Valentine's Day

Cooking with Truffles: Valentine’s Vegetarian Menu

Washington-20120203-00746For any foodie on a mission to maximize his or her eating pleasure, Valentine’s Day presents a special challenge. The perennial question is, How do you hit a new high and top last year’s memory?

Truffles are often overlooked as the star attraction of a home-cooked meal because of their price tag. Back in the day, Brillat-Saverin described them as "the luxury of grands seigneurs and kept women" (also, perhaps, hinting at their aphrodisiac qualities). In all honesty, those qualities have yet to be scientifically confirmed, but I don't think anybody would deny the sensuousness of any truffle-specked dish…

The truth is, like many of you, I had never cooked with fresh truffles before. Truffle salt, yes. Truffle oil, yes. But not with fresh truffles. I decided to explore the possibilities and find a reasonably cost-effective way for me and my husband to indulge. I did a bit of research, and found out that this time of the year, we are primarily talking about winter black truffles of European origin (French or Italian). In the DC area, you can find them at Arrowine in Arlington (perhaps somewhere else as well), and online.

The cheapest source I found is Urbani truffles which also offers a wide variety of other truffle products (truffle paste, truffle oil, truffle butter, etc.) The smallest amount one can purchase is 1oz ($75), which happens to be enough to pull off a truffle dinner. I supplemented fresh truffles with white truffle oil, black truffle salt, and black truffle butter (which I made myself with the leftover truffle shavings). A nice local source of truffle salt is the Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown.

Given the fact that most Valentine's Day restaurant prix-fixe options run $60-90 per person, I felt like putting together the coveted truffle dinner was really no more extravagant than eating out (besides, my husband is vegetarian, which makes the choices rather limited). Another myth I wanted to debunk is that that cooking with truffles has to be complicated and time-consuming (stuffed pigeon breast with chanterelles and truffles, homemade puff pastry with braised sweetbreads and truffles all sound fantastic, but there are other delicious, easy and fast options). You don’t really want to spend the entire Valentine’s night in front of the stove, do you?

Washington-20120203-00760The theme I chose is "casual minimalist with a twist." No 10 or 20-step recipes, very few ingredients per dish, and simple preparation to showcase the truffles and keep the flavors subtle.

My truffles arrived via Fedex about 24 hours after I placed the order online. They arrived in a cooler, in kind of a matryoshka doll setup: the truffles are in a napkin inside a plastic sleeve inside a paper sack inside a styrofoam cooler inside a cardboard box. As for my truffle tools, I did buy a mandoline, but after reading rather graphic reviews I was too terrified to use it without a No-Slice rubber body suit. Luckily, I found a small sharp paring knife (I have small hands!) to be the perfect tool for dealing with the truffles (both for cutting and shaving).

Finally, onto the Menu:

Truffle salad with frisee, haricots verts, tarragon, endives, fennel (seasoned with truffle sea salt, Meyer lemon juice, and white truffle oil). Blanch haricots verts for no more than 2 minutes.

Truffle sandwiches on sourdough (I love using the 69 cent sourdough rolls from WholeFoods) with a nice layer of European-style butter and truffle sea salt. You can stick the bread slices in the toaster oven for 30 seconds, if you like the sensation of eating warm bread.


Fresh WholeFoods-brand asparagus & fontina ravioli served with truffles, truffle butter, and truffle sea salt.

Washington-20120203-00774Seared scallops with truffles and truffle butter on a bed of celeriac & potato puree (made with truffle butter, a touch of cream, and truffle sea salt) -– perfect for a pesceterian or meat eater! I prefer a 50/50 celeriac to potato ratio, in order to keep the mashed vegetable flavors subtle. Make a slit in the middle of the scallop, and insert a truffle slice prior to cooking (1-2 min on each side on high, depending on the size of the scallops).

Cheese course: Sottocenere (truffled cow’s milk cheese with an ash rind), or/and Cacio al Tartufo (sheep's milk cheese with truffle sprinkles)

And for dessert - you guessed it – truffles, in my case, purchased from Cocova (formerly known as Biagio Fine Chocolates). There is a very wide variety of exquisite individual truffles for $2 each. Have them box it up for you, get on one knee, and present Her with a little cute box…

P.S. In case you did not use up all of your truffles, in the morning you can share a soft-poached egg with truffles, and a fresh ricotta and truffle honey toast with your coffee.

Last Minute Valentines Day Recommendations

Food is love...I have always been a firm believer of this.  The way to my heart is definitely through my stomach and an incredible meal is more romantic than a room full of flowers.  And in case you haven't been in Target lately, Valentine's Day is fast approaching.  Instead of waiting until February 13th and finding out that the only place you can get reservations is at the Hooters on 7th Street, here are some options that will knock your sweetheart's socks off (as long as you get on the now).

A favorite of many a DC foodies, Blue Duck Tavern never fails to disappoint...a very important trait for any Valentine's Day dinner.  The warm and cozy atmosphere also lends itself to a quiet, yet romantic meal for two.  The wine list is impressive, so feel free to ply your date with the vino.  Individual entrees start at around $25, so you won't break the bank while giving your Valentine a night to remember. If you check OpenTable, there are still a few reservations the day before and the day after. 

What could be more romantic than feeding each other with your (preferably clean) hands?  For the more adventurous, the Ethiopian restaurant Etete Restaurant is a sensual and flavorful option.   Traditional Ethiopian dishes served in a polished yet inviting atmosphere will make you forget the sometimes slower service common to Etete (don't blame the waiters, it's customary for the servers to not interrupt the dining experience repeatedly).  The food is delicious and the prices are very wallet friendly, giving you more budget for a romantic boat ride along the Potomac.

Or...if you would rather spend the night at home, try the Cupids Cooking School (for Men Only, too bad) at DC Coast this coming Saturday night. The class will teach you how to cook a gourmet meal for your loved one and dishes include Marinated Maine Diver Scallops, European Sea Bass "En Papillote", and Caramelized Banana Brulee. Tickets are $75 a piece. Check the details on the DC Coast web site for how to make a reservation. Another option for staying at home is to attempt the Valentine's Day menu that our own Jason Storch made for his wife a couple years back which is sure to be a hit.

Wine, Chocolate and Lovin'.

Ah, bonjour, gentle reader, on this, the day of love. Forget, if you will, that this feast day commemoratesPiperandrosa the bloody and violent death of a minor Christian martyr, and try to remember the most important thing of all: you need wine and chocolate, and if you don't have it already, you'd better get moving! Sorry, that was rude. Relax... obviously yours is a relationship built on love and trust; a symbiotic coupling of individuals whose whole is a gestalt much greater than its parts— but hey, a little insurance never hurts, right?

The pairing of wine and chocolate is one of those realms where opinions differ greatly— "Oh, we had Godiva truffles with this Chardonnay, and it was fantastic;" "Nothing pairs with Ghirardelli like 1982 Bordeaux;" "85% cocoa? You gotta go California Cab, man."

Okay, I am usually one of the first to say that when it comes to food and wine pairing, the right wine always comes down to the type you enjoy— don't go for a wine you know you hate simply because its the "proper" thing to do, etc. But chocolate is one of those foods where there is a distinctly right and wrong  direction to go in terms of a match.

First, there is a myth that needs to be dispelled outright: chocolate and Chardonnay do not go hand in hand. In point of fact, chocolate and any dry white wine are never going to be friends, no matter how hard you force it, and they should never share the same table, ever. The problem with dry white wine, regardless of its relative "fruit" level, is that by definition it has two distinct characteristics: it is low in residual sugar and light in body. In even the driest of wines, where the fermentation yeasts have eked every last bit of alcohol from the grapes' ample fructose, a little of that simple sugar remains: this is referred to as the wine's residual sugar. Some wines have lots, like most Californian Zinfandel and Australian Shiraz, whose residual sugar level is often high to the point of literal sweetness. Some have practically none, including most French whites and many Italian reds. Because of the nature of our taste buds, if there is not enough sugar in a wine to compete with the sugar in a given food, the wine is going to taste sour— this effect is exacerbated when the wine in question is light bodied, as there is less tannin (the "puckering" compound in red wine and tea) to cover up the unfortunate flavor. All in all, white wine when paired with even the most bitter of chocolates is going to come out tasting like lemon juice and mud— think "brushing your teeth and then drinking a Vouletglass of OJ" sort of flavors.

Many reds suffer a similar fate for the same reasons. Indeed, most dry table wine of any kind is going to be a rough match. If you must go dry, go big and bold: Zinfandel, Shiraz, and almost any red from your warmer wine growing regions should fit the bill; in this case, just try to avoid the sweeter stuff like milk and white chocolate. Amarone from the Valpolicella region of Italy is also a good bet— this dry wine is made from raisins, like many dessert wines, so it has plenty of residual sugar, plenty of alcohol, and a big full body which should easily stand up to and compliment an array of chocolaty treats. But still, as long as no one is diabetic or diametrically opposed, sweet wine is the way to go.

Options abound in the realm of sweet wines, given the myriad methods by which it can be made. If chocolate torte is your romantic treat of preference, go with a demi-sec (or 'semi-dry') Champagne. Bubbles and high acid will bring out the more subtle flavors found in an elegant cake, while the lighter structure keeps said pastry from being overpowered. Every major sparkling wine house releases a sweet offering or two— one of my favorites is the Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee Sublime, which is hard to miss for its striking purple packaging. If you prefer your sparklers on the darker side, Italy offers a surprising array of fizzy and fully sparkling sweet reds in various styles. For the flavor of red berries with a full sparkle, you can't top Banfi's Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui. For a similar raspberry/strawberry nose with less alcohol and half the fizz, Fracchia's Voulet Casorzo is beautiful; there is no better pair around for chocolate covered strawberries.

For creamier confections, go with a more traditional dessert wine. The methods by which these sweet wines are produced seem to outnumber the leaves on a vine. However, it may be safely stated that most are very, very sweet and nearly syrupy in consistency. This combination of sweetness and texture is what you are going to seek to compliment the buttery richness of chocolate truffles and other ganache filled treats. Canadian ice wines are a lovely compliment to truffles, particularly those with a fruit flavored filling. By having the grapes freeze on the vine before harvest, winemakers are a allowed nearly maximum sugar content for pressing. The result is a wine of extreme sweetness and density, with surprising acidity and very clean, pure fruit. Unfortunately, the process is very labor intensive and risky, leaving prices in the department of $50 to $100 a half bottle! If you are willing to drop the cash, a few great producers include Inniskillin, Jackson Triggs and Konzelman.

In the south of France on the Gulf of Lion, local vintners produce whatBanyulandquad is considered by many to be the best wine in the world for chocolate. Called vin doux naturel, these wines are dosed with brandy during fermentation, halting the conversion of sugar to alcohol. Unlike port, which undergoes a similar process, vin doux naturel typically hovers around 15%-18% alcohol, and is made with more well known and noble grape varieties. Chocolate's best friend in particular may be found in the region of Banyuls, which produces a wine of the same name. Banyuls is based on the Grenache grape, renowned for producing the finest wines of the Rhone valley. When allowed to develop to optimal ripeness in the Mediterranean sun, Grenache gives up a concentrated fruit character unmatched by any other grape. Having all the sweetness of port wine with more complex fruit flavors (and lacking that alcoholic burn!), Banyuls is the practically ideal match to any chocolate preparation. Though rarer than most of the previously mentioned wines, most fine wine stores should offer at least one or two, particularly this time of year. My favorite is the Domaine la Tour Vieille, which is full of that quintessential combination of dried and fresh fruit flavors that make Banyuls so unique.

Of course, this is but scratching the surface of the world of dessert wines, but time, I fear, is not on our side. I hope this quick foray will help make your Valentine's Day as sweet as it could possibly be. Whatever the wine you choose, may it be luscious, flavorful, and not nearly as cloying as that last sentence.

Valentine's Day Menu

This year for Valentine's Day, I decided that we'd eat in -- mostly because other people had planned way further ahead than I had. First, my babysitter was already taken and second, the restaurant I wanted to take Amy to was completely booked the day before and after Valentine's Day.

So I figured that instead of going out, I'd make dinner myself (yes, I do actually cook sometimes).

Picking out the menu was the toughest part. I had some ideas for dishes that I wanted to make, but when I put them down on paper in front of me, I realized that they really wouldn't go well together. How professional chefs do tasting menus on a regular basis, I'll never know. Here's the menu I ended up with:

Malpec Oysters with Mignonette Granité
2005 Santa Rita Reserva Sauvignon Blanc

Truffled Red Wine Risotto with Parmesan Broth
2003 Savannah-Chanelle Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Fig Balsamic-Glazed Duck with Pearl Onion and Pear Hash
2000 Leclerc Briant Rubis de Noirs Brut

White Russian Milk Shake

You can click the links on the dishes to see where I found the recipes for them.

All and all I think I batted about .500. I didn't like the Malpec oysters too much; there wasn't much to them. And the mignonette recipe used too much red wine vinegar and I overdid it with the pepper.

The risotto came out great, and I'd recommend the recipe for anyone looking for an out-of-the-ordinary risotto. I think the key was using a good Pinot Noir and then serving the dish with the same wine, which really brought out the flavor of the wine in the dish. But the best thing was the Parmesan broth. I prepared it the night before and it was really easy to make. If you're wondering where you can just get parmesan rinds, Whole Foods sometimes sells them.

I killed the duck (not in a good way). I've made this recipe before and nailed it, but this time I was trying to time three different dishes and actually sit down and enjoy the meal with Amy, so I cooked all of the dishes at the beginning and them put them in the oven on warm. The risotto was fine since I purposely left it a little undercooked, but I pan-fried the duck at the recommended six minutes a side, and it came out way overdone. Oh well.

Whenever you mix Kahlua, Vodka, and vanilla ice cream together, you can't really go wrong. I wanted to make my own dessert -- buying one at the market just seemed like cheating, but I'm no pastry chef, so the white Russian milkshake seemed just right and it ended up being a good finishing touch on the meal.

So if you want to impress your special someone next Valentine's Day, I'd recommend the above menu except for the oyster mignonette. Just find some oysters that you like and serve them on some ice. Oh, and don't eff up the duck like I did. I think next time I try to do this with the duck, instead of putting it in the oven, I'll under cook it (probably three minutes a side) and then when I'm ready to serve it, I'll re-fry it quick before I plate it.

Valentine's Day 2007

Okay people. Obviously some of you are thinking a lot further ahead than I am. I called CityZen last night to make a reservation and they were already booked. Damn you!

So for all of you like me that haven't thought ahead, here's my recs for where you should go.

Duh. I wrote about my Valentine's Day dinner at Komi a couple years ago. I'd be there every time I eat out if it weren't for the need for something new to write about.

Indigo Landing
Good food AND a good view of the Potomac. Pretty rare for DC...Also good for those of you a bit more budget conscious because it's a little cheaper than the rest of the restaurants in this list.

Restaurant Eve Chef's Tasting Room
The tasting room is a very romantic setting. But, go all out because you and your special someone deserve it! Just be ready to drop some serious coin. Looking to pop the question? Have Restaurant Eve bring that diamond out in a beautiful spun sugar ring box.

The back room at Palena has some of the best food in the area. It's a nice romantic setting since the dining room is quiet and dimly lit.

Lastly, I'll say this. Don't worry about going somewhere that has some special, overpriced Valentine's Day menu. Just go somewhere good (like one of the places above) and you won't be disappointed.