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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Valentine Ode to Love: Between Two Slices of Bread

Ok, tomorrow is Valentine's Day.
You have a loved one.

You don't have.... the time, money, or inclination to dish up a Michelin star garnering, six course extravaganza oozing sex and sophistication; but, you'd like to create a little something special for you both to enjoy that doesn't involve a large cardboard box delivered by a young tattooed stranger. (Tattoos being the uniform of choice amongst most San Francisco delivery people.)

Ed Levine of Serious Eats asks his readers, how can we take the pressure off of ourselves and just enjoy a Valentine's Day dinner? (Click on the title of this post to read his article.) He, in his initial posting on the matter, expresses  feeling somewhat resentful of being coerced by the Hallmark mentality into celebrating the day in an extravagant way. He also felt a little guilty about his resentment because he loves his wife & doesn't want her to think his lack of enthusiasm for the day has anything to with his feelings for her. O.K., Ed, if you say so.

Look, Valentines have been exchanged in Western Society since the 15th century and for good reason. How often in the course of a busy year do we actually take the time to express our feelings of love and romance to our significant others? Not very, which may be why the tradition has survived through the centuries. So I'm all for a day set aside for that purpose, you may forget your anniversary but you'll never forget Valentine's Day. Forget the commercial aspect of the day & "the high expectations" associated with it. Skip the impossible to reserve, house-mortgaging restaurants & get ready to celebrate your love in a more intimate setting......

You can do what one romantic-minded friend of mine is considering: grab a blanket, buy a few favorite yummies, take your honey by the hand and have a little picnic while watching the sunset in some secluded outdoor spot.

Too cold for you to do that?

Fear not, ye of little culinary faith, eat at home.

You can make a delicious and simple meal that is stress-free, relatively low cost, will satisfy and even impress your valentine. All it requires is a quick trip to the grocery store & a few minutes in the kitchen.
As to the menu.......... a grilled panini, hot love between two slices of bread.

What's not to like?

Crisp, toasty bread with a warm molten center of savory delights. The ingredients can be as simple or as decadent as you like; but they should be of the highest quality you can afford.

Classics like ham & cheese can be upgraded to prosciutto & truffled cheese with a little arugula thrown in; fig jam and goat cheese (fresh or aged); brie with caramelized onions and apple slices; purchased duck confit with unctuous fromager d'affinois & braising greens; or just a good grainy dijon mustard with gruyere.
The possibilities are endless, the requirements simple: an excellent bread, a cheese that melts, a little unsalted butter (salt doesn't let the bread crisp up as nicely, better to add it later if you like it) & a couple of saute pans. Cast iron pans gives the best crust but are not essential, any non-stick pan will do.

But what if you really don't want a cheesy Valentine's Day? Then you can do it the French way & make a delicious meal using the same idea but keeping it topless and saving some calories: the tartine.

Very elegant, very simple and little cooking required beyond grilling or heating the bread. Smoked salmon, chives & creme fraiche is a natural; pates (foie gras or vegetarian); eggs scrambled with truffle butter and topped with roasted red peppers; sliced peppery seared ahi on sriracha mayonnaise with slices of avocado & cilantro; Mt. Vikos ready-to-eat glazed and roasted figs with sliced coins of boucheron or shards of fresh parmigiano-reggiano and a good fruity olive oil.

Again the bread is important, something with a great crust like Acme's Herb Slab (it's version of focaccia), ciabatta, a good batard or an Armenian lavash that you brush with olive oil and toss directly on a rack in a hot (500 degree) until crisp & hot.

Serve any of the above with a little something bubbly, a small box of Michael Recchiutti handmade chocolates (or Charles Chocolates yummy Triple Chocolate Hazelnuts), a little bit of luscious ice cream add a little chillout music from SOMA FM, a romantic movie and you have the recipe for a very special, relaxed evening on this day of celebrating love and relationships.

Here are two easy to make recipes that don't take much effort but definitely show that you care.

Grilled Prosciutto and Truffled Fontina Panini with Mache

Note: I used Acme's Herb Slab which has a good olive oil flavor with a touch of rosemary and an excellent crust, any foccacia with a good crust will work. I slice it through its equator and turn it "inside out", keeping the original crust on the inside of the sandwich which helps absorb any moisture from the fillings so the sandwich never gets soggy. It also allows the airy interior to become crusty as it absorbs the melted butter in the pan, giving you a double crusted sandwich. Yaaay!
A panini press is great if you have one, I don't; so, I just use another heavy pan on top of the bread to press the it down. Voila, a hot pressed panini sandwich redolent with the intoxicating aroma of truffles and butter.
Serve with a light salad if you want something green, or with a few mixed olives (Cerignolas are big and luscious). Goat cheese-stuffed marinated cherry peppers, that you can pick up at your local grocers, can add a little spice & Valentine's Day color to the plate.
If you're a non-vegan vegetarian, you can just eliminate the prosciutto.


  • 4 paper thin slices of Italian prosciutto
  • 4 to 6 ounces of fontina, Urgelia or taleggio cheese, sliced by hand from the wedge to fit the contours of your bread
  • white truffle oil (or white truffle butter) to taste
  • 1 cup of raw mache, arugula or other peppery green ( baby spinach will work, too)
  • half a loaf of Acme Herb Slab, cut into two equal pieces then sliced horizontally (you should have 4 slices of bread)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of unsalted european-style butter
  • 2 heavy 12" saute pans
  1. Set one 12" heavy-bottomed non-stick saute pan over medium heat.
  2. Place two slices of the bread on a clean surface, crust side up, place a slice of prosciutto on each crust, top with a layer of cheese.
  3. Drizzle some truffle oil over the cheese, top with roughly a half cup mache each; add another layer of cheese with an additional drizzle of truffle oil & then top with a final slice of prosciutto.
  4. Melt the butter in the pan, take the remaining two slices of focaccia & quickly swirl bread (crust side up) into the butter to absorb half of it. Set aside, crust (non-buttered) side down, for a moment.
  5. Check the pan. If it's smoking turn heat down to medium-low. Carefully transfer both open-faced paninis onto the pan and top with the two remaining slices of focaccia (crust-side down, buttered-side up). Press the sandwiches down, flattening them slightly with the second heavy saute pan & keep the second pan on until the cheese is beginning to melt & the first side is golden brown (about 2-3 minutes); set the press aside, then flip panini over & continue to grill uncovered until second side is browned and cheese is almost completely melted.
  6. Remove from heat, place on a cutting board & let sandwich rest for 30 seconds or so cooling slightly before gently cutting it on the bias with a sharp serrated bread knife. Be careful not to press the sandwich too hard as you saw into it or all the cheese will ooze out & the sandwich will disassemble into a gooey mess. Serve on a warm plate (stick the plate in a microwave for 45 seconds while panini rests).

Smoked Salmon Pizza with Truffled Eggs, Chives & Creme Fraiche

Note: Here's another easy dish to share with the one you love. Cooking time is about 5 minutes. Prep time makes it another 15-20 minutes, depending only on how long it takes your oven to heat up.
Scottish-smoked salmon is my favorite & readily available. Any good purchased flatbread (lavash, flour tortilla or even naan) would work; however, if you want to go the extra mile, you can get your favorite pizzeria (or boulangerie) to bake you a blind thin crust, maybe with a little olive oil brushed on; just order a small pizza with no cheese & no sauce, they'll question you a little but, ultimately, deliver it to you. Depending on the pizzeria ( I use Amici's), you may need to order two to meet the delivery minimum; and, pay the same price as having it topped with sauce and cheese; but, it'll taste great and look impressive. I know, I've done it. Just freeze the second crust or use it to make a more traditional pizza
Feel free to skip the eggs. The eggs are optional and really just a vehicle for the truffle butter but they were once considered a food of love and make this repast a little heartier without weighing it down too much. For extra credit, instead of chicken embryos you can use fish eggs on the smoked salmon. Nothing says "I love you" like a little dollop of caviar, from sustainably-raised farms like Tsar Nicolai, of course! We can't let a little thing like romance interfere with our eco-consciousness, can we?

  • Four ounces of thinly sliced Scottish or Scottish-style Atlantic smoked salmon
  • 2 ounces of creme fraiche
  • 3 large eggs, beaten until foamy with a tablespoon of cream & salt & pepper to taste
  • half a bunch of chives, chopped plus more for garnish
  • 2 teaspoons of chopped chervil (or italian parsley)
  • 1 flatbread (like Armenian lavash or thin pizza crust from your favorite pizzeria)
  • teaspoon of a fruity extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
  • Tablespoon of truffle butter plus more to finish eggs (I like white but black works)
  • 1 cup loose-packed watercress or baby arugula, washed & dried
  • juice of 1/2 lemon, preferably Meyer
  • 1/2 a lemon cut into lemon wedges
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Tsar Nicolai ossetra caviar, 1 ounce (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 550 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it in the center rack.
  2. When oven temperature is reached, place small (8-10") non-stick saute pan over medium heat.
  3. In a small bowl, mix the creme fraiche, chervil, chives & the lemon juice until combined & set aside.
  4. Add truffle butter to pan & allow to melt until foamy but not completely melted. While butter is melting, place flatbread in oven either on pizza stone or directly on center rack. Also, place an ovenproof serving platter in at this time to warm up. Leave it in the hot oven for about 5 minutes until crisp or until the eggs are cooked.
  5. Give the beaten eggs a quick whisk until foamy then add to the pan, allow eggs to set for 10 seconds or so then, using a heat-proof silicone spatula, scrape curds from the outside to the center, allowing any uncooked egg to fill in empty space where you have run the spatula, shaking the pan gently with one hand while you stir the eggs with the other until the eggs are almost set & almost cooked to your taste then remove from heat and swirl another teaspoon of truffle butter into the eggs. The heat from the pan will continue to cook them for a few seconds.
  6. Using oven mitts, remove the flatbread & it's serving platter from the oven. Place on a trivet or other heat-proof surface and prepare to assemble the dish.
  7. Brush the flatbread with olive oil, leaving a small border of naked crispy crust. Spread the creme fraiche directly over the oiled surface. Layer the smoked salmon over the creme fraiche; and, carefully, cut into four wedges with a pizza cutter or sharp serrated knife. Mound the truffled eggs evenly over the center of the wedges. Add a dollop of creme fraiche then top that with an ounce of caviar. Sprinkle entire pizza with freshly ground black pepper & additional chopped chives. Garnish with the greens around the eggs. Drizzle the greens with a little extra-virgin olive oil & serve with lemon wedges on the side.

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