This year, my menu features grilled bone-in pork chops, which my husband just loves.
A lot of people think that Valentine's Day was invented by a greeting card company. But the origins of Valentine's Day date back to the second century. At that time, a Roman festival was held in mid-February to celebrate fertility and included, among other rituals, the pairing off of couples by lottery. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius renamed the pagan holiday after a martyred bishop -- St. Valentine of Terni -- who had defied the Roman emperor by secretly marrying couples to spare the husbands from war.
Historians trace the formal adoption of the feast as a day of romance to the 14th century, during the Age of Chivalry, when knights courted their ladies with florid poetry and amorous notes. Eventually, by the late 1700s, the hand-written notes gave way to commercially printed cards, decorated with Cupid (the Roman god of love), birds, flowers and hearts. The day became popular for weddings, and the tradition has continued. Even here in Taos, there have been mass weddings on Valentine's Day at the Gorge Bridge.
Today, however, Valentine's Day is not limited to lovers. Customs have grown to include family and friends, and valentines are given as tokens of friendship and affection. Even schoolchildren exchange cards with their classmates.
For me, Valentine's Day is an opportunity to cook an intimate candle-lit dinner at home with my valentine, my husband, Dirk. I look forward to the chance to make something that pleases his tastes and preferences and gets me an appreciative "Wow!" for the effort. I try to produce fare that looks and tastes great. I like to create an indulgent repast and assemble it ahead of time -- it cooks in the oven while we share a glass of the wine my husband is responsible for carefully selecting.
This year, my menu features grilled bone-in pork chops, which my husband just loves. When I can get them, I buy all-natural free-range pork, but any good quality thick chops will work. You can't go wrong by smothering them in a paste of herbs, garlic and spices, and allowing some time for the seasonings to do their job. Cover and refrigerate them for at least an hour or up to a day. Before cooking, I take them out of the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature. Then I ask Dirk to take over the grilling when we're ready to eat. Even in the cold weather when the door is closed, food cooking on the grill creates pleasurable aromas that waft into the house.
If you're focusing on comfort food, as I am, baked homemade mac and cheese makes a delightful side. Ordinarily, I wouldn't call this dish romantic, but I've put an appetizing twist on it to appeal to my husband's discriminate palate (and expanding midsection.) I substitute cooked cauliflower for the macaroni, and combine it with chopped green chile, diced crisp bacon, sautéed sweet onions and a delectable sauce of a trio of cheeses for a dish exploding with soul-satisfying flavor. By leaving out the macaroni all together, I reduce the carb and calorie count by quite a lot without sacrificing deliciousness. I guarantee -- the pasta won't be missed.
I think a creamy burrata (a type of fresh mozzarella) salad garnished with tomato and avocado slices is irresistible and visually beautiful. Drizzle with balsamic glaze and a tasty pesto oil, and serve with hunks of crusty bread. Works great as an elegant starter or along-side the main meal.
And finally, if there's interest in something sweet, select a trio of exquisite gelato (ice cream), available in many Taos markets. Tiny balls of different flavored gelato are indulgent, and so delectable, but also relatively low calorie when served in small melon-ball size portions. Dress up the gelato with fresh raspberries, mint leaves and a tiny heart-shaped chocolate truffle. Just the thing to refresh the palate after a hearty and heartfelt meal.
This menu, at its core, is simply inspired home cooking. And we all know that home cooking is just another way of showing you care. As they say, the way to the heart is through the stomach. A little effort on your part makes it a fanciful and festive special occasion. So eat, drink and be merry … and don't forget the candlelight!
HERB-CRUSTED PORK CHOPS
4 bone-in pork chops, each weighing about 8 ounces
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
Combine all the ingredients except the pork chops and make a thick paste. Evenly spread it on the pork chops, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour and up to a day.
Remove from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Light the grill, and carefully place the chops on the hot grate. Grill without moving the chops for about 5-8 minutes. Carefully flip them and cook the other side, about 5-8 minutes. You should have nice grill marks on the outside of the chops. Remove to a platter and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.
CAULIFLOWER "MAC" AND CHEESE WITH GREEN CHILE AND BACON
8 cups cauliflower florets, about 1" in size
4 strips (about 1/2 pound) thick smoked bacon, preferably applewood
1/4 cup finely diced sweet onion
3/4 cup chopped green chile
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup whole cream
1 cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste (start with a pinch of each)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1-1/2 cup shredded pepper-jack cheese
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a glass or ceramic 2-quart casserole.
Wash and drain cauliflower florets. Place in a microwave safe dish, cover and microwave on high for 4 minutes. Test for doneness - the cauliflower should resemble al dente pasta. If needed, continue to microwave, one minute at a time, until tender. Drain.
Cook the bacon in a deep skillet until quite crispy. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate. Allow to cool, and then dice the bacon. Add the onion to the skillet and sauté over medium heat until softened and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Removed with a slotted spoon and set aside.
In a large sauce pan over medium heat, whisk the sour cream, cream and milk together until well combined. Add the salt and pepper and the cumin, mixing well. Add the cheese and whisk until melted. Turn off the heat and add the onion, the green chile, half the bacon, and the cooked cauliflower. Stir to combine well.
With a spatula, scrape the cauliflower mixture into the prepared casserole dish, smoothing the top and sprinkling with the breadcrumbs, if using. Arrange the remaining bacon over the cauliflower mixture. May be made ahead to this point.
Place the casserole pan into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, until the top browns and the "mac" and cheese is bubbly.
Makes 4 generous servings.
BURRATA SALAD WITH TOMATOES AND AVOCADO
1 or 2 balls of burrata, a cream-filled fresh mozzarella cheese
2 medium tomatoes, cut in half and sliced
1 large avocado, cut in half, pitted, and sliced in the shell
1-2 tablespoons balsamic glaze
1 tablespoon basil pesto
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Slices of crusty bread for serving
Carefully remove the burrata from its water. Place on paper towels and gently pat dry. Place in the center of a platter. Arrange the sliced tomatoes on one side.
Using a large spoon, carefully scoop the avocado from it's shell, fanning the slices on the other side of the platter.
Combine the basil pesto and olive oil. With a small spoon, evenly drip over the tomatoes, avocados and burrata. Decoratively drizzle with balsamic glaze.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve with the bread.
Makes 2-4 servings.
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