Delicious dinner for your valentine

February 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Make a romantic dinner at home, and leave busy restaurants behind this Valentine's Day. Corresponding Chef Bruce Aidells has some great ideas.

Where's Bruce?
Bruce Aidells and his wife, Nancy Oakes, are doing a cooking demo at the Artisan Cheese Festival on Sunday March 9 for more info about tickets.

Capellini with Smoked Salmon, Sevruga Caviar, and Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette
Serves 4

We think this is the ultimate cold pasta dish. The richness of the smoked salmon, the saltiness of the caviar, and the tangy acidity of the vinaigrette create a different flavor balance with every bite. We like to use Sevruga caviar, but if that's not in your budget, buy the best you can. Don't make this dish ahead of time. The pasta needs to be cooked and cooled just before tossing with the other ingredients. If it sits, the flavors will become muddy as the acid in the vinaigrette breaks down the caviar and the pasta. Tobiko, or flying fish roe, has a mild flavor and a delicately crunchy texture.

Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette
1 teaspoon minced capers
Pinch of grated garlic
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper

4 ounces dried capellini pasta
4 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon, cut into 3 by 1/2-inch strips
1/4 cup tomato concassée
1 teaspoon chopped shallot
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon tobiko caviar

2 Japanese cucumbers, or 1 hothouse cucumber, cut into very thin circles on a mandoline or with a very sharp knife
4 teaspoons Sevruga caviar
12 fresh chervil sprigs

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together all the ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

To cook the capellini, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the capellini and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked a little more than al dente. Drain the pasta and immerse it in ice water to chill. Drain again and gently press to squeeze out any excess water. In a medium bowl, combine the capellini, smoked salmon, tomato concassée, shallot, chives, tobiko caviar, and vinaigrette. Mix well with your fingers to keep from breaking the pasta.

To serve, place a 3-inch metal ring or a 3-inch-diameter glass or bowl as a guide in the center of a chilled large plate. Overlap the cucumber slices in a circular pattern around the ring; remove the ring or bowl and repeat with the remaining plates. Place an equal amount of the capellini mixture in the center of each plate. Spoon 1 teaspoon of the sevruga caviar on top of each mound, then top with 3 chervil sprigs.

Grilled Dry-Aged New York Steak with Potatoes Aligot and Cabernet Sauvignon Sauce
Serves 4

Aligot (a young Cantal cheese) is reputed to be the oldest cheese in France, first made by monks in Auvergne. This traditional French dish is about as simple as stirring the cheese into warm mashed potatoes until they become stringy and wonderfully rich. These potatoes are divine with steak, roast chicken, and pork. Actually they're divine all by themselves, too.

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 (12 ounces each) dry-aged New York strip steaks

Cabernet Sauvignon Sauce
3 cups Cabernet Sauvignon
11/2 cups veal stock or brown chicken stock
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pinch of sugar (optional)

Potatoes Aligot
3 cups mashed potatoes
2/3 to 1 cup shredded Aligot or Cantal cheese, or 1/2 cup fontina cheese and 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
Heavy cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
2 cups haricots verts or baby Blue Lake green beans, blanched

To marinate the steaks, mix together the herbes de Provence, olive oil, and garlic in a small bowl. Coat both sides of the steaks with the marinade, place in a nonreactive baking dish, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.

To make the sauce, cook the wine in a medium nonreactive saucepan over high heat until reduced to 1/2 cup. Add the veal stock, bring to a boil, and cook to reduce to about 1 cup. Set aside and keep warm. Just before serving, whisk in the butter and season with salt and pepper. Taste the sauce; if it is too acidic, add a pinch of sugar. Taste and adjust the seasoning again if necessary. (The sauce should not be sweet, but the sugar will cut the acid in the wine if it is too high.) Meanwhile, prepare a fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill.

To make the potatoes Aligot, heat the mashed potatoes in a saucepan over medium-high heat, add the Aligot and the garlic, and stir continuously until it starts to bubble. The potatoes should be a smooth puree and the cheese should make them stringy; if not, add a little more Aligot. If it is too thick, adjust with a little cream. Transfer to a double boiler to keep hot.

To cook the steaks, season them with salt and pepper. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium rare, then let rest in a warm place for 3 to 4 minutes. Or, heat a large sauté pan, skillet, or grill pan over high heat until very hot and cook the steaks for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat, add the shallots, and sauté until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the haricots verts and sauté for about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper.

To serve, finish the sauce by adding butter and adjusting the seasoning. Divide the potatoes among 4 warmed plates, then place a steak on each serving of potatoes. Top with the haricots verts and spoon 1/4 cup sauce around each steak.

Chocolate Bread Pudding with Sun-Dried Cherries and Crème Fraîche
Makes 6 individual puddings or 1 large pudding

This dish shows up on our menu almost every winter, and we think it's the perfect way to end a meal on a cold night. When the first order of the evening is brought to the table, the aroma of warm chocolate fills the dining room, and everyone starts looking around to see where it's coming from. Within a few minutes, we usually sell several more orders. We serve the pudding in individual soufflé dishes, but you can also make it in a large dish and serve it family-style, passing the crème fraiche in a bowl on the side.

1/2 cup sun-dried cherries
1/3 cup Cognac
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups 1/2-inch-cubed sourdough bâtard without crusts, dried overnight

1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar, sifted
6 fresh mint sprigs

Combine the cherries and Cognac and soak for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler over barely simmering water (don't let the water touch the bottom of the bowl or the chocolate will get too hot). Remove from the heat and let the chocolate stand over the warm water until ready to use.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, sour cream, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla extract. Quickly whisk in the melted chocolate. If the chocolate does not completely melt, place the bowl back over the hot water and whisk gently until the chocolate is completely incorporated. Fold in the bread cubes, cherries, and Cognac. Let sit in a warm place until the bread absorbs the custard, 1 to 2 hours. To test, break a bread cube in half; there should be no white showing. Spoon the mixture into six 10-ounce soufflé dishes or one 8-cup dish. Clean the edges well with a damp towel to remove any chocolate drips.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the dish(es) in a roasting pan. Slide the middle rack partially out of the oven, and place the pan on the rack. Pour boiling water into the pan to a depth of about 1 inch, making sure none of the water comes over the sides and into the dishes. Very carefully slide the rack back into the oven. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the puddings are puffed and set to the touch. Remove the dishes from the water and let cool slightly if serving immediately; let cool completely to serve later.

To serve, if necessary, cover each cooled pudding with a square of aluminum foil and reheat in a preheated 350º oven for 6 to 8 minutes. To test, stick a small knife into the center of a pudding for 30 seconds, then remove it and feel the blade; if it's not warm, keep the puddings in the oven a little longer. Whisk the confectioners' sugar into the crème fraîche or sour cream. Put a large dollop on top of each of the puddings and garnish with a sprig of mint.

To Melt Chocolate:
Cut or break the chocolate into small pieces. Set a heatproof bowl over a pot of barely simmering water, and place chocolate in the bowl. Don't let the water touch the bottom of the bowl, or the chocolate will get too hot, and don't let the water boil, because steam or water might get into it, giving it a gritty texture. If this happens, there is no way to fix the chocolate; for some baked dishes, you can still use it, but for ice cream or truffles, you'll need to start again with fresh chocolate.

Reprinted from Terra: Cooking From the Heart of Napa Valley by Hiro Some and Lissa Doumani. Copyright © 2000 Ten Speed Press.