YES Test Kitchen: Go Upscale or Down the Bayou
February is here and to lovebirds everywhere that means planning the perfect Valentine’s Day celebration. Avoid the crowded, expensive restaurants and chilly winter nights by staying home and cooking your own romantic meal. YES Test Kitchen is here to help you.
Choose an Upscale Meal or take your sweetheart Down the Bayou for a more casual Cajun dinner.
Whichever menu you choose, first start with bubbles. Nothing says ‘romance’ like a sparkly wine. True French champagne will set you back a bit, so consider either a cava sparkling wine from Spain or the very popular Italian Prosecco. An American alternative is Gruet from, of all places, New Mexico. It’s sparkler made in the French style and with a very appealing price tag — generally under $20. Make sure your wine is well-chilled for that “I love you” toast.
Now on to dinner:
Because the main course in this menu is extremely rich, you will want to start the upscale meal with a simple classic shrimp cocktail. Supermarket seafood cases reliably stock cooked, shelled shrimp. Because it’s just the two of you, you won’t need many shrimp — six or eight total, depending on size. Keep them well-chilled and serve them on a bed of lettuce with some bottled cocktail sauce for dipping.
The main course is pistachio-crusted pork tenderloin medallions on chile-ginger rice. This easy-to-prepare entrée is stunning to look at and the use of heavy cream makes it taste very sophisticated and, well, upscale. The recipe follows.
If you want wine with the pork, an oaky Chardonnay would compliment the creaminess of the sauce. Kendall Jackson Chardonnays are more than acceptable supermarket finds you can pick up when you buy the rest of your ingredients.
To round out the main course, consider dinner rolls with butter and/or a simple green salad. Neither are necessary, however. You might want to save yourself for dessert: espresso lava cakes! Basically, it’s a molten chocolate cake in a mug. The dessert should be assembled ahead of time and put in the oven just as you sit down for the main course. Garnish with some vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
For a more casual but still impressive and delicious dinner, take your date down the bayou for cajun treats. Both Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras are usually in February, so New Orleans-style foods fit the bill perfectly.
The showstopper of the down the bayou menu is barbecue shrimp. This cajun classic is not cooked on a grill as its name might suggest, but in a spicy sauce in the oven. The best part is how you eat barbecue shrimp — with your hands! You peel and eat the shrimp with your hands and dip big chunks of crusty bread in the distinctive sauce. Talk about finger food! YES Test Kitchen suggests lots of napkins and also having some moist hand towels available for the final clean up.
While the barbecue shrimp is cooking in the oven, open your down the bayou meal with an unusual salad: warm frisée and corn salad. Recipe originator Emeril Lagasse suggests using fresh corn kernels but because it’s winter, just buy a bag of frozen corn. Read on for recipes for both the barbecue shrimp and the corn salad.
Beer seems like a natural choice to go with this casual, down home meal. You might consider Andygator, a sweet light brew from Louisiana-based Abita Brewing Company.
Your trip down the bayou can end with the previously mentioned espresso lava cakes. Chocolate and Valentine’s Day are a match made in heaven!
Light some candles, fire up the fireplace and enjoy your home-cooked and cozy Valentine’s Day dinner.
Pistachio-crusted Pork Tenderloin Medallions on Chile-Ginger Rice
For the pork:
¾ c. shelled, salted pistachios
1 pork tenderloin (approx. 1 lb.) cut into ¼ inch slices
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
¾ c. heavy (whipping) cream
Pulse pistachios in a food processor or blender until very finely chopped. Put them on a plate. Dip pork slices into pistachios, turning to coat. Set aside (on a cutting board or piece of waxed paper).
Heat vegetable oil in a heavy skillet. Cook pork slices, turning over once until browned and just cooked through, about 4 minutes total. (Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to do this in two batches.) Transfer meat to a plate.
Add cream to skillet and deglaze by boiling while stirring and scraping up browned bits. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Return pork to pan and re-heat slightly.
For the rice:
(Start the rice before you prepare the pork)
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
½ jalapeno, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tsp. finely chopped and peeled fresh ginger
1 c. long grain white rice
¼ c. sour cream
1 ¾ c. water
Heat vegetable oil in a sauce pan until hot. Sauté onion until golden, about five minutes. Add ginger and jalapeno. Sauté briefly.
Add the rice, sour cream and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until water is absorbed — about 20 minutes. Let stand until pork portion of menu is cooked. Fluff rice and put pork on top.
Warm Frisée Corn Salad
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
½ medium onion, chopped
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 head frisée lettuce or 1 lb. fresh spinach, cleaned and leaves pulled apart
¼ c. water
Heat oil over high heat. Sauté corn and onions, adding salt and pepper. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally for three minutes. Add the lettuce or spinach and water and cook to wilt the greens (about two minutes). Remove from heat and serve warm.
1 ½ to 2 lbs. raw, unpeeled shrimp
1 stick (4 oz.) butter
½ c. olive oil
½ c. chili sauce (Heinz 57, for example)
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 lemon, thinly sliced
2 cloves minced garlic
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. paprika (not smoked)
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp. Tabasco sauce
1 tbsp. liquid smoke
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash the shrimp and spread in shallow pan. Combine all other ingredients in a saucepan over low heat. Let simmer for 10 minutes. Pour over shrimp and mix well. (At this point, you can refrigerate the shrimp mixture until close to serving time and the flavors will only improve if you do!)
Heat oven to 300 degrees and bake the shrimp for 30 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes.
Serve in a bowl with French bread to dip in the sauce. Make sure you provide a bowl for the discarded shells.
Moist towels are nice when you’re done — you can even ‘zap’ them for 45 seconds or so in the microwave.
Espresso Lava Cakes
1 c. flour
¾ c. unsweetened cocoa powder
5 tsp. instant coffee powder
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 c. butter (2 sticks), melted
1 c. sugar
1 c. packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. almond extract (optional)
4 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
Whipped cream or ice cream for garnish
Sift flour, cocoa powder, coffee powder and baking powder into a medium bowl. Add butter and both sugars and whisk until blended. Whisk in eggs one at a time followed by the vanilla and almond extract. Divide batter into six 8-ounce coffee mugs. Top each with two tablespoons chocolate chips. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour or overnight.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. While oven is heating, remove mugs from refrigerator. Let dough rest to room temperature, at least five minutes. Bake uncovered until cakes are puffy and crusty on top, about 30 minutes. Cool at least five minutes. Serve topped with whipped cream or ice cream on the side.
NOTE: This recipe makes six mugs of gooey, delightful cake. Halve the recipe if you wish or bake on back-to-back days.