By Nancy Caivano
February has always been looked upon as a dark, dreary month—even with Valentine's Day tucked into the middle of it. It is the middle of a long winter (in most places), and all the holiday celebrations are really and truly over. Most people are just trying to stay warm, and looking ahead, hopefully, to an end of winter and the beginning of spring.
I, personally, love the long winter. To me, it seems to keep people close to home, and spend more time with family. I have always had visions of sitting in a large den or living room in front of a roaring fire on a weekday evening, after the dinner dishes were done, sipping coffee with the family; maybe reading, playing a game, or even watching TV. I have always lived in apartments, so I never had a fireplace, but hope springs eternal. February to me is just a cozy month. You huddle up with your loved ones and share good times, and good food.
With all this in mind—we still need to eat! So this edition of Pasta, Risotto and You will focus on some lovely dishes to keep you warm, plus a scrumptious Valentine's Day menu that you can use for two or adapt for twenty, depending on your celebration—complete with decadent desserts!
First, for our February pastas, we have two great choices. Pasta with Spinach and White Bean Ragu is pure comfort food. The white beans cook up meltingly tender and are flavored with pancetta, tomatoes and a kick of hot red pepper flakes. Combined with fresh sautéed spinach and pasta it makes a hearty, warming dish. Spicy Baked Pasta with Prosciutto, Tomatoes and Mushrooms is a fabulous make-ahead dish. A combination of mushrooms, thinly sliced prosciutto and tomatoes are combined in this dish in a creamy white sauce flavored with Fontina, Gorgonzola and Romano cheeses and more hot red pepper flakes to really keep you warm! Since the dish is simply mixed together instead of layered, as in a lasagna, it is a cinch to put together either the night before, or a few days before and freeze; simply pop in the oven and you have a comforting, warming meal for your family.
For the times you would like some risotto to warm you up, you have two tempting recipes to choose from this month. Risotto with Balsamic Roasted Vegetables is a heavenly melange of different vegetables, coated with balsamic vinegar and roasted until tender. They are then mixed into the creamy risotto for a spectacular combination of flavors and textures. You could also add any kind of meat to this dish; perhaps the remains of a previous night's roast, really making this dish a hearty one. Risotto with Sausage, Roasted Fennel and Tomatoes is a true winter time treat. Savory Italian sausage is browned with garlic then stirred into the risotto with tender, roasted fennel and ripe tomatoes. Roasting mellows the flavor of the fennel adding a smoky note to the lovely anise flavor.
For our Valentine's Day Menu, I have prepared a selection of rich and fabulous dishes that together will create a romantic atmosphere for your celebration. You can change the amounts of any of the recipes to suit the number of guests you will have. Many of the dishes are make ahead, or have components that can be made ahead of time, so you won't have to spend the entire night in the kitchen.
For the first course, we have Lemon Chicken Ravioli with Tomatoes and Artichokes. If you are in a really romantic mood, make the ravioli heart shaped! Whatever shape you make them, they are a lovely way to begin your dinner. The ravioli is fragrant with lemon, cream and herbs and are served with a fresh tomato sauce spiked with artichokes and herbs.
As the entree, Roasted Loin of Pork with Mushroom Stuffing and Burgundy Sauce would be perfect. Boneless loin of pork stuffed with a delectable filling made from a variety of mushrooms and a rich Burgundy sauce in a perfect "Valentine's Red"! If you are doing a large party, you can simply get more than one pork loin or one very large loin.
To accompany the pork, we have a variety of side dishes. Potato and Tomato Gratin with Goat Cheese and Olives is a savory, luscious combination of thinly sliced potatoes, plum tomatoes, tangy black olives and creamy, fresh goat cheese that go perfectly with the pork. It can be made ahead of time and reheated before serving, which will save you some valuable kitchen time. Next, we have Creamy Artichoke Hearts with Pancetta, another divine combination of flavors. Fresh artichokes are combined with crisped pancetta in a creamy sauce flavored with leek, capers, anchovies, wine and herbs. To round out the meal, Romaine, Fennel and Pear Salad with Apple-Cider Vinaigrette and Walnuts is a perfect way to finish. Crisp romaine lettuce, fragrant fennel, cucumbers, celery and ripe pears are all combined in a rich apple-cider vinaigrette. Crunchy toasted walnuts are added right before serving, adding some real crunch power to this fresh tasting salad.
Now of course, we couldn't have a Valentine's Day meal without dessert! I have two for you. One, chocolate, of course, and one just in case there happens to be a stray person around that doesn't like chocolate (I'm not exactly sure such people exist, but I have heard rumors). Both desserts are cakes, so you can again, make them ahead of time, and not fuss with anything but coffee or tea. Chocolate Cake with Caramel, Coconut and Almonds is just chocolate heaven. The cake is rich, dark and dense, with a divine filling of creamy caramel, sweet coconut and crunchy almonds, then all frosted with a chocolate-sour cream frosting and topped with more almonds. It makes a stunning presentation and holds up with coffee and tea. Banana Layer Cake with Amaretto Cream Cheese Frosting is an exotic tasting cake that will be especially welcome in winter. Fresh bananas are both mashed into the cake and layered in between and the cake is coated with a fragrant, luscious cream cheese frosting flavored with vanilla and amaretto.
The only thing that you need to add to this meal is some warm crusty bread and a couple of bottles of wine—the wine can be the same that you used in the burgundy sauce for the pork. Some good suggestions are 1996 Wild Horse Pinot Noir ($17), 1996 Dario D'Angelo Montepulciano D'Abruzzo ($7), or a 1996 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($16). Plus, don't forget about the mood! Light some candles, dim the lights, turn on some soft music and serve food created with love. That is a winning combination that would put anyone in a romantic, loving mood.
I hope you have a lovely Valentine's Day and a good winter. We will meet again in March and perhaps begin to glance towards spring.
This page created February 2000
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