Lots of people like to go out for Valentine’s Day and it makes sense. Why not be pampered with your significant other at a time of year that’s usually pretty dreary? Especially if you have to work all day.
Restaurants love it, and a few do their best to put together something truly special, especially when Valentine’s Day falls on a night that would otherwise be slow for business, like Monday – Wednesday.
But unless you’re going to splurge at a really outstanding place, I’ve found that the Valentine’s Day restaurant experience isn’t all that much different from other nice meals out. If you like to cook, you can definitely make something just as good. And there are two advantages to eating in: (1) cooking together can be very romantic and (2) it’s customizable in a way a restaurant meal usually isn’t. For example, most restaurants in DC won’t let you bring that special-occasion bottle of wine you’ve been saving, so why not build a meal around it at home?
The one trick is finding the right food to make that tastes great, looks great, and won’t take forever to make on a weeknight. When people ask me where to find recipes like that, I always recommend Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking—Wine Country Recipes for Family and Friends.
The book dates to the time that Chiarello had a cooking show of the same name on PBS, and I think it’s his best book. It has the right combination of accessible (less restaurant-y) recipes and photos that make you want to cook, and the book isn’t padded with unnecessary photos, either. The food is an Italian-California hybrid, based on what he calls his “homemade pantry,” things you’ll use in his recipes and in other food, too. (I use his spice mixtures on all kinds of meats and vegetables, even when they’re not his recipes.) About a quarter of the recipes are easy enough for beginners, but they’re all within reach for people who know a little about cooking.
Full disclosure here, my husband Cy and I met Michael Chiarello at a dinner promoting this book about 10 years ago, and he wowed everyone there. The food, all from Casual Cooking, was outstanding and gorgeous. The best butternut squash soup we’ve ever had (using one of his pantry spice mixtures), followed by a warm pasta salad with spinach and mushrooms, then a beef filet stuffed with pesto. To this day I can remember how it all tasted. And Chiarello took the time to answer all our questions about how the food was made, even joking about chi-chi specialty food stores and the prices they charge. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.
So I was definitely pre-disposed to like the book, but it has more than lived up to expectations. The recipes work, and I’ve made a lot of them. Much more than a souvenir of a meal. On my shelves of cookbooks, packed to the gills in no particular order (which I’m sure drives my librarian husband batty), the highest distinction a book can have is if I can say I know exactly where the book is located – and I definitely can with this one.
Even if you don’t have time to go out and get the book before Valentine’s Day, I asked Chef Chiarello for permission to print one of his recipes that would be perfect for a weeknight special meal: Chicken Breasts alla Vendemmia. Vendemmia means grape harvest, and dishes called alla Vendemmia usually contain wine grapes. We’re lucky to have a lot of wineries relatively nearby, and many of them sell bottled unsweetened grape juice made from wine grapes. (I even see it occasionally at Whole Foods. But if you can’t find it, you can make your own with seedless red grapes.) Serve the chicken with wine made from the same grapes, or any tasty red wine, and you’ve got yourself a meal worthy of Valentine’s Day. Or you could serve the chicken with champagne, which would carry over to the chocolates too (you are buying chocolates, right?) The recipe serves four. You could cut it in half, or each of you can take the leftovers for lunch the next day and have a Valentine’s souvenir.
Chicken Breasts alla Vendemmia from Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking, reprinted with the author’s permission. (Check out www.michaelchiarello.com for more information on Chef Chiarello and his cookbooks.) Serves four.
2 pounds seedless red grapes, or 2 cups (about 500 ml) unsweetened juice made from red wine grapes
4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Fennel Spice (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup thinly-sliced shallots (2-4, depending on size)
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
½ cup chicken stock (homemade or canned low-sodium broth)
If you can’t find wine grape juice, use the seedless grapes to make the juice. Puree the grapes in a blender, then strain through a sieve, pressing on the solids to extract as much juice as possible. You should have between 2 and 2-1/2 cups of juice.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Season the chicken on all sides with salt, pepper, and Fennel Spice.
Heat a large ovenproof skillet over moderately high heat. When the skillet is hot, add the olive oil. Add the chicken breasts, skin side down, and brown well, about 5 minutes. Flip the chicken skin side up and brown for another few minutes. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the chicken is done throughout (test by making a small cut in the thickest part of one of the breasts), 12 to 15 minutes total.
Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat in the skillet (make sure you place a potholder or a kitchen towel on the handle of the skillet, to remind yourself that it’s still very hot). Add the shallot to the skillet and return to moderate heat. Cook until softened, then add the rosemary and cook briefly to release its fragrance. Add 2 cups of the grape juice and simmer briskly until reduced by half. Add the stock and any collected juices from the chicken platter and simmer until the mixture has reduced to a saucelike consistency (it will measure a little more than 1 cup).
Cut the chicken breasts in half with a heavy knife or cleaver and return them to the platter. Spoon the sauce over and around them. Serve immediately.
Fennel Spice – This makes quite a lot, but it’s great to have around. Feel free to cut the proportions down if you’d like to make less, although you’ll have to grind it in a spice grinder and not a blender. [Note: if all you have is ground spices at home and want to make just enough for this recipe, use 1-1/4 of ground fennel seed, ¼ teaspoon of ground coriander seed, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, and ¼ teaspoon of ground pepper. It's tough to toast that small amount, so just mix it and sprinkle on the chicken before you brown it.]
1 cup fennel seed
3 tablespoons coriander seed
2 tablespoons white peppercorns (I have also made it with black peppercorns)
3 tablespoons kosher salt (if you’re using table salt, use half as much)
Put the fennel seed, coriander seed, and peppercorns in a small, heavy skillet over moderate heat. Watching carefully, toss the seeds frequently so they toast evenly. When they are light brown and fragrant, pour them onto a plate to cool (you can put the plate in the freezer to speed things along. It needs to be cool before grinding or it will gum up the blender blades).
Pour the cooled seeds into a blender and add the salt. Blend to a powder, removing the blender from its stand and shaking it occasionally to redistribute the seeds. Store in an airtight container away from light and heat for 4 months, or freeze for up to a year.