Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Valentine's Dinner? Splendid

Valentine's Day may very well be a holiday perpetuated by retailers, but I do love an excuse to tell people how much I love them.  My boyfriend and I went out for a fancy a fancy Valentine's Day dinner the first year we were together.  He was still trying to woo me, after all.  We went to a local Japanese restaurant to enjoy a fun meal prepared on a teppanyaki grill.  Of course, as one might imagine, the restaurant was incredibly busy that night, and there were at least 16 of us crowded around a table meant for 12.  The couple to one side of us bickered the entire time, and the couple on the other side didn't want the food typically prepared on the grill.  They ordered chicken teriyaki or shrimp tempura or something.  While we made the best of our meal, the ambiance certainly left something to be desired.

Not only did that experience turn us off to going out for super romagical (it's a word we invented) Valentine's dinners, but our anniversary is in late January, and both of us have birthdays in mid-March, so we have plenty of reasons to celebrate in the first quarter.  So now we go out for fancy dinners for our anniversary and take turns making dinner for each other for Valentine's Day.  We're slightly adorable.

This year was my turn to cook, and I started planning very early, as I'm wont to do.  I started searching my BFF, Pinterest, to come up with recipes for a Valentine's Menu.  I finally settled on stuffed mushrooms, spinach salad with warm bacon dressing, smoky pork pappardelle, and blackberry swirl pound cake served with vanilla ice cream.  Anyone who knows me relatively well is probably wondering if there were planning spreadsheets involved.  Yes, of course!  In my defense, there was only an actual spreadsheet involved for the grocery shopping, with every ingredient needed listed by meal component and section of the grocery store.

It was also a pretty busy week around here, so I knew that I wanted to serve the meal on Saturday, and I knew that I would need to do a lot of prep work during the week.  This is how I broke down the work.

First up was making the sauce for the pasta.  I used the Smoky Pork Pappardelle recipe from Food & Wine Magazine as my guide.  The recipe was very simple to follow, and I made three deviations from the original.  Despite the "smoky" moniker for the dish, I did not use smoked salt.  This was purely because I already have 3 varieties of salt on hand, and I really didn't feel the need to buy any more.  Along the same vain, the recipe calls for champagne vinegar.  I used red wine vinegar because it's what I had on hand.  Also, when the pork and sauce are done cooking, the recipe says to strain the sauce and gently push on the solids.  I wanted a really creamy sauce, so I used my immersion blender to mix it all together.  Once the sauce was blended, and the pork was shredded, everything went into the fridge till Saturday.  On Saturday, I started reheating it on the stove about 45 minutes before I wanted to serve it so  I could bring the temperature up slowly.  I waited till right before I served it to add the mascarpone cheese.

Sauce in three phases

Preparation Day 2 was strictly for the Blackberry Swirl Pound Cake from Martha Stewart.  After getting in a small domestic disturbance with my food processor, we were in business.  I didn't want to run out of puree in the middle of the loaf, so I was conservative with the amount I used in the middle.  That was unnecessary, because I have a lot of blackberry puree leftover now, which is fine.  I served the pound cake with vanilla ice cream, and we drizzled more blackberry puree over the top of the cake and ice cream.  When eating the leftovers, I've taken to nuking the cake for 20 seconds or so.  It's awesome.

Preparation Day 3 was really just about an hour I had before we hit the road to see Scott's friend direct big annual band concert in their hometown.  Since I knew I didn't have much time, I used that to prep the Stuffed Mushrooms from Delicious Meliscious (who got it from Ina Garten, according to her blog).  I cut the recipe in half and made 8 mushrooms.  There was nothing too surprising in the recipe, but it came together beautifully.  The stuffing is very flavorful, and using panko instead of regular breadcrumbs gave it a great texture.  My only note would be to lower the cooking time by a few minutes.  Mine turned out okay, but they could have come out of the oven a few minutes earlier.  I didn't take a picture of the mushrooms before cooking them, and the only picture I have shows the well-done final state, but in the interest of honesty, here you go.

This picture does nothing for the mushrooms.  They were good!

Preparation Day 4 was also Saturday.  The day I served all this food to my beloved.  Once we got home from Scott's hometown, I got to work.  Well that's not entirely true.  First I went out to buy "emergency fancy pasta" in case my plans didn't work.  Then I came home and got down to business.  It's been years since I made fresh pasta (hence emergency pasta), and the last attempt didn't go especially well (dysfunctional Kitchen Aid mixer).  Now armed with a new(er) mixer (Kitchen Aid customer service was excellent), the pasta maker attachment, semolina flour, and this recipe for fresh pasta from Got Mixer?, I set about making the dough.  I cut the original recipe in half, and I'm glad I did, because it might actually make a metric ton of pasta.  I certainly made more than enough.  (Also, holy parentheticals, Batman!)

We made pasta a few times growing up, and I remember having a blast making it together with my family.  We used a manual roller that clamped onto the table and had to be cranked by hand.  It was not really a one-person activity.  Using the Kitchen Aid roller was so helpful.  This part was definitely time consuming, but it was also by far the most rewarding part of making this meal.  A pound of semolina and AP flour, three eggs, and a few Donna Noble episodes of Doctor Who later, I had a gorgeous tray of thin fresh pasta cut into wide ribbons of pappardelle.

All that was left after the pasta was the spinach salad and warm bacon dressing.  I didn't really take any process photos of this dish, because there wasn't much to it.  I cooked the bacon, boiled the eggs, and made the dressing while I was waiting for the pasta dough to rest.  I used a recipe from Flavors by Four for the dressing.  I didn't have prepared honey mustard on hand, so I used dijon mustard and added honey.  I'm glad I went this route, because I felt like the sauce needed to be sweetened up a little, so I added more honey during the cooking process.  The finished product was delicious with the crisp spinach and bacon, and the nice contrast with the mushrooms and eggs.

Everything came together really well for the meal.  I'm very proud of it, and Scott said it was probably the best complete meal I've made for him.  That's pretty high praise, I would say.

Not pictured: Poundcake

Scott was such a good sport as I made him wait to eat so I could take pictures.  I promised him I wasn't going to become one of "those people", but I was am proud of the meal, and I knew I wanted to blog about it.  Because honestly, how good does this look?  Seriously, I spent a lot of the meal talking about how good it was, which earned me some teasing, but it was SO GOOD!

Even cutting most of the recipes in half, I still have so much pasta left, and I am okay with that.  I will happily eat this for the rest of the week if necessary.  

Who wouldn't want to eat this for a week?
Just in case you're curious, this is what my kitchen workspace looked like last week.  I've been taping recipes to cabinets for years now, because it puts them at eye level.  Since this meal was prepared over the course of 4 days, I needed the recipes to stay handy.

So, yeah.  That's what I was up to last week.  That's why I was Facebooking about the patron saint of cooking.  That's what I made for my man to celebrate our tenth Valentine's Day together.  When I was in Kansas City last winter, we visited a Penzey's store.  As you checkout from the store, they have bumper stickers that pretty much sum up how I feel about cooking for people:



  1. Okay, I like to cook and this is insane!!! So much prep & planning went into this meal. You must reallllly love him ;)

  2. He's pretty okay, I guess. I think I'll keep him.