For those of you who eschew the crowds and prefer a night in or simply love to cook, we've put together an Italian Valentine's menu with a high result-to-effort ratio that promises to keep the evening convivial and stress free for romance or camaraderie, whichever it be.
This meal is detailed, but it's not too difficult, and best of all, it can all be made ahead of time so you can enjoy the evening without working too hard in the kitchen. Plus, many of the ingredients (eggs, shanks, honey, mustard greens and various other vegetables) can be found locally.
Peppery mustard greens, bright citrus and anise-flavored fennel are dressed in an herbaceous agrodolce vinaigrette for the perfect winter salad topped with pine nuts and parmesan. Feel free to go ahead and dress this salad in advance because the mustard greens won't wilt. If you can't find blood oranges, regular ones will be great too.
To make the dressing whisk all of the ingredients together except the olive oil. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to emulsify. Season to taste with salt if need be. Can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator, shake before using. To assemble, massage the mustard greens to tenderize then toss with the fennel and dressing to taste. This can be done up to 6 hours in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator. Divide greens and fennel amongst plates. Top salads with pine nuts, orange segments and Parmesan curls.
The sauce can be made a day or two in advance and only gets better with time. On Valentine's Day all you'll have to do is boil some pasta, sauté mushrooms and warm the sauce. It can be ready in less than 20 minutes. Look for beef shank at your local farmer's market. If you can't find it, any braising cut from a roast to short ribs would be great.
FOR MUSHROOMS & PASTA
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Season shanks with salt and pepper and heat 1 Tbsp. oil over med-high heat in an enamel Dutch oven. Brown shanks one at a time if necessary, about 2-3 min. per side. Set aside on a plate. Add the additional olive oil, chopped carrot, leek, shallot and garlic to the pot. Cook over moderate heat until just beginning to soften and brown, about 4 minutes.
Meanwhile tie the thyme, parsley and peppercorns in cheesecloth with kitchen twine to form a bouquet garni. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up the browned bits. Add the broth, water, tomatoes and bouquet garni. Stir to combine and add the shanks. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, cut a circle the size of the pot's lid out of parchment paper.
Once boiling place the parchment lid directly on the surface of the braise, place the top on the pot, and cook 2-2 ½ hours until the meat easily pulls apart with a fork. Turn the shanks over every 40 minutes or so. While it cooks, melt 1 Tbsp. of butter and whisk in 2 Tbsp. of flour, set aside to thicken sauce later.
When meat is tender remove from oven. Remove bouquet and discard. Remove meat and pull apart into bite-sized pieces with two forks, discarding fat. Return meat to the pot. Stir in the roux (the flour and butter mixture) and simmer until thickened to sauce consistency. It can now be cooled and stored in the refrigerator or it can be kept warm and used immediately. To rewarm, place in a medium pot on the stove and heat gently, stirring occasionally.
For pasta, cook according to the package instructions until al dente. Meanwhile melt 1 tbsp. butter in a skillet. Add mushrooms, thyme and season with salt. Cook until soft, browned and they have released their liquid. Either serve pasta topped with sauce and mushrooms or toss it all in the pot with the sauce to coat. Garnish with flat leaf Italian parsley and Parmesan cheese if desired.
So this isn't exactly Italian. But it's a little spicy with a warm, molten and intensely chocolatey center. It is, in short, everything a self-respecting Valentine's Day dessert should be. And it's easy too: melt, whip, fold, bake and voila! They can be made up to two days ahead, chilled and then baked straight out of the fridge. Even better, they can be frozen and baked straight from the freezer!
Equipment: 4 6-oz. ramekins (you can even use coffee mugs so long as they're oven safe!)
If baking right away, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 375 degrees.
Grease ramekins and sprinkle with sugar. Put chocolate, butter and milk in a heatproof bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl and whisk in the egg yolks. (Don't worry if the mixture isn't perfectly smooth at this point.)
In a medium bowl beat egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually sprinkle in a ¼-cup sugar and beat on high until the whites are stiff peaks. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it then gently fold in the remaining egg white until just incorporated. Divide mixture evenly among the prepared ramekins, filling each 3/4 full. The soufflés can be prepared to this point, covered tightly and refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen for up to a few months. Bake directly from the refrigerator or freezer (do not thaw if frozen).
Put soufflés on a baking sheet. Bake until they rise and crack on top and a wooden skewer in the center emerges gooey (but not completely liquid), 14-16 minutes (15-17 from fridge, 17-20 if from freezer). Serve immediately. Top with a bit of powdered sugar, and maybe a dash of cayenne or salt if you like.