My favorite way to celebrate Valentine’s Day is with a special sweetheart dinner, beautiful wine, a decadent dessert, candlelight, and soft music.
Lest you wonder which restaurant is holding our reservation this year, my husband and I are dining in front of our living room hearth, with a crackling fire to set the mood and keep us cozy.
I love planning our sweetheart dinner celebration each year. A small drop-leaf table that usually rests between two upholstered chairs, has served as our Valentine dining table for many years. It’s easy to move and is just large enough to accommodate dinner plates, wine goblets, a small vase of flowers, and candles.
Dining at this table is like getting the best seat in the house in our favorite restaurant – only without the wait staff.
Which brings me to the need to carefully plan the menu. The romance of a Valentine dinner is hard to maintain if one needs to constantly check on what’s happening in the kitchen, so an elegant meal with make-ahead components is critical.
I like to begin our dinner with individual garden salads, garnished with artichoke hearts, radicchio, kalamata olives, and shaved Parmesan cheese.
The salads are made early in the day, covered, and chilled. Just before serving, I dress them with homemade red wine vinaigrette.
Preparing most of the meal in the oven ensures we can go directly from salad to entrée with little interruption.
My go-to choice is rack of lamb with a coating of Dijon mustard and an herbed crust, or succulent duck breasts with an orange marmalade and Cointreau glaze. The latter may be found in my latest cookbook, Celebrating Home.
Both recipes can be partially prepared in advance; then finished in the oven during our salad course. Roasted asparagus drizzled with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt, and a potato casserole are great side dishes, since they can be cooked in the oven while the meat finishes.
I always give extra thought to the final course. A dessert that’s easy, but impressive is my ultimate goal.
This year, I’m preparing Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta – a creamy, delicate Italian custard that’s poured into individual heart-shaped pans and chilled until firm. Tiny flecks of vanilla bean lend sublime flavor to this melt-in-the-mouth dessert, and a garnish of fresh raspberry sauce adds pleasant tartness with a burst of Valentine color.
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
1 package unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
Raspberry Coulis, for garnish
Fresh raspberries, for garnish
In a medium saucepan, stir together gelatin, sugar, and ½ cup of the half-and-half until they are well mixed. Add the remaining half-and-half and cream, and stir.
Slice the vanilla bean open with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds with the tip of the knife. Add the seeds and vanilla bean to the saucepan and cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s hot and small bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Do not boil. Strain the custard through cheesecloth into a large liquid measuring cup or bowl.
Spray 8 individual 3-inch molds lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the custard into the molds, cover, and chill 3 hours or until set. Recipe may be made one day ahead.
To serve, unmold custards by dipping the molds into a bowl of hot water for 5 seconds. Place a dessert plate over the mold, turn both over, and unmold the custard onto the plate. Garnish the plate with dots of Raspberry Coulis and reserved fresh berries.
2 6-ounce packages fresh raspberries, rinsed
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 ½ teaspoons sugar
Pour 1 package of raspberries into a blender and purée until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a fine sieve set over a medium bowl. Using the back of a spoon, push the purée through the sieve, and discard the seeds. Add lemon juice and sugar, and stir until the sugar dissolves completely. Cover and chill.
Yield: 8 individual desserts
Visit christyrost.com for more recipes and entertaining tips from public television chef Christy Rost, a lifestyle authority and author of three cookbooks, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @ChristyRost.