl and stir in artichoke hearts, 2 tablespoons panko, parmesan, mayo, and thyme.

In another bowl, toss mushroom caps in 2 teaspoons oil plus salt and pepper. Stuff each with filling and place in prepared pan. Combine the remaining 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon oil and sprinkle on the mushrooms. (May prepare up to this point up to 2 hours ahead.)

Broil on the upper rack until mushrooms are soft and breadcrumbs are golden, 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately,

For the French 75, fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add 1 oz. brandy or cognac, 1/2 oz. lemon juice, and 1/2 oz. simple syrup. Shake well and pour into a champagne flute, then top with 2 oz champagne and garnish with a lemon twist.

Bruschetta and Basil Lemon Drop
Bruschetta is a quick and easy appetizer that can be served hot or cold, and either fresh or canned diced tomatoes will work, depending on the season. The basil and acidity of the bruschetta is echoed in the basil lemon drop martini, but with just a hint of added sweetness.

(This recipe can also be halved.)

8 Roma tomatoes, diced (or a can of diced tomatoes with or without herbs, drained)
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil (chiffonade it if you want to be fancy)
1/4 cup shredded or grated parmesan
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil + more for toasting
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 loaf French bread

Thinly slice the French bread, brush both sides with olive oil, and toast briefly in the oven at 375 for 8-10 minutes, turning once about halfway through. Set aside.

Toss together remaining ingredients and spoon onto bread. Serve as is or heat in 375-degree oven for 5 minutes, until thoroughly warmed.

For the basil lemon drop martini, moisten the rim of a martini glass with lemon juice and dip in sugar, then place in freezer to set while preparing cocktail. Place a few fresh basil leaves in a cocktail shaker, fill with crushed ice, then muddle leaves with the handle of a wooden spoon. Add the juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons), 2 oz. vodka, 1.2 oz. triple sec, and 1/2 oz. simple syrup. Shake until well chilled, strain into prepared glass, and serve with a fresh basil garnish.

Lamb Sliders and Pinot Noir
These lamb sliders are incredibly flavorful, and I love experimenting with different types of cheese in the center. The cumin gives it a unique (and fairly strong) flavor that stands up well to a glass of pinot noir.

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, minced
salt and pepper
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon ketchup
2 ounces Swiss or Gruyere cheese, cut into eight 1/2-inch cubes
8 King's Hawaiian rolls, split

Place a grill pan over medium-low heat or preheat a gas or charcoal grill.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook about 3 minutes, until shallots are soft. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Remove from pan and cool slightly.

Combine the shallot mixture, lamb, cumin, ketchup, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Form 8 patties, about 2-1/2 inches in diameter and 1/2-inch thick. Press a cube of cheese into the center of each and form the meat around the cheese to cover. Brush patties with the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil and grill until cooked through, about 5-6 minutes per side. Allow to rest for 2 minutes, then place patties in buns and serve.

Some good but reasonably priced pinot noir options to pair with these sliders include Castle Rock Mendocino, Hahn Estates, DeLoach Heritage Reserve, and Le Crema.

Maple Glazed Duck Breast and Malbec
I was terrified the first time I attempted to make duck, but it turned out to be more forgiving than I expected. I've tried a few different recipes, both for whole duck and for duck breast, but this particular one is delicious and makes a reasonably-sized serving for two. The sweetness and fattiness of the duck pairs beautifully with a Malbec (in my opinion, everything pairs well with a Malbec, but I think you'll agree in this case) or a Meritage blend.

1 duck breast
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon thyme, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Cut small slits in the skin side of the duck breast, without slicing all the way into the flesh. Season the duck well on both sides with salt and pepper. Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat and sear the duck breasts, skin side down, for 7 minutes, reducing heat to medium-low after 3 minutes. Flip breasts over and cook for an additional 4-5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered duck fat into a clean container and save it for other culinary uses. Saute the shallots in the remaining fat for 2 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, increase heat to medium, and deglaze the skillet with the syrup blend, scraping up the brown bits as the sauce cooks. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, until thickened. Season with a dash of salt.

Return the duck breasts to the pan, turning a few times to coat evenly with the glaze. Carve and serve immediately, drizzled with additional glaze.

My favorite Malbecs to try include Catena, Kirkland Signature (no, really!), Menage a Trois, and Alamos. Some Meritages that would also pair well are Kirkland Signature Rutherford (again, really), Franciscan Estate, Estancia Reserve, and Chateau Ste Michelle Artist Series. (Fun fact: "Meritage" rhymes with "heritage," not "garage".)

Creme Brulee and sweet white wine
Creme brulee is my absolute go-to dessert for easy but impressive. It needs to be made ahead, but requires little preparation time. If you don't have a torch, the broiler works just fine. And since it's not an overly sweet dessert, it pairs well with a sweeter Riesling or Chardonnay (or, if you're all boozed out by this point, a nice cappuccino is perfect, too).

(Note: Be sure to make the night before and refrigerate overnight! This recipe may also be halved.)

4 tablespoons sugar
4 cups (1 pint) heavy or light cream or half and half (the lower the fat, the softer and creamier the texture)
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
dash salt

Whisk together sugar and cream in microwaveable bowl. Heat for 2 minutes to dissolve sugar. Stir. Whisk egg yolks slightly and stir into sugar. Whisk well. Add vanilla and salt and whisk well. Pour into 6 (ungreased) ramekins and set in baking or roasting pan, then add water to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Centers will be slightly loose, but do not overcook. Let cool and refrigerate overnight. To serve, sprinkle generously with white or brown sugar and melt with torch or under broiler. Let stand a few minutes and serve.

There are plenty of sweeter white wines that pair well with creme brulee, but a few good ones to try are Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling, J. Lohr Bay Mist Riesling, Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay, and Bogle Chardonnay. You may also want to experiment with a Gewurztraminer or Moscato d'Asti.

Sex in a Pan with a Brandy Alexander
No list of romantic recipes would be complete without a rich chocolate dessert, and Sex in a Pan certainly fills the bill of chocolatey, sweet, creamy, and rich. It's an involved and somewhat time-consuming but not overly difficult recipe, so (as we say in my family) "long walk part of gift." Since this dessert is so sweet, it pairs best with a cocktail that is less sweet, but perhaps still creamy, so the creaminess and hint of chocolate in a Brandy Alexander is an excellent choice - but this dessert is also wonderful with a cup of cappuccino if you prefer.

1 cup pecans, chopped
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup flour

Cream cheese layer:
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 to 1 cup powdered sugar, depending on preferred sweetness
1 cup whipped cream or Cool Whip

Vanilla layer:
5 oz package instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups milk

Chocolate layer:
5 oz package instant chocolate pudding mix
2 cups milk

2 cups whipped cream or Cool Whip
chocolate shavings (optional)

Beat together crust ingredients with electric mixer and press into a greased 9x13" baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Allow to cool.

Prepare vanilla and chocolate puddings according to package directions, but using only 2 cups of milk (this results in a firmer texture).

With electric mixer, beat together cream cheese layer ingredients until light and fluffy. When crust is cool, spread cream cheese evenly over crust, then spread vanilla pudding evenly, then chocolate pudding, then top with a layer of whipped cream. Garnish with chocolate shavings, if desired. Refrigerate for several hours to set before cutting and serving.

For the Brandy Alexander, fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add 2 oz cognac or brandy, 1 oz creme de cacao (white or dark), and 1 oz light cream or half and half. Shake until well chilled, pour into a chilled martini glass, and garnish with a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Dessert Drinks
Of course, the easiest solution to how to pair desserts and cocktails is simply to serve a cocktail that IS dessert. Many of these are extremely sweet and/or strong, so they provide a great excuse to linger over the end of the meal for as long as possible.

The Butterfinger: Over ice in a highball glass, combine equal parts Bailey's Irish Cream, butterscotch schnapps, vodka, and Kahlua, and garnish with a cherry. (Can also be served as a shot.)

Red Velvet Cake Martini: Mix together a few teaspoons of sugar with some cocoa powder. Moisten the rim of a martini glass with creme de cacao and dip in sugar-cocoa mixture, then place in freezer to set. Over ice in a cocktail shaker, combine 1-1/2 oz Frangelico and 1 oz each creme de cacao, vodka, and cherry liqueur, and (optional) 1-1/2 teaspoons grenadine. Shake until well chilled and pour into prepared glass.

Tiramisu Martini: Mix together 2 tablespoons sugar with 1 tablespoon cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon instant coffee. Moisten the rim of a martini glass with water and dip into the mixture. Drizzle the inside of the glass with chocolate syrup, then place in freezer to set. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add 1 oz each of vodka, creme de cacao, and Kahlua, plus 1/2 oz Bailey's Irish Cream and 2 drops of vanilla extract (or a shot of Tuaca, or substitute vanilla vodka for the plain vodka). Shake until well chilled and serve in prepared glass.

Evening Falls: If you're not a chocolate lover, this coffee-based dessert drink might be more to your taste. In a heavy glass or coffee cup, stir together 1-1/2 oz Frangelico, 1 oz Kahlua, 1/2 oz Cointreau, 2 oz heavy cream, and 4 oz strong coffee. Garnish with whipped cream and a cinnamon stick.

Happy Valentine's Day to one and all! Bon appetit!

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