Whether you’re trying to impress someone or you want to spoil yourself without having to watch gross couples at some overpriced prix fixe dinner, this Valentine’s Day can easily be a gastronomic success, if nothing else. Anybody in the restaurant industry will tell you that dining out is pretty much guaranteed to be a mediocre experience due to overloaded reservation books, high expectations, and general hell, and quality tends to suffer. Save your night out for a different day, and pamper whoever is closest to you with this elegant, (mostly) effortless gourmet feast. Although some of the ingredients are on the pricier side, you should be able to pull this meal off for less than $150, including drinks-quite a steal when you think about the cost of driving, parking, and fine dining-plus no need to worry about Uber upcharges!
Caviar with crème fraiche and blinis (small buckwheat pancakes)
Champagne – Whatever your favorite sparkling wine is will work perfectly. This isn’t about impressing anyone, its about relaxing with this special someone. We enjoyed a bottle of G.H. Mumm, which I found for $19 at our local grocery store.
Saucy Note: Caviar is supremely decadent and delightfully affordable in this day and age of sustainable fishing and Internet resourcing. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. Caviar tastes rich and briny, like an unctuously cooked egg yolk combined with the essence of ocean air-pair it with a buttery little pancake and some crème fraiche and you’ll be hooked. Of all the weird things I’ve made my friends try, I think caviar is definitely the most popular.
Saucy Note: Steak Oscar is a filet mignon topped with crabmeat, asparagus, and hollandaise.
Pot de Creme
1 oz. Caviar Saucy Note: Caviar is best served very cold. You can buy a traditional serving dish, or simply nestle a small glass dish in a larger bowl filled with ice.
Prepared blini mix or small toasted bread rounds Saucy Note: Making homemade blinis is a bit time consuming and there are a lot of ingredients, so I prefer the bagged mixes that most caviar suppliers sell-you just mix it with milk and cook them like pancakes. Many suppliers even have gift sets that include the blini mix and serving set, if you feel like you want to invest in this habit. Small toasted rounds of white bread are a good alternative if you can’t find the mix.
Optional garnishes for caviar: Crumbled hard boiled egg, chopped white onion
2 filet mignon, 6-8oz each
¼ lb. fresh lump crabmeat
8-10 slender stalks of asparagus
Special Equipment: Double boiler (a small saucepan and a glass or non-aluminum bowl will also work), whisk
4 egg yolks
½ cup melted butter
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 lb. large gold potatoes Saucy Note: The potatoes require a little effort, and you’ll need a melon baller, but you can prep them the day before. Wash potatoes, then use the melon baller to make as many potato balls as possible from each potato. Place in a large bowl and cover with water, then cover with saran wrap and place in fridge until ready to use. There will be a lot of leftover potato due to the melon balling process, but if you shred the extra with a cheese grater and save them in a different bowl of water they make great hash browns if you find yourself making breakfast for anyone. No need to peel potatoes.
3 tbsp. butter
Saucy Note: The Pot de Crème needs 24 hours to set, so make them the day before or over the weekend. It only takes about 15 minutes of hands on time.
Special Equipment: Food processor or double boiler (a small saucepan and a glass or non-aluminum bowl will also work)
1 bag (6oz) semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup hot coffee (use decaf if you’re sensitive to caffeine)
1 tbsp. rum or brandy (optional)
Plan a time for dinner. Allow enough time to shower, change, and prepare for your date to arrive, and at least an hour before dinner with your date (so if you want to have dinner at 8, request your date’s company at 7, and start getting ready by 6. If you’re lucky enough to live with your valentine, perhaps you can share some pampering time to relax first-this is all about enjoying their company after all.)
If you have to work, buy your ingredients the day before Valentine’s Day or over the weekend. Prep the potatoes according to the above instructions the night before. Clean your home and set the table the night before so you can focus on cooking. If you like to buy flowers for your valentine, use them as a centerpiece.
Prepare the Pot de Crème the night before. To make the Crème, I prefer the double boiler/saucepan version, but if you’re quick and your coffee is really hot you can make it in a food processor.
A double boiler is two stacked pots used to gently heat delicate ingredients like eggs or chocolate. Water is simmered in the bottom pot, which heats the top section containing the food. A saucepan and small bowl can be used in the same way, but make sure you have something secure (a kitchen towel works) to grab the bowl with-it gets very hot. I personally use the saucepan method because of all the kitchen things I have, a double boiler is not one of them.
To make the Crème double boiler style, bring several inches of water to a gentle simmer in the bottom pan-the water should not touch the top section. Brew coffee. While coffee is brewing, crack the eggs into a small bowl. Pour the chocolate chips into the top pan and set over the simmering water. Stir slowly as the chips melt, and add hot coffee when chips are almost smooth. Stir to incorporate, then remove from heat and mix in the eggs and alcohol, mixing quickly to avoid scrambling the eggs. Spoon or pour into individual sized bowls or ramekins. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
To make the Pot de Crème in a food processor, use a flat blade to pulverize the chocolate chips. Brew the coffee and crack the eggs into a bowl. When the coffee is ready, pour the coffee into the ground chocolate and pulse quickly to melt the chocolate. Add the eggs and rum and pulse again until blended. Immediately transfer to individual sized bowls or ramekins. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
Decant wine, if drinking. Shower, brush your teeth, change your clothes, do whatever date prep stuff you do-. Be ready to start making blinis (or toast) 1.5 hours before serving dinner.
Bring a pot of water to boil for asparagus. While water is heating, trim and wash the asparagus. Blanch asparagus in boiling water for two minutes. Remove and submerge in ice water until ready to use.
Mix blini mix according to package directions, and cook in a large skillet over medium heat (or toast bread rounds until golden in oven.) Blinis should be about the size of a silver dollar-caviar is a one bite affair. Flip blinis when they start to bubble slightly, and arrange on a plate as they finish. The blinis do not need to be hot to serve, so cover them with a clean towel and set aside until your date arrives. Spoon several tablespoons of crème fraiche into a small serving bowl or ramekin and put in fridge until ready to serve the caviar. Prep caviar bowl with ice and chill.
Remove steaks from fridge. Drain and dry potatoes. Fill water glasses for table.
Greet date, tell them how fabulous they look/smell/are and hang up their jacket, because you cleaned your house and have a place to do that now. Pop champagne or make a cocktail to impress your date, and serve the caviar. Toast to all your date’s lovely qualities and eat caviar with blinis and crème fraiche.
Now that you’ve had some tasty nibbles and your date is getting comfortable, it is time to impress them with your culinary skills. Start with the potatoes. Heat your largest skillet over medium heat. Melt butter until foaming, then turn heat to medium-low and add the potatoes. Arrange all potatoes skin side down to start, sprinkle with salt, and let simmer in the butter. Stir every few minutes until potatoes are golden brown all over and the center is the consistency of mashed potatoes. The potatoes take 30-40 minutes to cook, so plan accordingly. This dinner is designed to be relaxed-just put on your best apron, keep calm, and don’t stress out about the hollandaise. Which is next, by the way.
Set up the double boiler system like you did for the Pot de Crème. While the water is heating, separate the egg yolks and melt the butter in a small measuring cup. Put the egg yolks in the top of the double boiler system. Whisk vigorously off heat until the yolks double in volume and thicken, like an egg cooked over medium. This takes a minute or two, and can take longer if your whisking skills are rusty or nonexistent. Be patient and keep at it-the change is gradual, not dramatic.
Don’t forget the potatoes! Also, turn on the grill to 450°, or preheat a heavy skillet in oven set to 400°F.
Once the egg yolks are well beaten, place them over the gently simmering water, whisking the whole time. This is the tricky part about hollandaise, because the eggs will scramble if you don’t keep them moving constantly. A few drops at a time, rapidly whisk in melted butter until the mixture doubles in volume again and the sauce is very thick-it should be a little thicker than you want, since the lemon juice will thin it out a little. Saucy Note: If at any time the egg mixture seems like its getting too hot and starting to scramble, keep whisking and lift the top section off the simmering water. Let the vessel cool slightly and turn the heat down a skosh before continuing with the butter.
Remove the hollandaise from heat when the mixture has doubled. Whisk in the lemon juice and salt to taste and put someplace warm-I like the inside of the microwave, because the small space is enough to keep some heat in the sauce being too hot. If the sauce is too thick when you go to serve it, a few drops of warm water will fix it.
The potatoes. Stir them.
Unwrap steaks and pat dry with paper towels. Rub with a few drops of olive oil and salt well-use pepper too if you want, although I recommend against garlic for this particular occasion. Ask your date how they like their steak cooked.
Dry asparagus and toss in a small amount of olive oil with a pinch of salt. Arrange on a baking sheet. Remove skillet from oven (if using) and increase oven heat to high broil. Saucy Note: Put an oven mitt on the handle of the skillet once you set it on the stove so you don’t burn the bejeezus out of yourself. You might start to think I repeat that advice a lot, but it really, really hurts. Like, several strings of expletives worth of pain.
If you have a second oven, set it to low and warm the dinner plates.
Turn off the heat on the potatoes when they are tender.
Heat oil in the skillet over medium-high heat on the stove. Place the asparagus in the oven and set a timer for 6 minutes. During the last 4 minutes, sear the steaks in the skillet-place them in the hot oiled pan and flip them once halfway through. When the timer sounds, flip the steaks again and place them under the broiler, removing the asparagus at the same time. Set timer for 4 minutes.
Flip steaks after two minutes. After four minutes, check steaks with meat thermometer. Rare is 130°-140°, Medium Rare is 140°-150°, and medium is 150°-160°. The meat temperature will continue to rise slightly when you remove it from the oven, so don’t overcook them! Remove from grill and let rest on a plate while you prepare to serve.
Place steaks on preheated grill. Flip after about 4 minutes, and cook until desired temperature on a probe or instant read thermometer. Rare is about 4 minutes a side, medium rare 5-6, and medium 7-8 minutes. Let steaks rest on a plate while you prepare to serve.
Start broiling asparagus after flipping the steaks. Set timer for 6 minutes.
Remove warmed plates from the oven. Place 4-5 spears of asparagus in the middle of each plate, and place the steak on top of the spears. Surround steak with potatoes, and pile crabmeat on top of steak. Drizzle that beautiful pile of decadence with the hollandaise, and dinner is ready. Pour wine, light candles, and invite your very impressed date to join you at the table. Feel good about your accomplishments.
And remember to enjoy dessert!