Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Quickie - Warm and Fuzzy Weeknight Menu

Dobby, "THE" Cat
Valentines Day, oh how you change from year to year. As a single, V Day was a dreaded event, a day I was certain that Hallmark created to terrorize and depress me. For every bouquet of flowers delivered to the office, I'd sigh a long hushed groan. It was back then I decided that Valentines day need not be a holiday exclusively for romantic love. Instead, it could be a day to celebrate love of all kinds. Over the years, I've made Valentines meals for my mom and marked the day by going out to dinner with my girlfriends (Anti Valentines Day, anyone?).  One year I enjoyed spending a great deal of time making little edible gifts for each one of my coworkers, and another year I spent a very nice evening with some tasty takeout and my cat. He's cute, right? 

Even now, I still never forget those single days, and I stand firm in the belief that Valentines Day should be a time to express any kind of love that fits best in your life - be it familial love, romantic love, friend love or even just doing something nice for your very own self. 

It's no secret that I think cooking a meal is great way to express affection, so this year, with Valentines day being on a Tuesday, I thought it might be nice to try to create a relatively quick yet still special multi-course meal for the Mister. With the suggested make ahead components and prep the night before, this meal will take an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes to prepare - not bad for an impressive 3 course spread. It is in this expeditious spirit that I give you: Valentines Quickie.  

Warm and Fuzzy Weeknight Menu:

~Kumato Tomato and Goat Ricotta Napoleon with Basil Oil and Balsamic Reduction
~Rack of Lamb with Quick Minted Rice and Cherry Pan Sauce
~Vegetable Side - Lemony Red Swiss Chard 
~"Fast Love" Fondue with Fruit Kebabs 

To Make Ahead:

Basil Oil 
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Yield: About 3/4 cup

*We'll only need a little bit of basil oil for our Napoleons so if you don't want extra, cut this recipe in thirds

1 1/2 cups fresh Basil leaves
Basil Oil Ready for Action, Photo: NK
3/4 cup Olive Oil

Blanch basil in boiling water for about 10 seconds.
Drain and rinse under cold water.
Pat dry and add basil to blender or mini food chopper.
Add the oil and puree until mixture is smooth.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Storage - This can be stored in the fridge up to three days. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before using.

Balsamic Reduction
Balsamic Reduction, NK 
Yield: about 4 Tablespoons
One cup good quality Balsamic Vinegar 

Bring Vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring often, until the liquid is reduced and somewhat syrupy. This should take about 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it. I once ended up with completely solidified vinegar! 

Storage – the reduction can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for a few weeks. It should be brought to room temperature before using.

To Prep Ahead: 
Fast yet special weeknight meals get that way with a little bit of prep work in advance. The night before, Marinate your lamb in oil (see step one of recipe), and wash all fruits and vegetables so they are ready to go the day of. You'll have also made your balsamic reduction and basil oil up to 3 days before. If you did, well done! 

To Cook the Day Of:

First Course
Kumato Tomatoes, Photo: NK 

For our fast and easy first course, I decided on a tomato stack layered with delicious fresh goat ricotta I bought from Coach Farm. For our tomato component, I tried out a special tomato variety called the Kumato. Kumatos range in color from brown to brownish green. They are on the smaller side, and perfectly round. They are purported to be sweeter and more complex in taste. I snuck a piece while preparing my napoleon and definitely tasted a difference. Nothing will ever beat a Jersey Beefsteak in the summer, but during the cold months when tomatoes can be unreliable, the Kumato is a great go to. They are also kind of cool and heirloom-y looking. I know what you're thinking - these aren't some weird freak of science, nor are the genetically modified. For more info on this funky brown tomato, check out their slick PR on www.kumato.com !

Kumato Tomato Napoleon With Goat Ricotta, Balsamic Reduction and Basil Oil
Serves 2 

4 to 5 Kumato Tomatoes sliced into quarter-inch thin rounds
3/4 Cup Coach Farm Goat Ricotta or Regular Whole or Part-Skim Ricotta, room temperature
2 Tablespoons Milk
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Basil Oil*
Balsamic Reduction*
Basil leaves for garnish

Goat Ricotta can be dry, so add milk to it a dash at a time in a small bowl. Give it a mix until it reaches your desired consistency. Somewhere between runny and dry will be ideal. Skip this step if using regular ricotta. Mix in salt and pepper to taste, feeling free to add any extra spices you may fancy. Place one tomato round in the middle of each serving dish. Top with a smear of Ricotta, a dash of basil oil and a drop of balsamic reduction. Repeat this process until you've built a stack about 2 inches high. Finish the top off with a dollop of ricotta, a few sprigs of basil, and a drizzle of balsamic and basil oil. Add a little more salt and fresh cracked pepper and enjoy!
Ohh Napoleon, Photo: NK

Second Course
In our house, Lamb is a special occasion food, and there's nothing like a beautiful frenched rack of lamb. We like ours nicely medium rare. Lamb is one of the most forgiving meats to cook because it always seems to come out delicious, even if slightly overcooked. I opted for a simple preparation for our lamb rack because I would be glazing it with a yummy cherry pan sauce with lots of flavor. 

Rack of Lamb with Quick Minted Rice and Cherry Pan Sauce
Serves 2

For the Lamb 
1 rack (about 7-8 ribs) of Lamb, Frenched, and fat side lightly scored with a knife
1/4 cup olive oil + 1 Tablespoon
1 Tablespoon Finely chopped fresh Rosemary
Salt and Pepper to taste
4 cloves whole garlic, crushed

For the Quick Minted Rice
Uncle Ben's White Ready Rice - Microwaveable 2 Serving Pouch
1/4 cup finely chopped mint
1 Tablespoon Salted Butter
Salt and Pepper to taste

For the Cherry Pan Sauce
2 Teaspoons Cherry Preserve
1/3 Cup Medium Bodied Red Wine

1 Tablespoon Salted Butter
Salt and Pepper to Taste

The night before: combine the olive oil, crushed garlic, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste in a gallon Ziploc bag. Place whole rack in the bag, and squish around until oil and ingredients have covered the lamb. Refrigerate over night. 

Remove Lamb an hour before and let sit at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  
Take Lamb out of bag, scrape off herbs, and pat dry with paper towel. 
Heat a large oven safe skillet on the stove top with a tablespoon of olive oil.
Place whole rack in the pan and brown on both top and bottom, about 2-3 minutes per side.

Golden Brown and Ready to Bake, Photo:NK

Move skillet to oven and cook about 20 - 25 minutes for medium rare. We cooked it for 23 minutes and it was perfectly medium rare after resting. A thermometer should  register about 130 degrees. Remove Lamb to platter and cover tightly on all sides with foil. Let rest for 10 or 15 minutes before carving chops by cutting between the bone and serving. If you hit bone while cutting, wiggle your knife a bit.

Once Lamb is in the oven, prepare your rice ingredients by chopping the mint and taking the butter out of the fridge. You can heat up your rice as directed just a few minutes before you are ready to serve the whole meal, or even after the whole rest of the meal has been plated. The prep of this dish literally takes two minutes when you use the Uncle Ben's Ready Rice, which, by the way, has become my new best friend in the kitchen. Heat rice as directed for 90 seconds in the microwave. Pour rice carefully into a medium prep bowl and mix in butter, mint, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. 

Pan Sauce:
Once Lamb is removed from skillet and resting on your platter, drain off nearly all the oil and drippings from the skillet, leaving only about a tablespoon. Carefully add the wine (it can flame up) and allow liquid to come to a gentle bubble as you use a wooden spatula to scrape off the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Allow liquid to reduce a bit and lower the heat to a simmer. Add the cherry preserve, and mix in until incorporated. Any remaining cherry chunks are just fine. You can choose to strain them out later or leave them in the sauce. Continue to heat pan sauce for a few more minutes until it thickens just a bit. Add a good pinch of salt and a tiny pinch of pepper. Stir.Turn off the flame and let sit a minute or two. Add a tablespoon of butter and stir until melted. Pour your sauce on top of the lamb before serving and serve extra in a pouring vessel for those who want extra pan sauce. 

Rack of Lamb With Cherry Pan Sauce, Minted Rice and Red Chard, Photo: NK

Veggie Side
Swiss Chard is a favorite in our house. I chose the red variety for Valentine's Day because the stalks are so vibrant and pretty - they look just like rhubarb. My girl Martha (Stewart, that is- in my dreams we're on a first name basis) recommends chopping the stalks and cooking them first because they are tougher than the leaves. Who am I to argue? Prepare your veggie course right after you set your lamb out to rest - you'll be working the pan sauce at the same time, so keep your wits about you and don't drink too much pre-dinner wine. The chard takes about 10 minutes to cook. You can DO it! 

Red Chard in the Pot, Photo: NK

Lemony Red Swiss Chard
Adapted From Martha Stewart
Serves 2

1 bunch Red Swiss Chard, stalks removed and chopped into one inch pieces, leaves torn into 2 inch pieces. 
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper 
2-3 Tablespoons Fresh Lemon Juice

In a large skillet, heat oil over a medium flame. 
Add the stalks, tossing, for 4 minutes until crisp yet still tender. 
Add the chard leaves. If they do not all fit in the pot, wait for them to wilt a bit so more room is made. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring once in a while, for an additional 4 to 6 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and discard any liquid. Stir in Lemon Juice and season with salt and pepper. Set on the plate to serve immediately. 

Dessert Course
Ok, by now you're like: Sam, whaddya mean this is a quick-ish weeknight meal? Now I have to make dessert too? Here's where you enlist some help. Whoever you are cooking for, be it a friend, your honey, the 'rents, or your cat, have them join you in the kitchen. If your guest has opposable thumbs, they should be helping you assemble your fondue fruit kebabs. 2 kebabs per person should do it. When your colorful skewers are good to go, zap your chocolate sauce and get dippin'! 

Fast Love Fondue with Fruit Kebabs
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Makes about 2 Cups

8 ounces good quality Bittersweet Chocolate - Scharffen Berger or Callebaut recommended 
1 cup Heavy Cream
Mmmm Chocolate, NK

Combine chocolate and cream in a heat safe bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir periodically until chocolate is fully melted and the mixture is smooth. 

*Microwave variation: 
Combine ingredients in a microwave safe bowl and heat in 30 second intervals, stirring, until mixture is smooth. 

Pour chocolate into individual or communal bowl and serve immediately alongside Skewers of Assorted Fruit. We used: Strawberries, Pineapple, and Raspberries. Marshmallows make a fun addition too! 

Fondue and Fruit Kebabs, Photo: NK

Enjoy with love from Neurotic Kitchen!

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