Valentine's Day is upon us. Time to pull out the tablecloth, light a few candles and put on the romantic music. Avoid the crowds – and the costs – by staying at home with your sweetheart this year. Below, some of Charlotte's best chefs share their recommendations, reminiscences and recipes to make your dinner date a delight. Chef Pamela Roberts, culinary technology instructor at Central Piedmont Community College, says, "When my sweetie cooks anything for me, whether it's salad or pasta or even just a sandwich, I think it's romantic because he's thinking about me." It really doesn't matter what the food is, she says. It's time and effort put into the meal that means so much. Chef Sandra Mannaravalappil of The South Charlotte Chef agrees. Anything someone has taken the time to create with their own hands is a gift of love, she says. "When you make something yourself, you are filling it with love." Roberts' suggestion for a great Valentine's dinner? Make something that sounds exotic, like beef Wellington, that is actually simple if you break it down to individual servings. Try it with a salad with hearts of palm, arugula and tomatoes dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and assorted berries for dessert. "If you keep the menu simple," she says, "you have so much more time to spend with your loved one." Keeping the menu simple is also a great way to make sure the dinner remains affordable and stress-free, she says. "This isn't the time to try a new recipe," Roberts cautions. "If your sweetie's favorite meal is pork chops, make pork chops. Don't try to make a soufflé just because your best friend is making one for her sweetie." Mannaravalappil agrees. "If a recipe has a hundred steps, step away from it,” she says. “Romance does not mean complicated." She also reminds the home cooks that they don't need to make oysters and lobster or filet mignon. "You can put anything in or on puff pastry and it looks amazing for an appetizer, main course or dessert." Or, go a different route with her seafood martini appetizer – just get a lobster tail, four shrimp and a little crab. "Delicious, simple and well within a limited budget," she says. Also, since this is a cold appetizer, it can be made the day before. Make the atmosphere romantic by adding candles and flowers, using cloth napkins and playing soft music, Roberts says. As for wine pairings with the meal, since Champagne can be pricey and expected, look at a Spanish cava or Italian prosecco. Both have lovely bubbles and make any event special, she says. Put a strawberry or raspberry in whichever sparkler you choose for the dessert course, according to Mannaravalappil. If you want to do something really fancy, she says, put a scoop of lemon sorbet in a champagne flute along with a splash of prosecco and a mint sprig, and you have an easy palate cleanser. If you're an inexperienced cook, Roberts recommends making a checklist, just like professionals use. It should include: the entire menu and recipes; what needs to be done first?; can anything be made in advance?; a shopping list – make sure you check what you have at home first; what dishes and glasses will you need; timing – sometimes it helps to work backward to ensure you have time to get everything done. Mannaravalappil also stresses the importance of early planning and advises home cooks to have realistic expectations. Stress does not add to a romantic mood, she says, so just go with the flow and have fun. If you truly feel uncomfortable cooking, Roberts says there’s nothing wrong with ordering in – but set an outstanding table. "The entire point of the evening is to spend quality romantic time with your partner, not to be stressed out, ruin your mood and have a not-so-enjoyable evening." For a simple dessert, she says, "Present a dish of strawberries and whipped cream with the rule: You cannot feed yourself. If you have some chocolate sauce to dip the berries in, add a few small paintbrushes labeled 'For the chocolate' and see if imagination takes over." And her most important piece of advice? "Do not buy cheap chocolates." Mannaravalappil says that for years she was a serious diabetic. On her most meaningful Valentine's Day, she came home from work and her husband had roses and long-stemmed strawberries waiting for her, plus a nine-volt battery for her glucose meter. "Since I couldn't eat chocolate, plain strawberries were perfect. It also took a great deal of thought for him to include the battery, as I really needed it and had no time to get it." Roberts sums up the holiday perfectly, saying, "After all, isn't Valentine's Day about making the ones you love feel good?"
Individual Beef Wellington Courtesy of Chef Pamela Roberts, culinary technology instructor at Central Piedmont Community College
For the Individual Beef Wellington
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 minced shallots
1 pound coarsely chopped mixed mushrooms
2 cloves fresh minced garlic
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup white wine
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper to taste
4 6- to 8-ounce 1 1/2-inch thick beef tenderloin cleaned of silver skin
1-2 sheets puff pastry dough
1 egg and 1 cup water, whisked together for egg wash
For the red wine demi-glace
1 package of demi-glace, such as “More Than Gourmet Demi-Glace Gold”
3 ounces red wine (cabernet, merlot or zinfandel)
Heat a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and butter. Sauté the shallots and mushrooms. Once the mushrooms begin to release their liquid, add the garlic and the thyme. Sauté the mushroom mixture for 3 minutes. Add the white wine, salt and pepper; continue to cook until the wine has evaporated. Remove the thyme stalks. Add the butter and stir. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Cool the mushroom mixture.
Heat a sauté pan over high heat. Season the beef tenderloin steaks with salt and pepper. Sear the tenderloin 2 to 3 minutes on each side for medium rare. (Cook 1 minute per side for rare and 4 to 5 minutes for well done.) Remove the meat from the heat and cool.
Unfold the puff pastry and brush with egg wash. Cut the pastry into quarter squares. Place a small mound of the cooled mushroom mixture in the center of each square of pastry. Place the cooled tenderloin on top of the mushrooms. Fold the pastry over and around the meat and mushrooms to create a nice bundle. Place seam side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush the pastry with egg wash. Bake the Wellingtons in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until the pastry is puffed and golden brown.
Make the red wine demi-glace by using a demi-glace mix. Substitute the red wine for half of the water when following the package directions.
Seafood Martini Courtesy of Chef Sandra Mannaravalappil of The South Charlotte Chef
1 medium cooked lobster tail sliced into medallions
4 large steamed shrimp, butterflied
4 ounces lump crabmeat
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
Avocado chopped into cubes
Chives or dill for garnish
Two chilled martini glasses
Mix mayonnaise and ketchup together to make a Russian dressing. In each martini glass, put one lettuce leaf in the bottom of the glass to create a bowl. Spoon in a teaspoon of dressing and place crabmeat on top. Add some of the avocado, dressing and lobster. Repeat process again with shrimp. Add some of the cubed avocado, and drizzle remaining dressing on top. Sprinkle with either chopped dill or chives and serve.