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Thursday, August 18

Gapers Block

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I've written in the past about how I abhor eating out for Valentine's Day. And in the last year, my mind hasn't changed. Sure, having Valentine's Day on a Wednesday night means that many people will choose to go out the weekend before or after instead, so restaurants aren't as likely to be super-packed like they would be if Valentine's Day were on a Friday or Saturday night. But I still maintain that you're likely to have a much more romantic night at home than you will at a restaurant.

And of course to help make that happen, I'll be providing you with a kick-ass menu that will be much simpler than it sounds, will cost less than eating at a fancy restaurant, and that will make your date wonder what else you can impress him or her with. I know not everyone is as into food as I am. I know that for some people, food is simply something they do to keep themselves going, as opposed to keeping themselves going so they can eat. But I firmly believe that spending time and enjoying the process of making a meal is a very good way to express your love for someone.

Now along with making dinner, you might have the urge to purchase lots of fancy flowers, a super-expensive bottle of wine, new dishes and tablecloths to make the dining experience extra-nice. And I'm not saying you shouldn't do these things, because they will help enhance the romantic mood you're trying to create. But I also maintain that being creative is far more important than spending lots of money. If you want candles for dinner, use some empty wine bottles instead. Or you can even take a juice glass, place your taper candle in it, and pour sand or salt into the glass to keep it from moving. Some people might see that as "too cheap to buy candle holders," but someone else might see that as the move of a "creative thinker who isn't stumped on how to solve small problems." And I generally think it is better to make do with something you have, rather than make a special purchase you're not likely to use regularly.

Flowers are so expensive this time of year, but you really want roses, I know. Buy a bunch of roses at the grocery store. Keep the nicest one of the bunch to place across your date's plate. Tear the heads off the rest and sprinkle the table with rose petals. It's a nice touch, but there's also nothing to get in the way of the two of you looking at each other while you're eating. You can even take the baby's breath, cut it into longish sections, and place those around the table as well. You'll be able to spend $10 or so, but continue that trend of thinking creatively.

Wine is worth splurging on a bit. If you normally spend $7 on wine, ask the owner of the wine shop or the sales clerk to assist you in finding a wine that is better than what you'd usually get, but still in the $10-$12 range. If you normally get a $10 bottle, increase your budget by a notch, but don't go overboard. Unless you're providing a key or asking for a lifetime commitment, go for impressing your date, not bowling them over. You should be able to find a Syrah that would go well with duck in a variety of price ranges.

Wait. Did I just say duck? Really? Cooking duck is easy? Am I crazy?

Nope. Cooking duck can be easy, or it can be hard. I fully admit that I've had a paranoia about duck. Partly due to the fact that my sweetie frequently orders duck when we go out and I rarely like it. So I've assumed that making duck must be hard, since all kinds of places seem to screw it up. But I've been promising him for years that I'll make duck, and after getting a fabulous cookbook from a friend, I decided to just go for it. And honestly, the prep was so simple (or it could be anyway) and the cooking time is so short, that I realized that with some work ahead of time, I could actually make a nice dinner on Valentine's Day, after work, and still have time to enjoy it before we both turn into grumpy yawn-monsters.

I went to my local butcher, Bornhofen Meat Market in the hopes of finding fresh duck breast. They didn't have any, but they did have a frozen whole duck that cost less than $15 so I snagged it. I'm pretty sure if I'd called a week or so ahead of time, they'd have had duck breasts waiting for me. You're likely to be able to find frozen duck breasts at a grocery store. If you're leery about cutting apart a bird, this might be the way to go. But keep in mind you're likely to pay more. The places I checked had frozen duck breasts running at $12 per pound, but I paid less than $15 for a whole duck and spent 45 minutes or so cutting it into pieces. I couldn't find directions for cutting apart a duck, so I followed these directions for a chicken. The parts are similar, but shaped differently.

Since I just wanted breasts for this meal, I cut the breast off and set the rest of the bird aside for later. And while the cooking of the breasts only takes 15 minutes, the breasts will need to brine for at least six hours and for as long as 24. Which means you can cut apart the bird on Tuesday night and get it brining. You can also create the shallot salad dressing the night before, you can prepare the ravioli the night before, and the dessert can even be made ahead of time. Doing everything ahead of time means that you'll be able to have dinner on the table in less than an hour. But I won't blame you if you invite your date to arrive after you have everything set up, but before dinner is ready, so they can see how much work everything really was. Knowing that your sweetie spent a lot of time making something enjoyable is pretty romantic.

So the menu: Mixed Greens with Lemon Shallot dressing, Seared and Baked Duck Breasts with Fruit Compote, Parmesan and Leek Ravioli, and Chocolate Blueberry Pie.

Steps that can be completed ahead of time are located within ** **'s.

Mixed Greens with Lemon Shallot Dressing
4 cups of mixed salad greens
1 large shallot
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup of honey
1/4 cup of lime juice (juice of 2 limes)
1/4 cup of red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Rinse the greens under cool water and either spin dry in a salad spinner, or pat dry with paper towels. **Peel the garlic and shallots and chop them in large pieces to put in a food processor or blender. Add the honey, lime juice, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper. Puree until the shallot and garlic are chopped fine. While the blender or food processor churns, slowly add the oil. Once the oil is added, taste to see if it needs more salt, pepper or honey. Pour it into an air-tight jar or bowl and refrigerate.** This can be stored in your fridge for a week to 10 days. To serve, shake to combine and then pour over the greens, toss to coat (fingers work easiest), garnish with an extra crack of fresh ground pepper, a few thin slices of parmesan cheese, or a few tomato slices and serve on salad plates.

Seared and Baked Duck Breasts
(idea courtesy of Aquavit)
1 quart of warm water
1/4 cup of table salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 boneless, skin-on duck breasts
1 cup of ice

**Place the water, salt and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the solids are dissolved. Meanwhile, place the duck breast skin-side up on a cutting board. Drag a sharp knife across the skin diagonally, being careful not to cut all the way through to the meat. Repeat these cuts about 1-inch apart over the length of the breast. Turn and repeat, creating a light diamond pattern on the skin. This will prevent the skin from pulling at the meat while it sauté's. Place the duck in a plastic bowl or zipper bag. Dump a cup of ice into the brine to begin cooling it. Once the ice melts, pour the brine into the plastic bag over the duck, seal it and set the bag in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours but no more than 24.** Just in case, place that bag of duck and brine into a baking dish or bowl.

Preheat your oven to 400° F. Heat a skillet over medium heat until it is hot. Remove the duck breasts from the brine and thoroughly pat them dry with paper towels. Place them skin side down in the skillet and let it cook for 6 minutes. Nudge the breasts every minute or so to keep them from sticking, but don't flip them over. Turn off the heat and drain the fat from the skillet (but save some of it for the compote. The rest can be saved for sautéing potatoes in.) Flip the breasts so they're skin-side up and cook them in the middle of the oven for about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven, turn off the heat, cover with a lid and put it back in the oven to cook for 4 more minutes. Take it out and let the duck rest on a cutting board, covered with aluminum foil, for 5 minutes, then cut the breasts on an angle.

Savory Fruit Compote (cheater style, but no one will know)
2 tablespoons of duck fat reserved from breasts
1 shallot
2 teaspoons of flour
1/2 cup of cherry, currant, raspberry or other fruit jam
1/4 cup of sherry, creme de cassis, Grand Marnier or other liquour
1/4 cup of red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

**Mince the shallot and store in a bowl. Mix the jam, sherry, and vinegar together in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate**. Pour two tablespoons of the duck fat into a small saucepan. Add the shallots and cook over medium high for 3 minutes, or until the shallot just starts to turn brown. Sprinkle the flour overtop and cook for one minute while stirring constantly. Add the jam mixture and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and taste before adding a little more pepper if desired.

Leek and Parmesan Cheese Ravioli
I know making your own ravioli sounds like a lot of work, but trust me when I say it will take a little time, but it isn't hard. Since we're using won-ton wrappers instead of sheets of pasta, it's very simple.

1 leek
1 clove of garlic
1 teaspoon of butter
1 tablespoon of oil
1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon of ground pepper
2 tablespoons of white wine or champagne vinegar
1/3 cup of fresh shredded parmesan cheese
won-ton wrappers
1 egg white
a brush

**Cut the green tips and the root off the leek. Cut the leek in half lengthwise and then cut the halves into 1-inch sections. Separate and wash very well in cold water to remove any dirt. Spin dry in a salad spinner or shake in a colander several times. You need to remove as much of the water as possible to prevent water popping in the oil. Chop the leeks and garlic very small, or run through a food processor on pulse for about 5-10 seconds. Place the skillet over medium heat and add the butter and oil to the skillet. Once the butter has melted, add the leek and garlic mixture and stir to combine. Add the cardamom, oregano and pepper and let the mixture cook for about three minutes while stirring frequently. Once the leeks are very soft and fragrant, add the vinegar to the skillet and stir quickly to get up any spices or herbs that are stuck to the pan. Once the vinegar has evaporated, scrape the mixture into a medium-sized bowl. Once the mixture has cooled enough to hold in your fingers, add the parmesan cheese and stir to combine.

Place a sheet of wax paper in a shallow but largish storage container with a lid. Crack the egg and put the white into a small bowl and set your brush beside it. Place one of the won-ton wrappers on a cutting board and use a teaspoon to place a dollop of mixture in the middle of the wrapper. You can either place a small amount of filling in the wrapper, paint two adjoining sides of the wrapper with the brush, and fold one of the edges diagonally to the opposite edge to create a triangle shaped ravioli. Or you can add a little more filling to the wrapper, paint all four sides with egg white, and place another wrapper on top. Either way, use your thumbs or fingertips to press firmly around the edges to make sure there is a seal, otherwise your ravioli will break open in the water. Place the filled wrapper on the wax paper, and repeat until you run out of mixture. Make sure to put wax paper between layers of ravioli so they don't stick to each other. These can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours before cooking as long as they're in something airtight. They can also be frozen for up to a month. This recipe makes 18 ravioli, and since six ravioli make one portion, you have enough for lunch later, or you can give them as a gift to your date so they can remember your dinner together later.**

Here is the final prep strategy for the savory part of the meal.

A little before you're ready to cook the duck breast, place a large pan of water over high heat, cover and let it come to a gentle boil. Divide the greens between two salad plates and set on the table. Once you see steam coming off the water, start preparing the duck breast. Once the duck is in the oven, remove the cover on the boiling water, add the ravioli, one at a time, to the pot and make sure the water is at a low, gentle boil so your ravioli don't burst and turn your water into weak soup. Let them cook for 2-3 minutes and remove them from the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon. Place them in the center of the plate. Remove the duck from the oven and let it continue cooking for four minutes. Now you make the compote. Once the compote seems thickened, remove the skin from the duck breast (or leave it on if you prefer, but I find it chewy and fatty) and slice it into diagonal strips that are about 3/4" thick. Place the sliced duck breast on top of the ravioli, and then pour half of the compote over each dish. Place on the decorated table with the salad and a glass of wine. Light the candles and do your best to eat dinner while holding hands. But save room for dessert. 'Cause it is good.

Chocolate Blueberry Pie
To make the graham cracker crumble topping:
3/4 cups of graham crackers (about 5 graham crackers, or 2.5 ounces)
3 tablespoons of butter or margarine
2 tablespoons of sugar

For the fruit filling:
1 pint of blueberries
1/4 cup of sugar
zest from 1 lime
1.5-2 ounce dark chocolate candy bar (milk chocolate would also work) or you can use a handful of chocolate truffles that don't have a hard chocolate shell (this way you have chocolate truffles left over for later, just in case)

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees F. **Place the graham crackers in a paper or plastic bag. Break them into chunks and roll over them with a rolling pin or canned good item until they're finely ground. Melt the butter in a medium-sized bowl in 20-second increments in a microwave, or melt in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Combine all these ingredients in a bowl and mix well and set aside.

Combine the blueberries, sugar and lime zest in a medium sized bowl. Using a cheese grater, grate the chocolate over the cheese. Or chop it finely with a knife, or pulse it in a food processor. However you do it, take your small bits and slivers of chocolate and mix them in with the blueberries.** Before you're ready to put the duck in the oven, but no more than an hour or so before you're ready to cook the duck, lightly grease a small baking dish or loaf pan. Pour the blueberry mixture into the pan and smooth it flat with the back of a spoon. Pour the graham cracker mixture over the top and spread it out evenly with your hands or a spoon. Just before you're ready to sit down to dinner, place it on the upper rack of the oven at 375° F. Let it bake for 45 minutes. The sugar will draw some moisture out of some of the blueberries, the chocolate will melt and hold the berries together, and the graham cracker crust will harden and become crunchy. When you're ready to serve, scoop out onto a plate and serve with chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

So while making food won't get someone to fall in love with you, if someone is considering falling for you, a good meal may just get them to land more firmly in your arms. Making a multi-step meal is more about showing someone that you're willing to take time to make something you think they will enjoy than it is trying to pretend you're a Cordon Bleu trained chef. It's the thought and the effort that counts. And hopefully these recipes are impressive but simple enough to make that effort easily attainable and noticeable. If you've got suggestions for others, feel free to add them in the comments.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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