Valentine's Day. Enforced romance generally rife with culinary atrocities.
We never go out for Valentine's Day. Restaurants create anything but a bargain Prix Fixe menus filled with smaller portions of a smaller selection of their regular menu. The chef generally isn't in, ingredients are pre-planned and perhaps not fresh from the day (certainly prepared in advance) -- in general, as Anthony Bourdain says, it is among the worst days of the year to eat out. Besides the pressure for romance takes all the fun out of it.
James and I decided to share valentines with our closest friends in a couples night at our house. Since we all consider cheese the most important food group -- and wanted something easy to prepare and still delicious -- we landed on a Raclette party.
Raclette is both a type of cheese and the traditional Swiss (some parts of France too) dish it stars in. Traditionally the cut wheels were placed by the fire and as the cheese melted it was scraped onto bread or boiled potatoes and served with and assortment of pickles and charcuterie. Modern times have brought table top Raclette grills with little pans for melting the cheese and griddles on top for vegetables, sausages -- anything you can imagine. For our evening we went for all the favorites. Jamon Serrano (not traditional but our favorite), Mortadella, rosemary ham, Italian Salame from Fra Mani, garlic sausage, steamed asparagus, lightly dressed mushrooms and plenty of homemade bread from Jim Lahey's recipes (that's for another post).
For dessert? A valentine's favorite and a classic diner participation dish, chocolate fondue. We layed out dried pineapple, crystallized ginger, bananas, and home made brown sugar marshmallows. I tried to buy marshmallows -- really I did. I went to two stores and called a third looking for French marshmallows or the delicious versions made by The Little Flower Candy Company in Pasadena, but no luck. After a couple hours in saturday afternoon shopping traffic I decided it would be easier to make my own, and a good way to use up the piles of brown sugar in my kitchen. First, in my mixer bowl, I softened 3 packages of gelatin in a 1/2 cup of water. Then I combined 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, 1 cup of light cornstarch, 1/2 cup of water, and a pinch of salt in saucepan and slowly heated it to 220º. With the mixer on low I poured the syrup over the softened gelatin and when it was combined turned the mixer (with the whisk attachment) to high and beat the marshmallows for about 15 minutes (adding a teaspoon of vanilla in the last couple seconds of beating) until the mixture was lukewarm and fluffy. To form the marshmallows I spread the beaten mixture out into a 10" x 13" pan already prepared with non-stick spray and a coating of equal parts powdered sugar and cornstarch. With the help of cornstarch coated hands I spread the mixture out dusted with the mixed powders and allowed the marshmallows to dry for about 6 hours. After time to dry I turned out the batter and cut it into squares with a pizza cutter dusted in the powdered sugar and cornstarch mixture, tossed the cut squares in the powders again and held the sweetly flavored treats in an airtight container until dinnertime.
For the chocolate I mixed about 3/4 cup of heavy cream, 3/4 cup of milk, 1 1/2 TB butter, and 2 TB sugar in a saucepan and brought to just below a boil. I whisked in about 12 oz of assorted dark chocolate (I used a mix of 70% and 53%) and poured the rich chocolaty mixture into a butter warmed with a tea light to keep it warm at the table. We forgot to get strawberries for the classic valentines combo -- but it would have been pretty hard to beat the combo of the delicates brown sugar sweetness with dark chocolate.
Happy Valentine's Day Honey!