It's here -- the time of year when some guys take their annual turn in the kitchen. They may not clutch a sauté pan or turn on the oven the other 364 days, but they do want to make something nice for their special valentines.
For men who feel intimidated at this prospect, the key to success lies in focusing on a quality effort -- and not getting worked up by thinking it has to be soufflés and other fancy stuff.
That's what experts like chef and cooking teacher Anne Legg say.
"Lead with your strengths," Legg said recently, as she prepped food for a cooking class at Market Street in Colleyville. "If you're a barbecue kind of guy, work the grill and maybe work in a new rub or a nice finishing sauce from a jar."
Legg said the way to keep dinner planning low-stress is to add variety to the usual creations. Instead of making a salad with plain lettuce from a bag, use good mixed greens and add fruit. She also advises choosing surprisingly easy items to cook, such as scallops, because "even if you overcook them, they're still tasty."
Scallops were the appetizer course on her Valentine's dinner class called "Be Mine," which she taught at Market Street's Dish Event Center on Feb. 3. Colleyville resident Steve Hutchings, who was among the handful of male students attending, said he has honed cooking skills at such classes in the past year.
"The other day my wife said, 'This Valentine's Day, why don't we just stay home and you cook for us?,'" Hutchings said.
To make this particular menu easier, Legg chose preparations that can be made ahead. Some of the work can be accomplished as much as three days in advance.
"Don't make yourself crazy, because everyone wants to stay in the mood, you know?"
ANNE LEGG'S "BE MINE" MENU
Starter: Seared scallops on baby greens with creamy cilantro-lime dressing
Wine pairing: Mason 2007 sauvignon blanc
Main course: shiitake-crusted filet mignon with mushroom jus, with braised lentils and whipped butternut squash
Wine pairing: Benziger 2005 North Coast syrah
Dessert: warm chocolate cakes with molten caramel centers, topped with brown sugar whipped cream
Seared scallops on baby greens with cilantro-lime dressing
Dressing can be made up to three days in advance, and the tomatoes can be cut a day in advance.
1/2 small jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped (more if you like it spicy, less if not)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, washed and shaken dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces baby greens or spring mix (about 3 handfuls), washed and spun dry
1/2 cup red and yellow grape tomatoes, washed and halved
4 large (U-10) sea scallops, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon grape-seed or canola oil
1. To prepare dressing, blend jalapeño and lime juice in a blender until the jalapeño is finely puréed. Add the sour cream, mayo and cilantro and blend to chop the cilantro and mix ingredients. If dressing is very thick, add a tablespoon or so of cold water. Taste and season dressing with salt and pepper. Chill.
2. Prepare greens and tomatoes and arrange on 2 salad plates. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.
3. For scallops and assembly: Remove any tough muscle from the side of the scallops. Season scallops on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a small skillet on high until oil shimmers. Add scallops and press lightly to establish good contact with the pan. Sear on first side until scallops are browned deeply and look cooked about 1/3 up from the bottom, about 11/2 minutes. Turn scallops over, turn off heat and allow scallops to stand 2 minutes while you remove the salads from the fridge and whisk the dressing.
Place 2 scallops on the side of each salad and drizzle with the dressing. Serve immediately.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 390 calories, 40 grams fat, 8 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 266 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 86 percent of calories from fat.
Shiitake-crusted filet mignon with mushroom jus
Mushroom rub can be made several days in advance and stored in an airtight container. One day in advance, steaks can be seared in a hot skillet for 7 minutes on one side, covered well and stored in the fridge. At serving time, put them on a baking sheet in a 425-degree oven for 4 to 5 minutes, seared side up.
8 dried shiitake mushrooms (available in Asian food aisle)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder
Large pinch of granulated garlic
2 (6- to 8-ounce) well-trimmed beef tenderloin steaks
3 teaspoons grape-seed or canola oil, divided use
3 tablespoons butter, divided use
6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced (see note)
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef or veal demiglace (available as a concentrate in small cups in soup aisle)
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Once oven is heated, place dried shiitake mushrooms on a cookie sheet and place them in the oven to dry more for about 1 hour. Remove and cool.
2. Break crisped mushrooms into chunks. In a spice grinder or blender, grind the dried shiitakes to a powder. Combine mushroom powder with salt, pepper, dry mustard and garlic in a small bowl.
3. To prepare the steaks, rub each with 1/2 teaspoon oil. Coat them heavily on both sides with the dried mushroom mixture and set them aside. Reserve any leftover mushroom powder.
4. Preheat oven to 250 degrees again and place 3 dinner plates in to warm. Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil in a medium heavy skillet over high heat. When oil shimmers, add the steaks and press down so they are in good contact with the pan. Leave them alone for 3 minutes.
5. Using tongs or a spatula, turn steaks, pressing gently again, and cook 2 minutes more for 6-ounce steaks and 3 minutes for 8-ounce steaks. They will be medium-rare/medium when served. Remove pan from heat and place steaks in the oven on one of the plates, tented loosely with foil, to keep warm.
6. In the pan the steaks were cooked in (do not wash it yet!), heat 2 tablespoons butter until melted, add the sliced fresh shiitakes and sauté on medium-high until mushrooms are beginning to brown.
7. Add red wine and reduce to 1/4 cup. Add demiglace, reserved mushroom powder mixture and tarragon and reduce total liquid to 1/2 cup. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter.
To serve: Place steaks on warmed plates, top with some of the sauce and serve with your choice of sides.
Note: Dried shiitakes that have been soaked in boiling water until water is cool (about 30 minutes) may be substituted for fresh. Boil the soaking water down and add it to the sauce for extra flavor.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 303 calories, 12 grams fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 38 grams protein, 89 milligrams cholesterol, 1,149 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 35 percent of calories from fat.
Serves 4 Do ahead: Make up to 3 days in advance, but save the parsley and black pepper to add when reheating, at serving time.
2 cups lentilles du Puy (small French green lentils), picked over (see note)
1 quart cold water
1/2 cup very finely diced carrot
1/2 cup very finely diced onion
1/2 cup very finely diced celery
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 whole branches fresh thyme (5 or 6 sprigs each)
2 fresh bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 quart strong chicken stock
1/2 cup finely chopped, peeled, seeded tomato (fresh or drained canned)
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring lentils and water to a boil in a saucepan. Cook 1 minute. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Set aside.
2. Heat a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté carrot, onion and celery in the olive oil until beginning to brown, stirring often. Add thyme, bay leaves, basil and rosemary, lentils, salt, vinegar and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until most of stock is absorbed and lentils are al dente (not quite tender), about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Watch carefully toward the end of cooking time to ensure that lentils do not boil dry and burn. Remove bay leaves and thyme stems.
3. Add tomatoes and parsley, stir, and continue to cook another 5 minutes to blend flavors. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve warm as a side dish or chill and store, adding a small amount of stock or water to a saucepan with the lentils to reheat, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes, or heat in microwave until heated through. Can be made up to three days ahead and reheated.
Note: These lentils are small and greenish-black, unlike larger brown or red lentils.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 460 calories, 11 grams fat, 61 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams protein, no cholesterol, 2,446 milligrams sodium, 31 grams dietary fiber, 22 percent of calories from fat.
Whipped butternut squash
Can be made a day in advance and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.
1 (2-21/2-pound) butternut squash (see note)
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large pinch of ground cinnamon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1. Wash and peel the squash by cutting it into 11/2-inch-thick slices, placing them on a flat side and cutting around the outside in 1- to 11/2-inch sections to remove the tough peel. To peel the bulbous end, cut the bottom off flat, down to the meat. Peel around the outside as you did the neck slices, following the curve of the bulb and turning it over as needed. Cut in half and scoop out the seeds and strings. Cut all peeled squash into 11/2-inch chunks.
2. Place a collapsible steamer in a Dutch oven with water underneath or use a pasta cooking pot with a perforated insert. Put the squash chunks on the steamer, cover the pot and bring it to a full boil. Reduce the heat to medium and steam the squash until it is very tender and can easily be pierced, about 25 minutes. Be sure to keep an eye on the water under the steamer so the pot does not boil dry. Add more hot water as needed.
3. When squash is cooked, dump it in a casserole dish and toss in the butter and sugar. Mash it well with a potato masher or a short, heavy-duty wire whisk, until no lumps remain. You can also use a mixer with the wire whip attachment or a food processor, which will yield the smoothest, silkiest purée. Add the cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of salt and beat well. Taste and add additional salt if needed. Dot with additional butter if desired; cover and keep warm until ready to serve.
Note: When buying squash, look for blemish-free squash with long necks and short bulbs because they are easier to peel. You can substitute an equal weight of blue Hubbard, delicata or turban squash.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 423 calories, 23 grams fat, 57 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 782 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber, 46 percent of calories from fat.
Warm chocolate cakes with molten caramel centers
Batter can be made and ramekins prepared and filled up to an hour ahead. Hold at room temperature on baking sheet, then bake just before serving.
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
6 ounces good-quality bittersweet dark chocolate (such as Callebaut or Green & Black), chopped
3 large eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
4 heaping tablespoons good-quality chilled prepared caramel sauce, such as Robert Rothschild Farm brand
1/2 teaspoon good quality sea salt, such as Maldon Sea
Powdered sugar for dusting
Brown sugar whipped cream (recipe follows)
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Set rack in the center of oven. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Whisk cocoa powder with the 1 tablespoon of flour. Brush the interiors of 4 (6-ounce) ramekins heavily with melted butter and dust with the cocoa mixture, tapping out excess. Place ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.
2. Melt the remaining butter with chocolate over very low heat, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool slightly.
3. In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat eggs with the granulated sugar and a pinch of salt until pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Fold the cooled chocolate into the eggs with a rubber spatula, then fold in the 1/4 cup flour until no streaks remain.
4. Spoon 2/3 of the batter into the prepared ramekins. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon of chilled caramel into the center of each ramekin and top with remaining batter.
5. Bake in the preheated oven for 16 minutes, until the tops are cracked but the centers are still slightly jiggly. Transfer ramekins to a rack and cool 5-8 minutes.
6. Run a thin knife around the inside of each ramekin. Top with a plate and invert. Lift off ramekin carefully. Dust with sifted powdered sugar. Top with a dollop of brown sugar whipped cream and serve warm.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 661 calories, 51 grams fat, 58 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 221 milligrams cholesterol, 633 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber, 62 percent of calories from fat.
Brown sugar whipped cream
This keeps for an hour in the refrigerator, covered. Just whisk it again at serving time.
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 ounces heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Mix sugar and whipping cream together thoroughly in the bowl of an electric mixer and add the vanilla extract. Whip cream on high speed until it forms soft peaks. Serve spooned over dessert.
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 2: 250 calories, 21 grams fat, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 78 milligrams cholesterol, 27 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber, 74 percent of calories from fat.