The very first Valentine’s Day my husband and I spent together, he invited me over to his apartment and cooked for me for the first time. I still remember, he made me teryaki salmon and baby bok choy (yeah, knew he was a keeper then). We ate at his coffee table, sitting on big throw pillows, and tried to be coy as one does only a few months into a relationship.
We’ve certainly come a long way. We survived a cross-country relationship. Flew way past the nervous flirting stage and dove right into the good stuff. The lovey dovey-ness. The learning to communicate-ness. The never forgetting to cherish and appreciate one another-ness.
There is no one I enjoy sharing a delicious meal with more than my love. And no matter how much we enjoy going out to eat, there is always something special about staying at home and cooking for one another. After all, home is where the heart is.
For this Valentine’s Day meal, we start with this irresistibly pretty dish I like to call Heart Beet Salad. It’s a dramatic, heart-shaped, layered Napoleon of beet slices and goat cheese. Blood orange and cara cara segments adorn this arugula salad, and toasted hazelnuts are the finishing touch.
For our main course, we’re bringing it back to salmon. Hua knew what he was doing back then. Salmon is a great special date night choice because it’s almost impossible to mess up. Because it’s naturally high in fat, it’s pretty forgiving if you accidentally overcook it. It also cooks really quickly, so let’s get to our side dish first: Braised Fennel with Pancetta
I’ve been loving fennel this season. This particular preparation brings out the mellow sweetness of the vegetable and takes down the licorice flavor to just a background bass note. Slow cooking it in Madeira wine and crispy pancetta creates a sweet, slightly smoky, caramelized glaze.
It’s a rich tasting side dish without feeling weighed down. (Which is good, you know…when you want to stay mobile and spritely after dinner.)
Which brings me back to the salmon. Unlike a big steak dinner, this meal won’t put you right to bed in a food coma afterwards — which is not to say that it still can’t be a special occasion meal. We bump up the luxe factor with a beurre blanc sauce here. Beurre blanc, say it with me. It just sounds sexy. It’s easy to make too, and isn’t as finicky as some other egg-based French sauces. Really, it just calls for a lot of butter, whisked into a reduction of white wine and vinegar. The kick of acid from that reduction is wonderful with the richness of the butter. And the dill — you can’t go wrong with dill and salmon.
For dessert, I have two words for you: Nutella Soufflés. Boom.
Heart Beet Salad
Beets and goat cheese salad get a V-Day makeover with a little help from a heart-shaped cookie cutter. Blood oranges, cara cara oranges, arugula, and toasted hazelnuts complete this irresistibly pretty dish.
Yield: 2 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
2 large beets
6 oz fresh goat cheese
1 blood orange, segmented
1 teaspoon cara cara orange zest
1 cara cara orange, segmented
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 handfuls arugula
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Special Equipment: heart-shaped cookie cutter; be sure that your cookie cutter fits within the circumference of your beets
- Preheat oven to 400 F. Rinse the beets and trim off the greens (you can save them to sauté later if you want). Wrap in foil and roast until tender, about 1 hour. When they’re done you should be able to easily pierce the beets through with a knife. Remove from the oven, unwrap from foil, and let cool. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel the skin off.
- Slice the beets into 1/4-inch slices. You should have at least 4 slices of beets per person. Cut out a heart shape from the beet slices using the cookie cutter. Pat the slices dry. Make the napoleon stacks by layering the beet heart slices and goat cheese until you have two beautiful stacks. Try to spread the goat cheese evenly. Clean up edges with a paper towel. (Do not assemble this too far ahead of time because if your beets are juicy, they will color the goat cheese pink as they sit.)
- Zest the cara cara oranges and set aside a teaspoon for the dressing. Segment both oranges. After segments are cut, squeeze the juice out of the leftover pulp. Reserve for dressing.
- Make dressing by whisking together orange juice, zest, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Dress the arugula and orange segments. Arrange around the beet heart napoleon. Scatter hazelnuts around.
Braised Fennel with Pancetta
Fennel braised with pancetta and Madeira wine make a rich side dish that doesn’t feel heavy.
Yield: 2 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup diced pancetta
1 lb fennel
1/2 cup Madeira wine
Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large sauté pan, melt butter and cook pancetta until crispy. Remove pancetta and set aside.
- Remove leafy fronds from fennel. Cut lengthwise and then into wedges. Add fennel to the pan used for the pancetta and brown on all sides.
- Add pancetta back into the pan. Add Madeira. Cover and simmer until fennel is tender throughout, about 25 minutes. The wine should be mostly reduced, creating a glaze for the fennel. If the liquid is all evaporated and the fennel isn’t cooked through yet, add a bit of water and continue simmering covered until done.
Salmon with Dill Beurre Blanc
A simple baked salmon gets fancified with a luxe beurre blanc flavored with lemony dill.
Yield: 2 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
2 (6-ounce) pieces skinless salmon fillet
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch of paprika
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 oz (1/8 cup) dry white wine (like Sauvignon Blanc)
1 oz (1/8 cup) white wine vinegar
6 oz (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
1 teaspoon chopped dill
Salt and white pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 375 F.
- Grease a baking dish with olive oil. Place salmon in dish skin side down. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a light dusting of paprika. Bake until just opaque inside, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile make your beurre blanc. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine shallot, white wine, and white wine vinegar. Reduce until there is only about 1 1/2 tablespoons of liquid left. Off heat. Strain out the shallot.
- Add about 2 tablespoons of butter into the reduced liquid and whisk until creamy and melted. Turn heat to low and gradually whisk in a few tablespoons of butter at a time, only adding more when about 3/4 of the butter is melted and incorporated into the sauce. Keep adding and whisking until all the butter has been incorporated. You should have a creamy butter sauce. Stir in the chopped dill and season to taste with salt and white pepper.
- Spoon butter sauce over the salmon and garnish with a sprig of dill.