Monday, February 8, 2010

Seeing Red on Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day food is just too easy to categorize. You have your aphrodisiacs like chocolate, honey, oysters, and ginger, your suggestive fruits like figs, and your liquid enticers like champagne. But, if you’re someone who just likes to play with your food and associates Valentine’s Day with all things red, break the mold, head to the markets, and have some fun.


It's easy to create gorgeous dishes with red foods, plus you’re giving yourself and your loved ones some wonderful antioxidant nutrients, most prominent of which is lycopene. It can dramatically lower the risk of developing prostate cancer, lung, breast, and stomach cancers, and age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.

When we think of red foods, what first comes to mind, of course, are tomatoes, apples, watermelons, beets, red onions, and radishes. You can make a magnificent roasted red pepper soup or a divine cioppino with fresh seafood. You can bake an apple pie topped with toasted red walnuts from Terra Bella Ranch at the Little Italy Mercato.

But branch out a bit. Stunning sour cherry preserves found at our Middle Eastern markets are sexy and delicious spooned on a couple of scoops of French vanilla ice cream. Blood oranges make a colorful mimosa or margarita. Buy a bag of Trader Joe’s Golden Berry Blend of golden raisins and dried cherries, cranberries, and blueberries to create an eye-popping batch of scones or muffins.

Whether you’re preparing a special romantic dinner or having a group of friends over for Valentine’s Day, how about an appetizer of peppadews stuffed with lavender and fennel pollen-infused Cypress Grove Purple Haze goat cheese? Peppadews are a sweet piquanté pepper pickled in vinegar with salt and sugar. You can pick them up at Whole Foods and Bristol Farms, and sometimes at Taste Artisan Cheese, which is where I bought the goat cheese. Mary Palmer, who owns Taste with her husband George, offered a couple of useful tips for making these little treats. Make sure you thoroughly dry the peppers and simply cut a hole in the goat cheese package to  squeeze the cheese directly into the pepper halves. I topped each half with heart-shaped micro cabbage sprigs and a sprinkling of Alaea Hawaiian sea salt that I picked up at Specialty Produce.


In fact, Specialty Produce is a bonanza for finding red foods. They sent me home with a variety of micro greens and flowers from San Marcos-based Fresh Origins. I’ve got beet greens, dianthus, orchid blossoms, miniature radishes, opal basil, the micro cabbage leaves… All make beautiful garnishes not just on solid food dishes but for cocktails.

I also brought home some sweet little red carrots, red scallions, and a head of petite Pirella lettuce. With these I made a finger salad using each spear of lettuce as the utensil. Since the color of red carrots is only skin deep, I trimmed them and peeled just a couple of strands of skin, placing one carrot on a piece of lettuce. Then I sprinkled the plate with the Golden Berry Blend and slices of red scallions. I made a blood orange vinaigrette spiked with chipotle morita flakes, drizzled that over the salad, and finished it with a sprinkling of more chipotle morita. By the way, these chilis are a dark reddish purple variety of chili. They’re not smoked as long as the typical “ahumado” chipotle made from dried, smoked jalapeños, so they’re not considered to be the same quality as chipotles but they’re still very delicious and the flakes are colorful. 


The salad can be a prelude to a dish of baked polenta rounds topped with sundried tomato pesto. It’s an easy dish to make. You can make polenta from scratch and pour the batch into greased ramekins. let them set and unmold, or just buy a tube of prepared polenta at the market, and slice half-inch rounds. Brush each round with olive oil and then slide them into a mound of grated parmesan cheese. Cover them completely in the cheese and place on a greased pan. Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes. While they’re baking, in a food processor blend drained sundried tomatoes from an eight-ounce jar with a couple of cloves of garlic, Marsala wine, grated parmesan cheese, toasted walnuts, pepper, and enough olive oil to get a creamy consistency. When the polenta comes out of the oven, top with the pesto. You can also use the pesto to stuff chicken breasts or flank steak, toss with pasta, or even top a baked potato.


Of course, you need dessert. Pick up some gorgeous strawberries now growing in Carlsbad at your local farmers market and make my friend Susan Russo's beautiful "Seductive Strawberry Zabaglione." You can also substitute or mix in raspberries. It's easy to make and who doesn't love a rich and creamy dessert? And, if you still feel you need that hit of chocolate, pick up some truffles from Eclipse Chocolat.

We’ve been talking dinner, but this year Valentine’s Day falls on Sunday. How about brunch? French toast with homemade challah is a perfect and perfectly easy dish (try the wonderful challah recipe from Peter Reinhart’s masterful cookbook The Bread Baker’s Apprentice). And, sure you can top it with maple or blueberry syrup, but let’s stick to our red theme and go with a gorgeous raspberry puree. Make this a day in advance and then bring it to room temperature. All you need to do is combine a pint of fresh raspberries, ¼ cup of sugar, a tablespoon of blood orange juice, and a tablespoon of cointreau (or just double up on the orange juice) and a small saucepan. Stir in a cup of cold water thoroughly mixed with two tablespoons of cornstarch and bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes. Let it cool and then either use an immersion blender to puree the mixture or put it in a blender or food processor. You can then strain it through a sieve if you want a pure liquid sauce or enjoy the texture as it is. When you’re ready to serve the French toast, simply pour it over and garnish with some extra raspberries.
 


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