This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on February 8, 2006
Check the thesaurus, and almost none of the synonyms for romantic are very flattering: starry-eyed, unrealistic, quixotic - and those are just the good ones, followed by emotional, maudlin, mawkish, mushy and schmaltzy.
How chastening to realize that they all apply to me.
The evidence is strong - I choke up at weddings, even when the bride and groom are strangers, I favor Colin Firth over Hugh Grant; I get weepy at those Pepsi commercials featuring fat puppies; and I have been a closet reader of Harlequin Romances since I was 13. It will not surprise anyone to hear that I am a huge fan of Valentine's Day as well.
In fact, it's the one holiday I am really good at. I have to admit that we don't get a Christmas tree up every year, and I've never been one to hang colorful Easter Eggs from a tree out front or dress my lawn up as a cobwebby graveyard for Halloween. But when it comes to Valentine's Day, we manage to do better.
For one thing, I've been blessed with a husband who, though he could care less about Valentine's Day himself, really gets that for reasons unfathomable to him, it's important to me. For the last 15 years or so, he has indulged me by flying me off to celebrate in the most romantic city in the world. He's come to realize that if you scavenge for cheap airfares and hotel deals, spending a midwinter weekend in Paris is not actually that expensive, especially considering the good will it buys him for the rest of the year.
Sometimes, though, Valentine's Day falls in the middle of the week, so even if we have gone away for the weekend and had our celebratory dinner in a cozy bistro somewhere (or on top of the Eiffel Tower), we are already back home by the time the holiday hits. On those days, I cook.
I remember one of the first Valentine's meals I made for us - nearly 25 years ago now. Somehow I got it in my head the food should be pink (yes, I know, mawkish and mushy), and I made scallops in a pink mayonnaise. For the life of me, I can't remember what made it pink (tomatoes, maybe?) I just remember that my sweetheart ate everything politely, and then seemed to go off seafood for a couple of years after that.
Things got better in the cooking department eventually, though I have always wondered if the memory of those pink scallops is why my husband, usually a frugal, stay-at-home kind of guy, is willing to travel so far every year.
Recently, we found ourselves at home once more on February 14 and I decided to cook a dinner a deux in which scallops (happily white this time) again played a central role, and the pink food requirement was confined to the radicchio risotto and the strawberries on the cake. This one was much better-so much so that we've repeated it a time or two since, including this last weekend, in a kind of run up to Valentine's Day. I think, really, a day or even a weekend is not enough time to properly celebrate something as important as romance, and I am working on a scheme to extend it bit by bit. The twelve days of St. Valentine? How schmaltzy can you get?
Valentine menu for two
• Pan Seared Scallops with Avocado Fruit Salsa and Pistachio Vinaigrette
• Radicchio Risotto
• Roasted Asparagus
• Layered White Cake with Strawberries and Cream
This menu is easy to put together for two people. The scallop and
risotto recipes are included below. For the asparagus, just snap the bottom
part of the stalks off, wash and dry thoroughly and toss with olive oil, salt
and pepper. Roast on a baking sheet at 425 degrees until it starts to shrivel. Toss
with a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. The cake is even easier. Use
your favorite white cake layer recipe or buy a good quality cake. Whip some
sweetened, heavy cream, and use it to frost the cake. Sandwich
Sandwichcleaned, hulled, sliced strawberries in between the layers with the whipped cream, and decorate the top of the frosted cake with more berries.
Pan Seared Scallops with Avocado Fruit Salsa and Pistachio Vinaigrette
6 tablespoons of pistachio oil (olive will work, but if you can find pistachio, use it.)
2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
1 plum, diced small
1 nectarine, diced small
1 ripe avocado, diced small
2 tablespoons dried cherries, chopped
1/4 cup pistachios, shelled and toasted
1 shallot, diced
Salad greens (a mix of greens and fresh herbs is best), about 2 cups
Salt and pepper to taste
8 fat sea scallops (Try your hardest to get dry scallops so they will sear properly-and taste better. You can order them at the Butcher's Block.)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Whisk together the oil and vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Combine the diced fruit, shallots and pistachios. Toss with a small amount of the dressing, to keep the avocado from turning brown.
Toss the salad greens with a couple of tablespoons of the dressing.
Pat the scallops dry and remove the small white muscle from the side. Season with salt and pepper. Heat the butter in a nonstick skillet over high heat until sizzling, but not browned. Put the scallops in the pan, and cook for about 1 minute, until caramelized and brown. Flip over and cook the other side the same way. Three to four minutes cooking should do it, depending on the size of the scallop-do not overcook or they will be rubbery.
Mound a cup of dressed salad greens in the center of each of two plates. Surround greens with four scallops. Spoon salsa over scallops. Drizzle with remaining vinaigrette. Serve hot.
Don't be scared by the use of radicchio in this dish-though the vegetable can be bitter when it is raw, cooking mellows it considerably. Also remember that, as with any risotto, the quality of the finished dish depends of the quality of the broth you cook with. If you have time, make your own!
4 cups (about) good chicken or vegetable broth
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup Arborio rice (you need this kind of short grained rice to get the right creamy texture. It's widely available in local grocery stores.)
1/2 cup red wine
1 good sized head of radicchio (or two small), cored and thinly sliced (2-3 cups)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
4 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (plus additional for serving)
1/4 cup half and half or heavy cream
Bring the broth to a boil and keep it at the simmer. Melt the 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium high heat; add the onion and cook until soft and translucent. Add rice and stir 1 minute until coated with butter. Add wine and stir until absorbed.
Reduce heat to medium. Continue stirring as you ladle simmering broth (about 1/2 cup at a time) into rice. Wait until each addition has been absorbed before adding the next. Continue cooking until rice is tender but firm in the center. The entire process will take 20-25 minutes. When rice is cooked, add herbs and radicchio and stir for 4 more minutes, until radicchio is wilted. Stir in grated cheese and cream, and last tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper and season if needed. Serve in warm bowls with grated cheese.
Serves 2 generously.