>A great suggestion for Valentines is to cook a surprise, relatively simple meal that the basic cook can pull together with a little planning and lots of excitement. If you’re cooking for more than two, double the recipe and enjoy with friends. While the names may sound spectacular, the process is quite simple and won’t break the bank. All of the recipes are included below.
You might ask me “Alison, why cook from scratch when I can buy all this stuff in a box or can?” Trust me here – the flavors of real cooking can’t be beaten. There are few things in the world more important to me than making whole, nutritious food for my family. I cook in love, and enjoy mealtime with my friends, family and people in general. I actually want to love these folks – feeding my husband a leading brand of Alfredo also gives him about 1000% of sodium he’s allow to have each day. That is like asking to collect on life insurance. It just takes a few minutes of preplaning, and the actually assembly of your love feast isn’t hard to pull off. In addition, your love will really appreciate the time and effort that went into your effort. A second note – if you are a Parmesan Asiago cheese lover, you can sub that mixture for straight Parmesan in any of the following. It does give it a stronger, beautiful flavor.
Begin your week by forming a shopping list of what you need in contrast to what you have. A note about olive oil…unless you use if often, it does tend to go stale. Taste your oil if you’ve had it for a while, just a quick taste from your index finger well coated with a the freshly shaken bottle. If it tastes stale or rancid, toss it. Olive oil will permeate every facet of this meal; you cannot use stale product. I chose this classic meal because the love of my life adores Fettuccine Alfredo with grilled herb chicken breast crusted in Parmesan cheese. In addition to the creaminess of Alfredo, there is the quintessential necessity of Bruchetta Crostini, a regular staple in my cooking diet, and one of my all time favorite foods. I’ve reved up the recipe to include whole ingredients that counteract his sometimes not so healthy diet and liberal use of carbonated sodas, gummy bears…you get the idea. While Bruchetta may sound scary if you’ve never partaken, note that the pickiest human being in the world, my youngest daughter, pronounces it “delicious.” This is like a blessing directly from heaven.
What is Bruchetta? It’s tomato, onion, garlic and other stuff on a toasted slice of bread with Parmesan cheese, served piping hot. It’s way great to nibble, not hard to make. Begin by making the Bruchetta mix the day prior. This works well in a disposable plastic dish that has a tight sealing lid. The ingredients are going to permeate the plastic, so unless you plan to make more, it’s going to stain the interior with garlic and tomato rendering it useless. For two people, you want to dice two well sized, firm red tomatoes, one half sweet yellow onion and about 2/3 cup basil pesto. I make my own pesto from fresh basil greens, almonds, olive oil, garlic and salt each summer, then save it in frozen sealed packages for the remainder of the year. Retail basil pesto will work well; you may need a bit more garlic than the recipe calls for. If you have access to fresh basil, you can also make your own. Small dice the tomato, onion, and add about four tablespoons of fresh or commercially diced garlic. Season with a quarter cup of Parmesan cheese and the pesto. Mix well with about a half teaspoon of salt and about 1/5 cup olive oil; cover tightly and let rest for at least 24-48 hours in refrigeration. Don’t overdo the salt; you cannot remove it, and it will permeate over the resting period. A few hours before you’re going to start dinner, take this out and let it come to room temp on it’s own. Leave it sealed but give it a shake now and then. If you’re a pepper lover, finely chop a medium to small green bell pepper (core and seed it) and add it with the onion.
The Crostini is simple to make, and the last thing to come out of the oven. How to prepare? Purchase a baguette and slice into very thin strips. It’s great to also buy the baguette presliced if they carry it in your local bakery or grocery store. You can actually brown the Crostini early, as you wait for the remainder of the ingredients to come together. It’s relatively simple: brush the bread on each side with a very light olive oil or butter. Broil on one side until barely golden. Resist the temptation to brown it, as you’re going to cook it again later. Flip the gold side to allow the pale side to face the broiler. Shake powdered Parmesan onto the bread, and return it to the boiler for only two minutes or so, at 300 degrees or less, just enough to allow the cheese to melt. Remove from heat, and spoon about a tablespoon of Bruchetta mix onto each bread, adjusting to allow for adequate coverage without stacking the tomato mix to highly. Once you’ve filled each bread, you should cover each with Parmesan cheese again. Toast in the broiler on a low setting until browned.
Alfredo sauce is another pre-prep item that you can make the day prior and save yourself grief. It also freezes well. A great Alfredo consists of few ingredients: half and half, butter, garlic, white wine, and Parmesan cheese. Begin by slowly bringing 2 cups of half and half nearly to a gentle boil; you’ll need to stir it frequently. Incorporate a cup of white wine (chardonnay works well) and about one half cup garlic (commercial mince) and a pinch of salt. I add 1/8 cup of real, unsalted butter to make the flavors rich; you can leave this out if you want to reduce the fat. As the milk mixture heats, incorporate 2 cups of grated Parmesan cheese (fine powder texture) with a whisk. It’s important not to dump all of the cheese in a once, unless you want a congealed mass of nasty stuff you can’t eat. Slowly, with patience and a steady mixing hand. Note to the novice cook: don’t use a whisk on your loved one’s Teflon pan. It will scratch it. Use a temperature resistant plastic or wood spatula. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil and stir frequently. It needs to simmer for about fifteen minutes or so, and will thicken. If you want less bite, add more milk. If you make the day prior, you will need to bring it to temperature and add a little half and half for the proper consistency.
Fettuccine noodles, surprisingly, are often made in advance in great restaurants like my former Flatrock Grill. Make your desired quantity of pasta to the al dente stage – drain into a colander and pour cold water on it to halt the cooking process. Coat it in olive oil and seal until you’re ready to serve. To prepare it for the table, immerse in boiling water for about sixty seconds, longer if you want it soft. Drain again and mix with the Alfredo.
Grilling the chicken is really best left for mealtime, although you can also prepare in advance. Chicken loses it’s moisture when it is reheated, but you can refresh it in boiling water as well. Easiest bet for the chicken? Cut breast meat into strips and season with basic Italian spices like basil, oregano and a little Parmesan powder. Bring a heavy non stick skillet to hot with olive oil (don’t get it smoking hot, olive oil isn’t great at high temps) and add the chicken to the oil. For three boneless, skinless chicken breasts, you can also add a few tablespoons of garlic to saute; it keeps all of the flavors consistent.
What you need:
Quart half and half
Bottle white wine (nothing to sweet, use a chardonnay or Pinot Grigo – something you would drink.)
Commercial minced garlic (about a cup total)
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 cups Parmesan cheese (grated)
Fresh extra virgin olive oil
2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
Crostini bread (thin cut baguette)
2 larger, red firm tomatoes
1 medium, yellow sweet onion
(optional: green bell pepper)
I plan to serve this for family dinner when all the kids are home this weekend, paired with a freshly tossed salad full of greens, olives and tomato, a saute of fresh broccoli, a great bottle of Italian white and lots of crusty bread to dip in olive oil and garlic. For dessert I am going a little professional chef with a filled Cannoli and a red velvet cake that T and I will make together for the fun of it.
The reason that Cooking for Love rules in my book? It gives you the chance to sit over a common table, laugh and talk with those that you love and create moments of memory. Life, as it turns out, is a collage of those moments that will see you through the tougher times. In that, it’s as big a gift to you as it is those that you love.