Create a romantic menu

February 8, 2019

In case you haven’t noticed, next Thursday is Valentine’s Day. Of course, if you’ve been in any shops these past few weeks, it’s hard not to notice. Shelves are packed with beribboned teddy bears, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and all sorts of red novelty items from mugs to socks. Grocery stores are offering bargain prices on the elements of a romantic menu, from lobster tails to twice-baked potatoes.

As you may have experienced, dining out on Valentine’s Day isn’t always the quiet, intimate evening you hope to enjoy. Most restaurants are quite crowded, a bit noisy and service is often spotty because of the crush. Some places have posted special menus for the night, increasing the demand for tables and compounding the problem.

My solution? Make a Valentine’s Day dinner to share with your significant other in the comfort of your own home. Lower the lights, light some candles, set the table with elegant placemats, bring out the cloth napkins and your special china. Find some red wine glasses or water goblets and don’t forget to set up Siri or Alexa to play some background music.

As for the menu, one fun approach is to incorporate a theme, perhaps featuring the color red. To start, toast the evening with a blushing, sparkling Kir Royale. This cocktail is made with dry champagne and creme de cassis, a sweet black currant liqueur. Some prefer to substitute Chambord, which is made from black raspberries. In either case, pour the liqueur into champagne flutes then add the champagne to mix without stirring.

It’s always nice to offer something to nibble on while sipping your drinks, but you don’t want to fill up on appetizers. I’d suggest miniature cheese balls, which combine blue cheese, cream cheese, dried cranberries and a coating of crunchy toasted pecans. To make these easier to eat, use a thin pretzel stick as a handle for your little lollipop.

First course for your meal might be insalata caprese (translates from Italian to “the salad from Capri”). With only a few ingredients, this is quick and easy to assemble. While you may see this served with a drizzle of Balsamic reduction or a Balsamic vinaigrette, the original salad included only tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and the highest-quality extra virgin olive oil available.

Although there are all sorts of tomatoes in the grocery this time of year, most of them should be avoided. They have traveled long distances to get here, and often have less flavor than a piece of cardboard. Choose Campari tomatoes (typically sold in plastic clamshell boxes) and freshly-made mozzarella, not the rubbery processed stuff.

For the main course, consider the Parmesan risotto with roasted shrimp as seen in the photo. The shrimp here are medium-sized, but you can certainly substitute larger ones, if you prefer. In addition to their naturally pink hue when cooked, they’ve been tossed in a mixture of paprika and olive oil before being roasted to keep the color theme. They’re placed in the oven during the last minutes the risotto is cooking.

And, for dessert - the only answer is chocolate, perhaps some of the rose-colored ruby chocolate introduced last year by the Swiss chocolate company Barry Callebaut. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Kir Royale

1 T creme de cassis or Chambord
5 oz. chilled dry champagne or Prosecco

Add creme de cassis to a champagne flute. Tilt the glass slightly and slowly pour in the champagne down the side of the glass. Yield: 1 serving.

Miniature Cheese Balls

1/2 C pecans 
2 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 oz. blue cheese crumbles
1 T dried cranberries
thin pretzel sticks (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Arrange pecans in a single layer on a rimmed baking pan. Bake until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Allow to cool and chop finely. In a small bowl, combine cream cheese and blue cheese with an electric mixer, beating until smooth. Finely chop the cranberries and stir into the cheese mixture. Form into six small balls and place on a serving plate in a single layer. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours. When ready, place pecans on a paper plate. Roll the chilled cheese balls in the chopped pecans, pressing the nuts into the cheese to coat completely. Keep chilled until ready to serve. If desired, insert a thin pretzel stick into each cheese ball. Yield: 2 servings.

Insalata Caprese

2 or 3 Campari tomatoes
4 oz. fresh mozzarella
1 T extra virgin olive oil
fresh basil (optional)

Cut the tomatoes and mozzarella into 1/4-inch thick slices. Arrange in alternating layers on two salad plates. Drizzle with olive oil. If using, finely chop the basil and scatter over tomato and mozzarella. Yield: 2 servings.

Parmesan Risotto

1 T olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
1 small onion, diced
2 minced garlic cloves
1 C Arborio rice
1/2 t salt
1/2 C white wine
3 C chicken broth
1 T unsalted butter
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese
Snipped chives for garnish

Place the olive oil and butter in a deep skillet over medium heat.

Add the onion and garlic; cook until translucent, about two minutes. Stir in the rice and cook for another three minutes. Pour in wine and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Add broth, 1/2 C at a time, stirring constantly until liquid is absorbed before the next addition. After about 17 minutes of cooking the rice should be done (tender yet slightly firm).

Stir in butter, Parmesan cheese and snipped chives. Cover and allow to rest five minutes before serving.  Yield: 4 servings.

Roasted Shrimp

1 lb large raw shrimp
1 T olive oil
1/2 t paprika
salt & pepper

Place rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 F. Rinse the shrimp in cold water. Shell and devein the shrimp (if not already prepped). Arrange in a single layer on paper towels and dry thoroughly. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Pour olive oil on foil, sprinkle on paprika, salt and pepper. Add the shrimp and use the foil to toss the shrimp and coat completely.

Spread shrimp into a single layer; keep refrigerated until ready to cook. Place the pan of shrimp in the preheated oven and roast until just cooked through, about five minutes.