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TODAY

Tuesday, May 21

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Ah, Valentine's Day. It makes me think of red roses, candy hearts, snuggly kisses, over-booked restaurants, grumpy servers, and the time I was seated next to couple that was breaking up. It's hard to be cooey with your love while over-hearing, "Nope, not once. I faked it every time." And, as you may recall from my New Year's Eve column, Valentine's Day is one of the worst days, service-wise, to go to a restaurant.

I say skip the dinner out, make a kick-ass meal at home, and go out to brunch on Sunday morning.

Since this is a special occasion, I'm going to present a wallet-busting menu for you that will still cost half or less of what you'd spend on a romantic fine-dining restaurant on V-day. After all, you are trying to impress someone, right? Gourmet wooing doesn't come cheap.

This list of recipes will take a while to prepare, with some of the prep occurring the day before the big dinner, but none of it is hard and by preparing foods ahead of time there will be less clean-up so your kitchen can be clean and sparkling. And a clean kitchen is a sign of thoughtful lover.

The menu consists of mixed greens salad with pears and goat cheese dressing, marinated filet mignon stuffed with oysters, twice baked potatoes, and hand-dipped chocolate-covered fruit for dessert. Aw yeah!

Since you're going to be splurging anyway, may I suggest hitting your friendly butcher for the beef, finding a fishmonger (The Fish Guy) for the oysters, and getting organic produce for the salad, the baked potato, and the fruit for dessert?

(I'm going to assume that you'll be making this dinner on Saturday. Some of the prep will need to take place on Friday. If you're making this recipe some other time, adjust these instructions accordingly.)

On Friday, stop at the butcher at lunchtime or on the way home and pick up two 6-10 oz. filet mignon steaks. Their weight will be determined by their circumference. You want to get two steaks that are 1.5 to 2 inches thick so there is plenty of steak to be wrapped around your delicious oysters. If you ask, your butcher will probably cut a pocket in the steak for you. Most of the fat should be trimmed off, if it isn't you'll want to trim almost all of it off. Once you're home, take a plastic zipper bag, add:
4 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
handful of chopped onion
Dark beer to cover (Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout, Guinness, or similar)

You're going to put this bag inside a bowl (so that if your bag isn't as reliable as the ones in the commercials you won't have to clean the refrigerator) and let it sit in your fridge till the next day. When you wake up in the morning, you're going to want to simply flip the bag over. This will ensure everything gets marinated evenly.

Since you're up, you're ready to go to the store to get the rest of the ingredients you'll need for the dinner. You'll want:

For the steak:
4 large or 6-8 small oysters that have been shucked
3 tablespoons of dried, unseasoned breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper

For the salad:
1 pear, Anjou (which is easiest to find in the winter, but not very tasty) or Bartlett (which may be harder to find, but will be sweeter and juicier)
2 large handfuls of mixed greens

For the dressing:
3 tablespoons of heavy cream
1 small round of goat cheese (about 2 ounces kept at room temperature)
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh parsley
Pinch of grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

For the twice-baked potato:
1 large baking potato
6 medium-sized white mushrooms (cut in half and sliced thinly)
1/4 cup Monterey Jack cheese (shredded)
1 slice cooked bacon (or 1 ounce pancetta: much yummier!) crumbled or cut into small pieces
1 scallion (sliced in small rings)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

For the fruit:
1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1 pint strawberries, or fresh pineapple rounds, fresh cherries, dried apricot slices, or any other fruit you think would taste yummy dipped in chocolate
A handful of nuts or other candies to mix into the chocolate that is left over

This is going to seem very out of order, and for that I apologize, but I'm listing it in the order of how you should prepare things so you can achieve that shiny kitchen and not be stressed out when the doorbell rings.

First you're going to make dessert because this is the messiest and trickiest part of the whole meal. I recommend starting this about 6-7 hours before your date. It really isn't tricky, but there are a few things which can go horribly wrong, and if they do, you're going to want time to rush to the store so you can fix it. First, prepare your fruit. If it is wet, the chocolate won't stick as well. Wash and dry your fruit with paper towels and let sit spread out while you prepare the chocolate. If you're using something like pineapple or mango, cut the slices and pat them dry with a paper towel and let them air out while you prepare the chocolate. If you notice that the chocolate isn't sticking, quickly pat them down.

(I have to give my thanks to the fine folks who wrote Joy of Cooking for simplifying this process.) Put 1 pound of dark chocolate into a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium power for about 2 minutes. If you're using milk or white chocolate, set it on low power. Stir the chocolate. Continue to heat in 20 second increments until fully melted, stirring each time to help distribute the heat and melt the remaining pieces. If you want perfectly glossy chocolate you can purchase a candy thermometer to make sure it is no more than 90 degrees (88 degrees for milk or white chocolate). The goal is to keep the chocolate in "temper," which will permit it to dry shiny and glossy instead of powdery and matte. I don't use one and for the most part it has been fine. It tastes the same either way. Spread wax paper on a baking sheet. Holding the stem of the fruit, or using a fork, dip your fruit into the chocolate and lay on the paper. If the chocolate starts to get too thick to dip, reheat in 10 second increments and stir. When you have used all your fruit, mix in your nuts or candies. Drop by the spoonful onto waxed paper and cool the fruit and the cluster in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes. You can package the clusters into a little gift box, tie with a bow and your sweetheart will have something to take home with them to remind them of how incredibly cool you are. Once the fruit has set, you can arrange it on a plate, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate. You'll want to remove this from the refrigerator at least an hour before you are ready to serve it. If you decide not to refrigerate, keep it as cool as possible even if that means putting it in a room other than the kitchen. Room temperature is ideal for the fruit.

You hopefully have at least four hours before the arrival time of your desired one and are ready to move to making the baked potato. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Pierce your potato in several places with a fork and set it in a small pan to bake in the middle of your oven. It should take about 45 to 55 minutes and you'll know it is done by poking it with the tip of a sharp knife. (This should be plenty of time to clean up your kitchen.) If it cuts smoothly, take the pan out and let it cool till you can hold it. While the potato is cooling, you're going to want to mix together all the ingredients listed above for the potato in a small bowl. Once the potato is cool, cut it in half and, using a spoon, scrape out most of the potato pulp into the bowl with a quarter- to half-inch of potato still attached to the skin. Stir everything together, add salt and pepper to taste. Scoop the mixture into the potato shells and place covered in the refrigerator. You're going to want to bake these for about 15 minutes, but you'll do that later. If you're on schedule, turn off the oven. If not, then hurry up.

You're probably down to 2 1/2 hours so now you're ready to put together the dressing for the salad. Whisk all the salad dressing ingredients together in a small bowl. Taste it, then season with salt and pepper. If you need to thin it a little more, you can add some more cream, or you can add some more lemon juice if it isn't zesty enough. Put into a tightly closing bowl or jar and refrigerate until you're ready to pour over the greens. Dressing the salad should be done right before you serve it. Add the dressing too soon and you get a soggy mess. You may want to save some of the goat cheese to sprinkle over the salad. Next, wash your pear well and dry it with a paper towel. Cut the pear in half and cut out the core by making two 45 degree angle cuts. Cut each half in half lengthwise again and then begin making thin slices. Once you have a pile of thinly sliced pears you can place them in a bowl and squeeze some fresh lemon juice on them. Toss them to coat evenly and then drain off the juice; this will keep them from turning brown while they sit in your refrigerator for the next two hours. Now is also a good time to wash off your greens and shake them as dry as possible. Wrap them in a couple of paper towels and put them in an open plastic bag.

The oysters are going to be quite easy to prepare. Simply dredge the oysters in the dried bread-crumbs. Your butcher may have been nice enough to create a pocket for you in your steak. If not, make a one-inch cut in the side of the steak, being careful to not cut through to the other side. Move your knife little by little to create a pocket. Once you've got a pocket, you can make it slightly bigger by inserting a finger or two. You'll want it big enough to be able to stuff in your oysters. Put half of the oysters in each steak and use a toothpick to hold it closed. Remove the bay leaf from the marinade and pour the marinade into a saucepan and boil it. Put the steaks back into the zipper bag and refrigerate. Taste the boiled mixture. If it tastes good you'll be able to drizzle this on the steak for a little extra flavor. If it is too salty or doesn't suit you, you can discard it. If you decide to keep it, you're going to want to refrigerate it until you're ready to warm it up again. Warming it up can take place in the microwave.

Yep, you have two hours before your smoochy-woochy shows up. This should give you enough time to clean up your kitchen, get dressed in your finest, set the table, and relax a bit. Most of the messy cooking is done and the rest should go easily. If you're a klutz, bust out an apron.

About half an hour before the love of your life arrives, put the white wine in the refrigerator. (See the end of the article for wine suggestions.) This will give it some time to chill but not too long. You want it cool, not ice cold. Heat the oven back up to 400 degrees. Put the potatoes back in the oven for about 10 minutes. Take them out and place them someplace to keep them warm, like the microwave, or covered and on the counter. The rest of the cooking can take place while the steaks cook. Now is also a good time to remove the fruit from the fridge.

Invite your guest in, maybe hand him or her a flower, and offer to pour a glass of wine. At this point he or she should be at least slightly impressed that you aren't a disaster. While chatting you can begin to toss your salad. Simply pour the dressing over the mixed greens and toss using either your hands or appropriate utensils. You can then place half of each set of greens on a plate, fan on several of the pear slices, sprinkle the reserved goat cheese on top, and escort your date to the table.

After enjoying your freshly made and quite delicious salad. Take the dirty plates to the kitchen, say you're going to get some more wine. Remove the toothpicks from the steaks, switch your oven to broil and place the broiling pan on the shelf that is second from the top. Return to the living room with the wine, pour your date another glass of wine and chat for a few minutes while the oven heats up. Since it isn't romantic to leave your date alone, and since you don't want to leave a broiling item unattended, invite your date to the kitchen. Place the steaks side by side in the middle of the broiler pan. If you're going to make out while the steak cooks, set a timer.

Now is a good time to have a short talk about cooking times. If you're going to spend a decent amount of money on good steak, you're going to want to cook it no more than medium done. This means just pink in the center. If you've purchased your steak from a reputable vendor, you should be able to get away with cooking it rare, which means it's red (but warm) in the center and pink to the edges. I prefer mine medium rare. I didn't used to like meat cooked less than medium. But I've noticed that it is juicier and it has much more flavor. Your cooking time may vary and with this, the only way to tell how done it is, will be to make a small cut and peel back the sides to look. Here are rough times that should work for you, these are total cooking times:

Rare: 8-10 minutes if the steak is 1 1/2 inch thick and 12 to 14 minutes if they're 2 inches thick.
Medium Rare: 10-12 minutes for the thinner cut and 14-18 minutes for a thicker cut.
Medium: 12-15 minutes for the thinner cut and 18-20 minutes for the thicker cut.
Medium Well or Well Done: add 2-5 minutes to the last numbers and check it every minute or two until it is done. Trust me, you don't want to cook the steaks that long -- they'll be dry and chewy.

Notice that those are total cooking times. Since the first side will take a little longer to cook than the second, divide the desired time in half, add one minute and that is the amount for the first side. Flip each steak over using tongs and cook for the remaining time. Keep the door propped open so the burner doesn't shut itself off. When you flip the steaks to the second side, put the potatoes on the bottom rack.

Double-check each steak by making a small cut and peering into the center. Have your heart-throb approve one of the steaks. Once they are both finished, you're going to want to pull the pan from the oven. Place a steak on each plate and let it rest for 3-5 minutes. This really does make the steak juicier. Place a potato half on each plate, grab the red wine and retire to the table to enjoy your culinary delight.

Even though your better half may say they're full, show them the plate of chocolate covered fruit, and I bet they'll change their mind.

There should be just a few dirty dishes to clean which means you can focus your attentions on your snogging partner for the rest of the night.

Sure, it seemed like a lot of work, and it's possible that it will require you to spend more time cooking in one day than you usually do in a week or two, but the result will hopefully be a downright romantic evening that will rival anything you could experience in a restaurant. Besides, feeding each other chocolate-covered strawberries while curled up on the sofa -- or in bed -- is a wonderful way to end the night.

Wine selections: For a white wine, look for a Sauvignon Blanc or a Fume Blanc. If you're not sure that you're going to want a white wine and a red wine, I'd suggest looking for a half bottle of each. Your selection will be smaller than if you choose a whole bottle, but it won't go to waste and it will cut down some of your cost. For a red wine, I would choose a Sangiovese or a Barbera (especially one from Chile or Argentina). Since these wines aren't made from the most popular grapes, you should be lucky enough to get a very tasty wine without spending more than $12-15 a bottle and you can probably even find a good wine for $8-$10 per bottle. I always suggest asking for recommendations and I highly recommend shopping at a wine specialty store.

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