Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Food & Sex: The Best Way to a Man's Heart?... An Artfully Sensual Valentine's Day Dinner Offering a Light Menu with Sex Appeal



Ah, Valentine's Day. A romantic day filled with hearts, flowers and......... food.
Sex may enter into it; but, somehow, food plays an instrumental role before the conquest.

We've all been told that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. (Of course, women possess those organs, too, and many of us are equally interested in having them courted by our wooers. Who do you think most of the recipients of those chocolate-filled heart-shaped boxes are anyway, hmmmm?)

Unfortunately, what no one tells you is that a romantic dinner laden with the fatty fare of most Valentine menus not only wreaks havoc on the waistline; but, also, has marooned many a bloated traveler on the sea of love; leaving them stranded on the Isle of Misfit Celibates instead of basking in the glow of Fantasy Island.

You're more likely to bust a gut than bust a move after eating all that lobster and chocolate mousse. So in the interest of raising metabolisms and libidos everywhere, I offer a menu to help keep the sin in the saint of St. Valentine's Day (so that the only resemblance you have to the day's martyr is in name only); but, don't think that I would ever consider sacrificing the sensuous textures and fabulous flavors of the Valentine's Day classics.

Au contraire, mon cher. I only seek to enhance the food's aphrodisiac qualities by lightening it; thereby, allowing for the enjoyment of later, more intimate pleasures.

Which begs the question.... What makes a certain kind of food sexy or, better yet, which foods make you feel sexy?

For many people, eating sensuously is all about texture:
.... such as silken, unctuous foods that glide over your tongue while coating it with their essence as you devour them. These foods not only feel and taste wonderful but they also make you look good in the process. Think of how sexy licking an ice cream cone looks vs. chomping down on a burger. Both can be messy but the former is enticing to watch, while the latter is just disgusting giving you all the glamour of a jungle beast tucking into an antelope instead of an angel of Eros enjoying her daily dose of ambrosia;

..... or, how about juicy, self-contained foods that use your fingers, preferably while making contact with your lips, and, capable of being eaten in one or two bites. Think of soft, pouty lips wrapping themselves around: a fresh strawberry, a red cherry, the ripest fig, or piece of ahi nigiri. The light tooth-grazing consumption of the tender leaves of steamed artichokes also falls into this category of food come-ons.

Of course, many cultures tend to reckon shape with sexual aphrodisiacs. Take the obvious likeness of avocados, apples, bananas, eggs, asparagus spears, ginseng, zucchini, oysters, mangoes or even the more far-flung rhinoceros horn to their sexually reproductive anatomical counterparts and you can come up with an interesting, if somewhat unappetizing menu.

Some foods, over time, have been endowed with magical, potent sexual powers for their ability to excite rather than their physical characteristics. My four favorites: chocolate, champagne, caviar and chilis fall into this category.

Dark chocolate with its LDL lowering stearic acid, mood-elevating theobromine, "love chemical" inducing phenylethylamine, pleasure enhancing serotonin and energy boosting caffeine was considered not only an aphrodisiac but also quite the health elixir by the Aztecs and the Mayans and was revered as a food of the gods; 2000 years before more recently undergoing its latest health food status. It sure tastes good! Ask Montezuma; he drank 50 gold goblets full of it a day & look at how potent he was!
The hot spice of chili peppers with its tear inducing capsciacin mimics the feelings of arousal by elevating the blood pressure & body temperature leaving you flushed, moist & panting.

Champagne has always been the wine of love & celebration with bubbles that tickle your tongue as well as your fancy. The alcohol in it is a powerful relaxant, allowing you to shed your inhibitions (if not your clothing).

The goddess of love, Aphrodite, (Venus to her later Roman worshippers) was born from the sea, so all of the sea's creatures were said to be endowed with her aphrodisiac powers. It doesn't hurt that most seafood contain prodigious quantities of the mineral zinc which is known to be an effective nutrient for the erotically-challenged. Caviar is sturgeon roe. The many eggs of caviar also represent fertility; procreation and the propagation of the species, of course, has always been the most powerful catalyst for the sex act. Just ask Darwin. Money is a pretty good conductor of sexual electricity, too, and caviar costs lots of it which only adds to its romantic allure!

Of course, too much of anything, champagne and caviar included, can douse the most ardent fire, so I advocate a little discretion in all things edible. While moderation may not seem to fan the flames of molten passion, it's always good to be a little hungry for something more, especially on Valentine's Day.

Just ask yourself, how would Aphrodite satisfy those hunger pangs?

My suggested Valentine's Dinner Menu, as all good romantic menus should, will definitely include the four C's: chocolate, champagne, caviar & chili peppers; though, not necessarily in that order. I will also add a few other yummies from my heart-thumping bag of tricks. The champagne should be a brut rose' for it's magnificent color and depth of flavor.

I couldn't make up my mind about what to concoct for this special day; so why not double your pleasure, double your fun: offer two options and have your intended choose one?

Most of the dishes can be made in advance, except for the fish which needs to be cooked a la minute, then you can have the pleasure of sharing; nothing is sexier than guiding the hand that feeds you in a dark, candlelit room.
However, for those less inclined to divvy up their din din, I will include in each recipe enough portions for at least two & let you could decide whether tonight's culinary muse will be Asian or Italian when you choose which dish per course.

What the menu lacks in innovation it makes up for in raw sex appeal. Whether you finish the meal by feeding each other sumptuous spoonfuls of parfait or tasty morsels of chocolate dipped strawberries is up to you; but, I guarantee that will not be the conclusion of the evenings activities.

Bon Appetit & Happy Valentine's Day!!!

A Lighter Valentine's Day Menu with Lots of Sex Appeal


Salmon Poke with Ossetra Caviar

or

Carpaccio of Ahi with Shaved Hearts of Palm, Asparagus Tips & Truffle Oil

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Duo of Cannelloni
Dungeness Crab & Goat Cheese, Roasted Sweet Potato & Mascarpone

or

Macadamia-Crusted Thai Red Snapper with Passionfruit-Infused Bercy, Curried Bhutanese Red Rice Risotto

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Raspberry & Dark Chocolate Parfait with Greek Yogurt, Agave Nectar & Toasted Walnuts
or
Chocolate-covered Strawberries





Salmon Poke with Ossetra Caviar


Note: Traditionally, Poke is made with limu kohu, a red seaweed harvested near the Hawaiian isles, and crushed roasted kukui nuts. Both ingredients can be found at San Mateo's Takahashi Market.com online shop.
However, if, like me, you are more interested in the spirit of the dish rather than a strict interpretation, you can substitute furikake or nori strips for the limu kohu; white & black sesame seeds for the kukui nuts; and, add a pinch of Hawaiian red sea salt for color. I also stray from tradition by dicing the fish a bit finer, adding cilantro and a little fresh lime juice & /or blood orange juice to the mixture at the very end just before molding & plating. I like the kick that citrus adds to the dish but I try not to add it too early because the acids "cook" the fish and mar the beautiful color turning the bright flesh opaque.
Needless to say the salmon needs to be very fresh and preferably wild (which are frozen this time of year) or from a sustainably raised farm like U.K. Greenpeace-endorsed Loch Duart's Scottish Salmon from CleanFish. Ahi is traditionally used and the natural substitute if you don't like raw salmon.
The caviar is for extra luxe appeal & sevruga has nice firm eggs that cost less than its cousins, ossetra & the ever disappearing beluga. American Caviar from sustainably-raised California white sturgeon (Tsar Nicoulai), Missouri & Mississippi Rivers hackleback sturgeon (Petrovich Caviar), Montana golden white fish and paddlefish (Seattle's Caviar) is now much more widely available and less costly than international brands such as Petrossian. Click on the name of the various purveyors for more info.
If you can't find a ripe avocado (it's been a tough year for them), substitute the layer of avocado for a little chive oil on the bottom of the dish. Just take a bunch of chives (scallions will work, too), rough chop, add to a blender with a cup of the highest quality cold pressed olive oil, blend & strain through a strainer lined in cheesecloth or a chinoise, if you happen to have one lying around your kitchen.

This recipe serves 2 lovebirds as a first course.

Ingredients

  • 4 oz. very fresh sashimi-grade salmon fillet, skin & bloodline removed, finely cubed
  • 1 Tablespoon of reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame oil plus more as needed, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon of furikake, seaweed gomasio, shichimi (or plain nori cut into small thin strips)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black sesame seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon toasted white sesame seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon of cilantro, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon sweet onion such as Maui or Vidalia, finely minced
  • 2 scallions, tougher dark green stalks removed, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon of finely minced fresh ginger root, skin removed
  • 1 Tablespoon of Lowfat Mayonnaise (Best Foods or Hellmans brand)
  • 1 teaspoon of Vietnamese Sriracha sauce (Huy Fong Foods Inc. brand found at Safeway or at www.huyfong.com)
  • the juice from 1/2 a blood orange (or lime)
  • 1 pinch of Hawaiian Red Sea Salt, optional
  • 1 small ripe Hass avocado
  • 1 oz. of caviar
  • 4 blue potato chips from Terra Chips (optional)

Directions

  1. Whisk together the mayo, citrus juice, soy sauce & sriracha sauce in a small bowl, combine well and set aside.
  2. Place the salmon in a medium-sized bowl and toss with sesame oil until well-coated. Add the cilantro, sesame seeds, onion, scallions, furikake and ginger to the salmon. Mix well.
  3. (The salmon poke can be stored in the refrigerator at this time for 12 hours; store it separately from the dressing. Just be sure to remove both from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving)
  4. Slowly add the sriracha dressing to the salmon poke, gently folding it in to thoroughly combine without breaking up the salmon cubes. Add as little or as much of the dressing as you like, making adjustments to suit your taste. Then sprinkle a tiny pinch of the sea salt over the poke and gently combine. Taste for seasoning.
  5. Cut the avocado into half, removing the pit carefully, using the edge of a sharp paring knife between the skin and the flesh, gently trace the circumference of each cut half of the avocado with the knife to loosen the flesh. Unmold each half, cut side down, onto a clean cutting board and slice avocado thinly to form a fan. Place each avocado half onto its serving dish, cut side up, and delicately fan out the slices onto the plate; or, instead, form a thin ring of avocado slices with a hollow center.
  6. Place a ring mold over the center of the avocado slices and, using a spoon, fill it with the salmon poke, tamping it down to mold the shape, dip your paring knife in hot water, run it carefully around the inside of the ring to loosen the ring, then slowly unmold the poke. Repeat with the other dish. (If you don't have a ring mold, just fill a ramekin with the poke, pack it tightly, tamp it down, run the knife around it & gently unmold it as you turn the ramekin upside down over the center of the dish.)
  7. Garnish both plates with a 1/2 oz. of caviar over the center of each poke and 2 blue potato chips from Terra Chips.


Ahi Carpaccio with Shaved Hearts of Palm, Asparagus & Truffle Oil

Note: You can quickly sear the sides of the ahi with a peppery crust as photographed then flatten it; looks pretty, but, it doesn't add much to the dish; so, the recipe will skip that step. The fresh hearts of palm I originally intended to use are nearly impossible to find easily. There is a family-owned company in Costa Rica, the #1 source of domesticated palms bred for food production, named DeKing of Hearts (click here to go to their website) but a highly perishable 1 lb. bag (perishes within 2 weeks from the day it was harvested)is $25 per lb plus overnight shipping. So in the interest of using money more judiciously, I am using canned hearts of palm that are rinsed & dried and incorporating the more traditional arugula into the salad for more bitter contrast & flavor. Still looking for frozen hearts of palm so if you know of any email me. Canned hearts of palm are too watery to shave, so I just tried to slice them as thinly as possible using a very sharp knife. A thin shaving of pecorino romano into shards will curb my mad Sweeney Todd-like urge for the moment.

This recipe serves 2 inamorati as a starter.

Ingredients

  • 2 (3-ounce) pieces of sashimi-grade ahi
  • 1 tablespoons plus 4 teaspoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 hearts of palm (from a can), drained, rinsed, patted dry and thinly sliced
  • 2 cups of baby arugula, rinsed and dried
  • 12 thin spears of asparagus, tips only, blanched for 30 seconds and chilled
  • the zest of 1 meyer's lemon
  • the juice of 1 meyer's lemon
  • 6 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tablespoons of chives, finely minced
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme, stripped of leaves and chopped
  • 2 generous shavings of pecorino romano or parmiggiano-reggiano (1 per plate)
  • 2 generous drizzles of truffle oil (as a garnish for each plate)
  • pinch of truffle salt and a pinch of fleur de sel
  • freshly milled black pepper to taste
Directions

  1. Stretch four large sheets of plastic wrap on your countertop, smear each piece with a teaspoon of olive oil.
  2. Place a piece of cold ahi in the center of the first two pieces of the plastic wrap & then cover each fillet, (olive oil-smeared side down) with a remaining plastic sheet.
  3. Gently pound with a mallet, working from the center out until the ahi is paper thin.
  4. Store wrapped tuna on a plate in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
  5. In a medium sized bowl, combine the hearts of palm, arugula, tomatoes, thyme & asparagus. Then add the Meyer lemon juice & remaining tablespoon of olive oil, black pepper & sea salt to taste, toss gently but be sure to coat the vegetables thoroughly.
  6. Remove the ahi from the fridge and prepare to plate it on dishes large enough to accommodate them. (The average dinner-sized plate should do).
  7. Plate the ahi by first carefully removing the top sheet of plastic; next, place the ahi side on the center of the dish; then, gently remove the last piece of plastic, carefully molding together any pieces of ahi that have torn apart.
  8. Sprinkle each ahi carpaccio with a pinch of lemon zest, truffle salt, pepper & 1/2 Tablespoon of the chopped chives then drizzle with truffle oil.
  9. Top the center of each plate with a small mound of the greens.
  10. Sprinkle the remaining chives around the perimeter of each plate, followed by an additional drizzle of truffle oil over the chives. Using a microplane, shave the pecorino over the greens and serve.


Macadamia Nut Crusted Thai Red Snapper with Passionfruit-infused Sauce Bercy, Curried Bhutanese Red Rice Risotto

Macadamia Nut Crusted Sea Bass

Note: This recipe was heavily inspired by a dish I ate at Canyon Ranch during my recent stay there. The Canyon Ranch version is made with mahimahi instead of thai red snapper which is similar in look & texture and offers a caramelized pineapple sauce that is a little sweet for my taste but still quite good. They served it with coconut black rice on the side. Pacific halibut would be a fabulous substitute & my preferred fish for this dish but unfortunately the season runs from March to November or December, making it impossible to find for Valentine's Day. Atlantic halibut, which is available now, is not a great substitute for this particular dish.

I opted to celebrate Valentine's Day by using Bhutanese Red Rice to make a creamy coconutty risotto finished with Thai red curry sauce. Both rices can be found at Whole Foods, the Lotus Foods brand is the best and the Lotus Foods website has some really great recipes, too.
Bercy sauce is a variation of a fish veloute' with shallots, wine & stock; however, instead of the classic veloute' which is a heavy white sauce with a roux base, we reduce a combination of equal parts fish stock (or clam juice if you don't have time to make the stock) & vegetable stock then add a slurry of cornstarch dissolved into a little cold stock to thicken it. The result will be a lighter, more richly colored sauce. It is important that you remove the stock from the heat before adding the cornstarch slurry. When the cornstarch is heated for too long, it loses its ability to bind the sauce. Just keep on the stove without heat while you prepare the bercy.
In honor of Valentine's Day, I will be making a variation of the classic bercy by adding (what else?) passion fruit to it. If you can't find fresh passion fruit or its pulp, you can add a 1/3 cup of passion fruit nectar (the Looza brand is sold at most SF bay area grocery stores) or substitute 1/2 of a Hawaiian papaya (seeds removed) for the passion fruit.

I recommend preparing the sauce first, then prepping the fish but not cooking it, before making the risotto. When the risotto is more than half way done ( 20 minutes into cooking it), start the fish saute, browning it for 2-3 minutes on each side, then pop it in the oven in a baking dish for 8-10 minutes while you finish the risotto. When both risotto and fish are done, remove them from the heat but keep them in a warm place, gently reheat the Bercy sauce, (remember you don't want to overheat the cornstarch) & plate it up. If the sauce seems too thin, you can always add a little butter to the sauce then froth it up with the an immersion blender before plating.

A few pea shoots or microgreens complete the dish but you can add stir-fried bok choy if you're craving some veggies.

This recipe serves two.

Ingredients:

For the fish
  • 2 (6 ounce) Thai red snapper fillets, of even thickness
  • 2 Tablespoons of mirin (optional)
  • 1/2 cup unsalted macadamia nuts, roughly chopped
  • 2 egg whites, from large eggs, slightly beaten
  • canola oil or grapeseed oil, (you want a flavorless oil with high flashpoint for the saute)
  • sea salt & white pepper to taste
For the fish veloute'
  • 1 cup of fish stock (bottled clam juice or prepared dashi can be substituted)
  • 1 cup of vegetable stock (Wolfgang Puck makes a great one sold in supermarkets)
  • sea salt and white pepper to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch or arrowroot
  • 3 Tablespoons cold vegetable stock or white wine
For the passion-fruit bercy
  • 2 large shallots, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup of white wine, preferably one that is not over-oaked like a sauvignon blanc
  • 1 cup of stock (fish, vegetable or chicken)
  • 2 whole passion-fruits, strained of seeds ( 1/3 cup of passion-fruit nectar or 1/2 Hawaiian papaya can be substituted)
  • 1 teaspoon of minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tahitian vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
  • 1 teaspoon of low sodium soy sauce
  • pinch of ground szechuan white peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon of sriratcha sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon of unsalted butter
  • 2 sprigs of chervil, stripped of leaves & chopped
For the Bhutanese Red Rice Risotto
  • 1/2 cup of uncooked Bhutanese Red Rice (Lotus Foods is a good brand)
  • 2 teaspoons of olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of unsalted butter
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 2-1/2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock, kept just below a simmer on stove top
  • 1/2 cup of white wine
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Thai red curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand is widely distributed & pretty good)
  • 1/3 cup of unsweetened coconut milk (Thai Kitchen brand has a good one)
  • 1/4 cup of cooked unshelled edamame, pre-cooked (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Thai fish sauce (nam pla or in Vietnamese nuoc cham)
  • 5 basil leaves, finely julienned
  • 2 sprigs of cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped

Directions

Heat oven to 400 degrees

For the fish
  1. Place the fish on a clean cutting board and season both sides to taste with sea salt, white pepper & mirin. Pat dry with paper towel.
  2. Using a pastry brush, brush fish on both sides with beaten egg whites.
  3. Sprinkle each side with chopped macadamia nuts. Pressing the nuts firmly into the flesh to secure them. (At this point, you can just put the crusted fish on a baking sheet and bake in the pre-heated oven for 12-15 minutes, skipping the steps 4-6. I just like to brown them a little in a saute pan before I bake them)
  4. Heat a 10" (cast iron is the best) pan with non-stick coating over medium heat, when pan is heated, add enough oil to cover its surface & distribute a pinch of salt evenly over the oil. Do not allow the oil to smoke.
  5. Carefully add the fillets one at a time to the center of the pan, keeping space between them. Cook for 2-3 minutes on the first side; checking heat & the fish after 2 minutes to be sure that the nuts are not burning. When the first side is light brown, then gently turn over & cook the other side for an additional 2 minutes or until crust is lightly browned.
  6. Remove fish from pan, briefly blotting excess oil with a paper towel, then place in a baking dish in the oven for 8-10 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the center of the fish is slightly resistant to touch. If you can smell the fish it is done. Do not overcook it.
  7. Remove from oven and keep in a warm place until sauce is heated & ready to be plated. Serve on warm plates.

For the fish veloute'
  1. Place both stocks in a heavy sauce pan and reduce over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes until stock is reduced in half. Then remove it from the heat.
  2. While stock is reducing, place cornstarch in a small bowl & slowly whisk in cold stock or wine a little at a time until cornstarch is completely dissolved and the resulting slurry is homogenous looking. Set aside until stock reduces.
  3. When stock is reduced, remove from heat & rapidly whisk the stock continuously to cool it slightly while slowly adding the cornstarch slurry. When sauce is thickened, season to taste with pinch of sea salt, & white pepper then set aside pan in a warm place (but not over heat) while you prepare the bercy.

For the passion-fruit bercy sauce
  1. Heat a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add the olive oil, heat it for a few moments then add the shallots & a tiny pinch of salt to sweat them without browning them.
  2. When shallots are soft, add the ginger, stirring until aromatic then add the passion-fruit.
  3. When the passion fruit cooks down, add the wine, reducing it for a few minutes then add the stock, allowing that to cook down until halved. (about 10 minutes)
  4. When liquid is reduced, scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean using the tip of a small paring knife and add them as well as the vanilla pod halves to the stock along with the soy & the sriratcha sauce, stirring well to evenly distribute them.
  5. Reduce heat to lowest setting & allow it to simmer for a 5-10 minutes until sauce looks glossy & well-integrated then remove from heat & add the prepared veloute' sauce, stirring well to fully incorporate both sauces.
  6. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly. Remove the vanilla bean halves. Swirl in the butter until emulsified.
  7. When the sauce looks completely incorporated, return it to the heat on lowest possible setting, until sauce is warmed through, then serve immediately. (If sauce has thinned out by the time you are ready to serve it, just blend it by either using an immersion blender in the sauce pan to froth it up or by carefully pouring it into a blender & whirring it for a minute.)

For the risotto

Make sure to have the stock in a separate pot at a bare simmer (just below a simmer) on the stove. (Keep in mind that risotto gets its creamy texture from the release of the rice's starch which means you've got to continuously stir it for the first 15-18 minutes, after that it's just a matter of keeping it from drying out by continuing to slowly add warm stock until the rice grains are fully cooked.)
  1. Heat a large shallow pan (a paella or La Creuset braising pan work well) over medium heat, add the olive oil & when warm but not smoking, add the onions with a pinch of salt. Sweat the onions stirring often. Do not allow them to brown.
  2. When onions are soft, add garlic & red curry paste, stir until aromatic and slightly darkened in color. Do not allow to burn.
  3. Add butter, when butter melts add rice, toasting it in the paste for a minute or two.
  4. Add the wine, stirring continuously until fully absorbed into the rice. When wine is fully absorbed, lower heat to medium-low to low (keep it at a bare simmer) and add coconut milk, stirring continuously, until fully absorbed.
  5. Slowly begin to add the stock one ladleful at a time (about 1/2 cup), stirring often and making sure the rice has absorbed it before adding more stock. By the fourth absorbed ladleful, you should see a visible difference in the size of the grains and begin testing for doneness. Risotto is done when the rice grains are tender but still retain a slight "bite" and the overall texture is creamy.
  6. When risotto is almost done, add fish sauce and edamame (or cooked sweet peas), gently stirring in & cooking until beans are warmed through.
  7. Add basil, scallions & cilantro. Test for seasoning, if it needs any, add sea salt (Red Himalayan Salt would be pretty & yummy) & freshly ground pepper to taste.
  8. Serve by packing risotto in a large ramekin until ramekin is fully packed & placing the center of the warmed serving plate on top of the ramekin, then inverting both dishes & carefully unmolding the rice from its ramekin. Place the snapper fillet on the side of the rice and drizzle the Bercy sauce over half the fish and the circumference of the plate. Garnish the rice with pea shoots, micro greens or a sprig of cilantro. Serve.



Duo of Baked Cannelloni:
Dungeness Crab & Goat Cheese
Roasted Sweet Potato & Mascarpone
Wilted Spinach



Note: When I was at Canyon Ranch last month, I ordered a crab quesadilla with a crisp but tender shell and a delicious creamy filling that imparted a slight but pleasant tang to the dish without overwhelming the crab. I thought they had used a special Oaxacan cheese but when I asked my server she said it was just fresh goat cheese. The combination was a good one & I thought it could make a very elegant dish for a romantic dinner if I used cannelloni as the delivery system for the crab & goat cheese.
Of course the object of this Valentine's dinner is to keep everything light & sexy, so I thought I could lighten the dish by making two separate fillings, offering one cannelloni of each and a Duo of Cannelloni was born. I wanted the second filling to be light and complement rather than compete with the crab & goat cheese so I knew it would have to a vegetable filling; but, I wanted a luxurious mouth-feel that was satisfying & a little sweet. My first thought was butternut squash or pumpkin but they have been done so often this way and too laborious to tackle with everything else & then it hit me: roasted sweet potatoes. Great texture, sweet & healthy taste with a touch of mascarpone, a hint of vanilla and herbs. Eureka! While I'll admit my inspiration may not be quite on par with Archimedes' discovery of the displacement of water (which was his legendary Eureka moment), I'm still pleased with the results.

I've lightened the bechamel sauce by using lowfat milk. You can substitute skim milk if you like but don't substitute the butter with anything else. It's not a lot of butter per person & it's absolutely necessary for sauce. Do use freshly grated nutmeg, it is an essential component and very easy to find these seeds in the seasonings section of mainstream supermarkets.

If you can't find dried cannelloni shells, use manicotti shells instead. Just but the highest quality pasta you can find because the flavor of the pasta is very important with these delicate fillings. If the pasta is too thick or poorly made it will show much more with these fillings than if you were using a meat ragu.You can also buy or make your own fresh crepes if you like. You just need to fill them then roll them tightly with the seam facing the bottom of the baking dish.
If you're not a crab eater, just omit the crab & substitute it with additional cheese or add wild mushrooms (chanterelles or hen of the wood mushrooms are nice & meaty) that you have sweated with olive oil & shallots. It'll still be yummy if not as aphrodisiatic (if that's a word).
Serve this dish with a side of wilted spinach (baby spinach sauteed in olive oil, minced garlic & a touch of stock & freshly ground black pepper.)

You will have leftover stuffing which you can use to stuff additional cannelloni shells, layer over no boil lasagne noodles which have a much finer texture & some egg added to them allowing them to cook thoroughly without as much liquid (Nature's Pasta, available at Real Foods is the best so far): just double the bechamel sauce recipe & use it as a sauce to layer into the lasagne, or turn it into ravioli or tortellini by using ready made thin wonton wrappers. Then cook & freeze for another time.

This recipe will serve four, unless you're starving. To make it for two, I would have had to split an egg in half. Perhaps that will be my future contribution to science... I'll get cracking!!! (pardon the pun)

Ingredients

For the cannelloni
  • 8 cannelloni shells, cooked in a large pot of salted boiling water for about 7 minutes if dried or about 3 minutes if fresh; always be sure to check the manufacturers instructions (8 fresh small crepes could be substituted, obviously no boiling required) Remember, these shells should be cooked until just barely al dente. Overcooked pasta will not work in this recipe. It's going to cook further in the oven.
  • 1 gratin dish or small to medium-sized baking dish, greased with olive oil & a paper towel (the dish should be just large enough to accommodate a single layer of cannelloni)
  • 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 2 pastry bags (or 2 ziploc plastic bags, with a small edge of one bottom cut out & the tops folded back) or 2 teaspoons

For the crab filling
  • 1 cup of fresh Dungeness crabmeat (about 1/2 lb.), picked through to remove any shell
  • 1 clove of garlic, grated
  • 3 scallions, light green part only, minced
  • 5 oz log of fresh goat cheese, softened to room temperature (Laura Chenel chevre is good)
  • 1 cup of part skim ricotta, softened to room temperature (don't use more than 1 cup of this or you will lose the goat cheese flavor)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten in a small bowl
  • 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper
  • 1 cup of tightly packed baby spinach leaves, rough chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the sweet potato filling
  • 3 large or 4 small sweet potatoes (jewel yams)
  • 1 cup of mascarpone cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon of high quality vanilla extract
  • 1 large shallot, finely chopped & sweated in butter
  • pinch of sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon of herbs de provence
  • 2 Tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 4 amaretti cookies, crushed (optional, it will make the filling much sweetier which you may or may not like so feel free to leave out, if you're in doubt)
  • 2 egg whites

For the Bechamel sauce
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2-1/4 cups lowfat milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
  • sea salt & white pepper to taste (go easy on the salt, we're going to use a lot of salty parmesan to cover the cannelloni after we pour the salt, so beware)
Directions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Clean and dry the sweet potatoes thoroughly then prick the tops of each one with a fork. Place the sweet potatoes directly on the center rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour until completely soft & oozing. Then remove & allow to cool until they are cool enough to handle. While potatoes bake, make the Bechamel sauce.

For the Bechamel sauce

  1. Using a heavy bottomed sauce, melt butter over medium heat.
  2. When butter is melted, add flour; whisking it in. Continue to whisk until butter & flour have completely combined & the resulting paste loses it raw look (about 2-3 minutes) Do not burn the roux but do cook it until nutty aroma is released & roux is light gold in color.
  3. When roux is ready, reduce heat to low and slowly begin to trickle in the milk, whisking it continuously while pouring it slowly in a steady stream to avoid making lumps of flour.
  4. When all the milk is poured, whisk often until sauce thickens and ribbons form (about 10-12 minutes).
  5. When sauce reaches the desired texture, remove from heat & season with nutmeg, pepper & salt. Set aside in a warm spot until ready to assemble dish. Prepare the crab filling.
For the crab filling
  1. In a large stainless steel mixing bowl, combine the grated garlic, minced scallions, goat cheese, ricotta and parmesan. Mixing thoroughly.
  2. Add the spinach leaves and the white pepper. Combine well.
  3. Add the lightly beaten egg, thoroughly incorporate into the cheese mixture
  4. Gently fold in the crabmeat, using a rubber spatula to thoroughly incorporate being careful not to over mix the filling and break up the crabmeat. Fill one pastry bag (or ziploc bag) with crabmeat mixture. You may need to use a teaspoon if your crab pieces are large. Set aside & prepare sweet potato filling.
For the sweet potato filling
  1. On a cutting board, while potatoes are still warm, cut each potato in half, lengthwise.
  2. Over a large bowl, remove the flesh of the cooled sweet potatoes by peeling the skin off or scooping it out with a spoon into the bowl & mashing them thoroughly with a masher or large fork. (You can also put them through a ricer for a finer texture)
  3. In a small bowl, combine mascarpone, cooked shallots, vanilla extract, nutmeg, herbs, pepper & parmesan. Mix well.
  4. Add the mascarpone mixture to the large bowl of sweet potatoes. Incorporating everything thoroughly.
  5. Beat the egg whites until foamy & light with soft body (but not into stiff peaks)
  6. Gently fold into the sweet potato mixture using a spatula to fully incorporate the eggs without taking all the air out of them
  7. Fill one pastry bag (or ziploc bag) with sweet potato mixture.
  8. Prepare cannelloni.
For the cannelloni
Reduce preheated oven to 350 degrees.
  1. Fill half the cooked cannelloni shells with the crab mixture, using the pastry bag to pipe them in. Do not over fill. Set on clean cutting board.
  2. Fill the other half of cooked cannelloni shells with the sweet potato mixture. Set on clean cutting board.
  3. Place baking dish, bechamel sauce, filled shells & grated parmesan on the work surface. Start by pouring a ladle or two of bechamel to completely cover the bottom of the pre-greased baking dish.
  4. Now assemble the dish by placing the filled shells in a single layer side by side on the baking dish, alternating one crab cannelloni with one sweet potato cannelloni. You may need to pack them tightly together.
  5. Pour the remaining bechamel over the top and sides of the pasta.
  6. Sprinkle the parmesan evenly over the entire dish & bake in the center rack of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes until sauce is bubbling & parmesan is golden brown. If the gratin is not golden enough, briefly broil the dish at least 6 inches from the heat source until desired color is reached. Remove from heat and allow to cool at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.
  7. On pre-warmed plates, serve two cannelloni per person, one of each type of filling, with wilted spinach (see note if you don't know how to wilt spinach). Mangia!!!
Chocolate-Covered Strawberries



Note: This is a classic Valentine Day dessert that is both decadent & healthy. You can find them ready made for Valentine's Day at Godiva or other chocolatiers but they are fun and easy to make. Stemberries (or strawberries with the stems still attached) are available in supermarkets right now & are the best strawberries to use as the stems provide a natural handle for dipping. They are exorbitantly priced but worth the splurge for a special occasion. The darker the chocolate (60 % cocoa or above) the better for both melting and health purposes. You can use semisweet chocolate chips or really splurge and buy a hunk of Valrhona or Callebaut chocolate... so worth it & it's sold in bulk at Whole Foods!!!! The dipped berries can be stored for a couple of days in the fridge.

To temper or not to temper, that is the question. It's a way of heat treating then cooling it to change the crystalline structure of the chocolate. Tempering it makes the chocolate pretty, hard & glossy as it dries. Most commercial chocolate is already tempered . If you don't temper it, the chocolate may appear streaked or cloudy when it cools after dipping the strawberries into it. Strawberries introduce moisture into the chocolate which will cause the sugar & cacao in the chocolate to absorb it & seize up, forming little cloudy clumps. The texture will not be as satiny as the chocolate melts on the tongue. Some recipes suggest adding butter or heavy cream to the chocolate while slowly melting to avoid the need to temper but you still don't get that great snap when you bite into it. Jacque Torres aka "Mr. Chocolate" suggests the microwave method for people melting less than 1 lb. of chocolate which is what I will post here. Another site called cooking for engineers.com delivers a great chocolate tutorial and tempering, click here to go to the website.
You will have leftover strawberries, just store them on the parchment paper in a plastic container in the fridge. They'll keep for a day but not more than two days.


Ingredients:

  • 8 oz. of dark chocolate (over 60% cocoa), chopped into small pieces
  • 12 large strawberries with stems attached, washed & completely dried with a towel
  • 1 small microwaveable bowl
  • 1 baking sheet fitted with wax paper

Directions

  1. Place chocolate pieces in the microwaveable bowl, & microwave in short bursts for 30 seconds at a time, stir between each microwave session to evenly distribute the heat. Be patient & stick to the 30 second intervals.
  2. It's important to stop heating it just before the chocolate starts to melt. When the chocolate is just beginning to warm & melt lightly but the pieces still retain their shape, it's time to stop heating it. The chocolate pieces should be slightly shiny & mushy as you stir it.
  3. Keep stirring and allow the residual heat to melt the rest of the chocolate. You'll lose the temper if you overheat it.
  4. Place the melted chocolate, wax paper covered baking sheet & completely dry strawberries on a work surface, creating an assembly line of strawberries, melted chocolate & pan.
  5. Picking the strawberry up by its stem, gently but quickly dip it until it's covered 3/4 of the way up with chocolate, swirling the strawberry as you remove it from the chocolate to cover all the pores; then invert the strawberry, pointing the end up to the sealing to "seal" the chocolate.
  6. Place the strawberry on the sheet & repeat with the remaining berries.
  7. Allow the berries to cool at room temperature until chocolate is hard and glossy. Then serve.

Raspberry and Dark Chocolate Parfait with Greek Yogurt, Agave Nectar, and Toasted Walnuts



Note: This recipe is all assembly & no cooking. It's as delicious as it is simple and healthy. Just use a large clear glass with an elevated bowl, like a martini, wine or margarita glass. If you're unconcerned about fat or calories, you can make a sabayon, click here for a simple recipe or just use softened vanilla gelato.
Serves 2.

Ingredients
  • 1 pint of fresh raspberries, rinsed & dried
  • 8 oz. of lowfat Greek-style yogurt (Fage brand, pronounced fa-yeh, is by far the best)
  • 1 oz high quality dark chocolate, shaved into large shards with a microplane
  • 6 teaspoons of toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • dark agave nectar in its squeeze bottle
  • 2 sprigs of mint (optional)
Directions
  1. Assemble all the ingredients, teaspoon, a tablespoon & the two parfait glasses.
  2. Start with a layer of two tablespoons of yogurt at the base of each glass.
  3. Follow with a layer of raspberries to cover yogurt.
  4. Follow the layer of raspberries with a squiggle (highly technical term) of agave nectar over the berries.
  5. Follow the agave nectar with a layer of chocolate shards
  6. Follow the chocolate with a layer of a teaspoon of chopped walnuts
  7. Repeat the layers until you have three layers of all the ingredients and top each glass with a sprig of mint. Voila.




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