My Valentine’s Day Dinner Menu

To celebrate the great affection we have for our friends, we invited one of our favorite families of four to dine with ours of three for the Valentine’s Day holiday.  Without explaining again completely (you can go back and read my three other posts on celebrating Valentines day if you are interested, and I would love it if you did!) the generality of it all is that as a child, my family started a tradition of a fancy dinner, celebrated together, at home.  I particularly like the non-romance aspect of this type of party, because I love the use of this holiday as a time to tell your friends and family that you are glad that they are in your life– an opportunity to tell them, quite simply, that you love them.  Its really easy to get caught up in Hollywood’s portrayal of romance, and its even easier to feel disappointment in your own life when the unrealistic expectations they fictionalize creep in to your subconscious idea of what the day is supposed to be.  If you drop the romance, and flip it to be about celebrating affection, your disappointment in this holiday will disappear, I assure you. Anyway, I had been planning for several weeks a V-day dinner party with a few of our closest friends.  Part of this is just an excuse to plan a party; part of it is the desire to eat fancy veggies like artichoke hearts and asparagus; and part of it is merely a reason to invite over friends and hang out with them.  I decided that the kids would have a meal that they were excited about eating, while we adults would have one we enjoy, albeit at the other end of the fanciness pendulum swing.  Two menus that could be prepped in tandem were created, along with an elaborate grocery list organized by the sections in my favorite Food City store.  I bought a heaping cart full of goodies, all of them for the preparation of one night’s meal…. The children had a menu of nothing I would deem exceptional– personal-sized pepperoni pizzas with extra cheese, and crudite with ranch dip.  I did make the pizzas more special by stacking about 10 or 12 pepperonis and reaming them through with a canape cutter in the shape of a heart, and I did the same with the cucumber slices in their crudite.  For their beverages, I offered the fancy juice cubes in chilled ginger ale and a drink I referred to as “fool-aid.”  In the end, they all three had a few bites of pizza before becoming too distracted by cupid’s arrow or some such something, and ultimately filled up on sausage balls and sweets.  Hey, it’s a party. Interestingly, the fool-aid even tricked my husband, so its worth a little mention here.  This is the blog post that inspired me making it–  www.lexieskitchen.com/lexies_kitchen/2012/8/9/make-cool-aid-not-kool-aid.html  She’s calling it ‘cool-aid,’ but she used agave, which I’ve read some stuff about and I’m staying away from it.  I love using honey as a sweetener, which she also suggests, but I have real difficulty getting it to dissolve into other liquids, and I really didn’t want to deal with it in a cold beverage.  Frankly, I’m sort of okay with the *s-word,* I certainly prefer it to high fructose corn sick and any artificial sweetener.  And I am prone to making a drink for gatherings like this, instead of merely buying a selection of sodas, because if I make lemonade or sweet tea, I’m ultimately in control of how much s-word they’re getting.  I really, really, like the main idea behind her post though, because it uses real fruit teas– Celestial Seasonings has pretty high standards, touting 100% natural ingredients.  I chose their mixed berry and used two bags in my hot water, seeping for several hours to get the deepest pink-red those bags were going to give me.  And Miss Lexie’s other moment of inspiration on her blog is to use a couple of tablespoons of cider apple vinegar to emulate the citric acid tang of those packet drinks.  (A stroke of brilliance, Miss Lexie, a stroke of brilliance that one is.)  I had the cider apple vinegar already out for my dressing recipe (below), or I would have likely forgotten about it, but I used my old bartending skills and eyeballed a shot into the chilling pitcher of tea.  I also added pure cane sugar as my sweetener ((gasp!)), but I used only a half a cup for the whole pitcher’s worth, and that’s half the sugar of if I had made the regular fakey stuff.  Not bad at all!  I tasted it, and it was sweet and light and lovely, and the kids all dug it.  My husband had three glasses, and liked it so much he later bothered ask me, “What’s that flavor of Kool-Aid?”  Too funny, so I will definitely be trying a peach version with the zinger I got in my fruit tea variety pack.

Champagne with Cherry Pom Cube

Champagne with Cherry Pom Cube

The adults had several aperitif options including beer, cider, and mixed drinks, but we all opted for the champagne cocktail.  I had earlier purchased some Cherry Pom juice and frozen it into cubes.  I simply dropped a cube into each dish of chilled champagne.  That stuff is so tart and strong that it seems perfectly condensed for this purpose.  (I always wonder who the person is that drinks that stuff straight?!)  I thought this was a delish touch to something I already find decadent, and the slow, swirly, pink color created as its melts is so pretty and holiday-appropriate.  Can you see the etched rose in my elegant fifties champagne glass?  Love them, I’ve had them about a decade, I’m just happy we got to use and enjoy them as we did! I made two appetizers, one for me, and one to please Pan.  The app for me was spinach artichoke dip served with tortilla chips.  I love, love, love artichokes, they are probably my second favorite food in the world, after chocolate.  I briefly considered making a piccata, but ultimately I didn’t want pasta as my main course.  But I had to have artichokes *somewhere!*  My original intention was to stuff the dip into mushrooms and serve them more like canapes, but at some point I realized that between the faux-paté for my Wellingtons (the entreé) and the stuffed canape ones, I would need to buy something like twelve dollars worth of mushrooms.  Oy.  And I wasn’t even positive my guests liked mushrooms, my husband doesn’t adore any of those veggies but spinach, so…  So I bought tortilla chips.  Later when I was running short on time, I was extremely happy that I had bought the torts, it saved me so much time.  I piled my dip into a casserole dish and baked the ooze out of it.  Before serving, I did garnish the melty, cheesy, top with two red pepper slivers positioned into a heart, to make it more festive.  One thing I learned *years ago* about parties and tortilla chips, if you’re going to get them, buy the bite-sized ones.  They fit more easily into a serving bowl due to their small, uniform size, and totally alleviate all possibility of double dipping, making them a party favorite of mine.  I am also in the habit of reserving half of whatever coveted dip I’ve made in a back corner of the fridge, and this time was no exception.  I do that so that when– let’s just say for instance– ahem, if I were writing a blog post at midnight, and watching a cooking show and I had the munchies, I could, potentially, polish off the remainder of a bag of chips with the benefit of a small serving of veggies suspended in mucho creaminess.  Yay!  Potentially. The second appetizer was the only request my husband made for Valentine’s day.  I asked him to think back to the parties of his past and remember his most delicious bites.  The foods that he associated with parties.   The answer he returned with was “Sausage balls.”  I, too, grew up having sausage balls at parties, so I knew exactly what he meant, he didn’t need to explain them or why.  Are these a Southern thing?  An eighties thing?  I’m not sure.  I don’t think the other Amber has the childhood associations that we kids raised in the South do.  It seems like they could certainly be regional, and there are lots of recipe variations here on the web.  At their core, all the recipes have the same three ingredients: raw sausage, biscuit mix, and cheddar cheese.  It’s kind of a how-could-I-go-wrong?-situation.  They were extreeeemely well-received at this event–  We didn’t have a single one left over,  in fact, I had requests for more even after they were gone!  I served them with heart-shaped cupcake picks speared through them, to dress them up a wee bit.  The other thing that was great about these– I made them the night before and merely popped them into the oven a few minutes before our guests were due to arrive.

The Applewood BLT Salad

The Applewood BLT Salad

For the salad course, all I really wanted was fairly simple to assemble on-the-spot, and something that was light and almost refreshing on the palette.  The apps were rich, cheesey, creamy, so this course really did need to be fairly clean.  I purchased some very nice, expensive, applewood-smoked bacon and shaped it into rough heart shapes before baking it.  (If you are someone who makes bacon and you don’t bake it, you should really consider it, its so easy I have never looked back.  And anyway, the name ‘bacon’ alone implies that you should.)  I did some romaine hearts and grape tomatoes to fulfill the “LT” part, and added cuke because I feel its the epitome of crisp,  light, and fresh, and frankly, because I could use my little cutter and turn them into hearts.  I made my dressing in the morning, baked my bacon in the afternoon before the party, and I rinsed my tommies and prepped my cuke while it was in the oven.  Right before serving I tossed all of the lettuce for all salads in the dressing, portioned it out, topped them with my extras, and served.  I had planned for easy, and I got it right with this one!  I was using the idea of the applewood for the bacon, and that got me thinking of apple vinaigrette.  My dressing was so good, I’m going to make it again and again, so I’ll give the recipe here. APPLE SHALLOT VINAIGRETTE

  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 1/2 cup veggie oil (I don’t like the way olive oil gets clumpy when you chill it)
  • 1 TBSP dijon mustard
  • 1 TBSP honey*
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 medium shallot, minced as finely as you can
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp ground black pepper

(Five minutes prep time– this makes quite a bit of dressing.) Combine all ingredients in a large jar or cruet with a tight-fitting lid and shake until honey is combined.  (You may need to break down and get a long spoon, it was not dissolving stuck to the bottom of my jar!)  Chill for at least a half an hour, even longer for a greater meld of flavors.  Vinaigrettes can usually last for a while in the fridge.

*Edit– after almost a year of making this dressing, I still love it, and I make it as directed every time.  The only change that I make on occasion is using a TBSP of marmalade or jam instead of the honey, and idea I got from friend Amber.  It’s so very yum.  I especially like raspberry preserves and pepper jelly in this application!

Mini Wellingtons

Mini Wellingtons

For the entree course, I really stepped out of my comfort zone.  I have heard many times in the past that one should not try cooking new dishes for the first time with company on the way, but I ignored sensible advice and forged ahead.  I’m glad I did.  This is the type of expensive and time-consuming dish that one should *only* attempt with company on the way!  I was certain to invite reeeeally great guests, so that if my attempts at culinary greatness should fail miserably, at least they would still be my friends and continue tasting my later creations.  They’re sweet and supportive like that! The dinner for my Valentine’s celebration was a play on Beef Wellington, but sort of miniaturized and simplified.  Traditionally Wellington is a dish of a whole beef tenderloin, topped with pate (usually duck), wrapped in a crepe and then pastry and baked.  (This description always gets my husband talking about SNL’s hilarious skit “Taco Town!”  It’s hard to find, but definitely worth a watch.)  The version I made was from this recipe, and delicious!   www.finecooking.com/recipes/individual_beef_croustades.aspx  Not super easy, but certainly not impossible, especially if you are someone with some level of cooking skill.  This recipe is a filet topped with a sauteed mushroom, garlic, and shallot mixture (to sort of emulate the richness of the pate), boursin cheese, and wrapped in phyllo dough, then baked.  For our dinner, I could not find filet mignons that were not pre-marinated and wrapped in bacon, so I chose some sirloins that had been ‘fileted.’  If you do this route, go ahead and sear them with their twiney wraps, but don’t forget to snip them off before you wrap up your pastry pockets!  Almost had a bad moment, but I remembered just in time.  The sirloin was delish and I don’t think my substitution affected the dish.  We were still able to cut them with just a regular table knife.  I also didn’t use nearly as much boursin as was suggested in the recipe, only about half, and I don’t think it needed any more than I put in there, either.  But overall, the presentation on this dish was gorgeous, and it tasted as good as it looked!  I will not be afraid to use phyllo in the future! For our sides we had Yukon Gold horseradish mashed potatoes (I made the night before for ease during the party), roasted asparagus with garlic, and sweet-tangy baby carrots.  The carrots are a Martha recipe, and were really great– www.marthastewart.com/337371/honey-glazed-carrots?czone=food/dinner-tonight-center/dinner-tonight-side-dishes&center=276948&gallery=274928&slide=282169.  I didn’t use anywhere NEAR the amount of honey she called for (Crazy!  They were great with less than half that!) and used apple cider vin instead of the red wine vinegar she asks for, just because I already had the cider vinegar out from making the fool-aid and the salad dressing.

Simple Dessert

Simple Dessert

As for the dessert for our evening, I decided to really go the easy route.  I wanted something that would stand up to the elegance of the other courses, but I also needed something that wouldn’t mean my oven needed to be on for four hours straight.  In the end, after agonizing over it for two weeks, I made a snap decision and  bought blood orange sorbet– the pretty pink layer– and a dark chocolate gelato, and served them in my fancy ice cream cups with pirouline cookies and hot coffee.  That combo of dark chocolate and orange is one of my favorites ever, and the luxe textures of both of the ice creams were the perfect cool ending to our meal.  I don’t regret this choice one bit! At the end of the evening, we had some spent but giggly children and some lightly buzzed adults.  My husband fell asleep in the boy’s bunk while reading his bedtime story!  It was delightful fun, and I am so happy our friends came out and joined us for it.  I was so pleased to remember that I now have a dishwasher that I can load up, making parties like these much easier and enjoyable to execute.  I am thrilled that we got to recreate my childhood form of celebration, and I hope beyond hope that we do this again next year, always and into the future!


 


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