Lifestyle

Sweet and spicy recipes for a special Valentine’s Day

A rack of lamb with a cherry and port wine sauce makes for a lightly sweet, yet tart, main course. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
A rack of lamb with a cherry and port wine sauce makes for a lightly sweet, yet tart, main course.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Cooking a special meal for Valentine’s Day is a loving gesture that so sweetly expresses how much you care. Even if your Valentine’s Day celebration includes children, requiring a PG rating (wink, wink!), the mood can still be flirty and romantic by serving foods that are succulent, sweet and spicy.

Sauces always seem to make a dish extra special by dressing it up. Thinner and lighter than gravy, they are meant to enhance and complement, not compete.

The taste combination of cherries with port wine produces a sauce that is lightly sweet with a kiss of tartness. The tiny addition of cayenne pepper gives it just a hint of heat for added dimension. Besides being easy to make, this particular sauce is lower in calories and fat because it doesn’t use butter, flour or cornstarch as thickeners.

I used a 10-ounce bag of frozen organic cherries that I purchased at Whole Foods for $2.99, which was considerably less than the price of a 15-ounce can of cherries packed in heavy syrup. If you choose to use the canned cherries with added sugar, be sure to reduce the sugar in the recipe to 1 tablespoon.

Rack of Lamb with Cherry and Port Wine Sauce

Serves 2-4

Ingredients:

1 rack of lamb (1½-1¾ pounds, 7 to 8 ribs)

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1 10-ounce bag of frozen cherries (about 1½ cups) or a 15-ounce can (drain syrup)

1 cup of red port wine

1 cup chicken broth (low sodium)

1 shallot, minced (about 3 to 3½ tablespoons)

3 tablespoons brown sugar (packed) or 1 tablespoon if using canned cherries in heavy syrup

¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (or more to turn up the heat)

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Directions for the lamb:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees with the rack in the middle. Line a roasting pan with foil if it’s not non-stick. Run the lamb under cold water, pat dry and season generously with salt and pepper. If necessary, trim the fat so only a thin layer remains. Place in pan, bone side down.

Directions for the sauce:

In a small sauce pan, combine the cherries, wine, chicken stock, sugar, cayenne pepper and shallots. Cook on medium-high to medium for about 20-25 minutes, occasionally stirring. Remove from stove and pour in a blender and blend thoroughly. You might need to do this in a couple of batches to be on the safe side. Pour the sauce back in the pan, add salt and pepper to taste and extra cayenne pepper if you prefer more heat. Keep on low until the lamb is ready or prepare a day ahead, refrigerate, then reheat.

The lamb will be done when a meat thermometer inserted close to but not touching the bone reads 125 degrees for rare (about 20-25 minutes) or 130-135 degrees for medium rare (about 30-35 minutes). When done, remove from the oven and let it rest for at least 5 minutes before cutting, allowing the juices to relax into the meat. Slice into chops and lightly cover with sauce.

For fun, add some roasted red beet hearts on the side. All you have to do is roast a large beet in the oven at 350 degrees until it can easily be pierced with a fork: approximately an hour. When it’s cool enough to handle, slice and use a small heart-shaped cookie cutter to make the shape. This can be done a day ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. To serve, reheat or serve cold with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt.

You can also use the beet hearts resting on a salad of arugula or mixed baby greens with sliced avocado that has been tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle the top with crumbled goat cheese and toasted nuts or seeds. I often use sunflower seeds in my salads, which I purchase at Trader Joe’s: one of the few places where you can find them unsalted and toasted.

Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be complete without a scrumptious dessert. Spicy chai hot chocolate is a uniquely delicious grown-up version of a long-standing favorite, satisfying enough to serve on its own. It also pairs nicely with silky, smooth crème caramel.

Crème Caramel

Serves 5-6 (depending on the size of the ramekins you use)

Ingredients:

2 cups whole milk

1 cup fine granulated sugar (½ for the caramel and ½ cup for the custard)

2 eggs

3 egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Fresh strawberries to garnish

First, preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the rack in the middle. Along with 5 or 6 ramekins, have a baking pan ready with deep sides, large enough to contain all the ramekins, and very hot water because the custards will cook in a water bath.

Directions for the caramel:

Place ½ cup sugar in a small sauce pan and mix it as best you can with 1 tablespoon water on medium-high. It will begin to boil and the sugar will dissolve and start to caramelize, taking about 5 minutes. As it begins to darken, it’s important to keep a very close eye on it to prevent it from burning and becoming bitter. You want it to be golden-brown in color. When the caramel is ready, quickly and carefully (because it’s extremely hot) pour about a tablespoon into the bottom of each ramekin. In a very short period of time, it will harden.

Directions for the custard:

Place the milk in another sauce pan with the remaining ½ cup sugar and heat to just below a boil; stir to dissolve the sugar. As it’s heating, beat the eggs and egg yolks. When the milk is ready, add a very small amount at a time to the egg mixture to temper it, stirring the whole time. If you add too much of the hot milk at once, it will cook the eggs. After the milk and eggs are mixed, stir in the vanilla and salt. Strain this mixture into a measuring cup or small pitcher and pour evenly into the ramekins.

Place the baking dish on the oven rack and place the ramekins inside; carefully fill with hot water halfway up the sides of the ramekins, making sure not to get any water on the custard. Bake until just set: about 35 to 45 minutes or when a tester comes out clean. Remove with a tong, cool, cover and refrigerate overnight or up to two days.

Directions for serving:

With a thin knife, go around the edge and sides of the ramekins to loosen them, then dip just the bottom of the ramekin into a bowl of very hot water to help it un-mold easier. Place a serving dish upside down on top of the ramekin and flip it over. The caramel will liquefy and drop down the sides of the custard onto the plate. Serve with a decoration of sliced strawberries.

Chai-Spiced Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 cups low fat or nonfat milk

½ cup semisweet chocolate chips

11 cardamom pods, coarsely cracked

¾ teaspoon whole allspice, coarsely cracked

2 cinnamon sticks, coarsely cracked

1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

2 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar

6 or 7 slices fresh ginger root

1½ teaspoon of vanilla extract (1 teaspoon for the hot chocolate and ½ teaspoon for the whipped cream)

½ cup chilled whipping cream

1 tablespoon shifted confectioners’ (powdered) sugar

Ground cinnamon for sprinkling

Directions:

Place the cardamom pods, whole allspice and cinnamon sticks in a small plastic storage bag. Using a rolling pin or a mallet, crack the spices into small pieces, then place them in a sauce pan with the milk. Add the chocolate chips, ground pepper, brown sugar, sliced ginger and bring to a simmer, while stirring until the chocolate is completely melted. Turn off the heat, cover and allow the spices to infuse the milk for at least 5 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon of the vanilla; reheat if it has cooled down too much.

While the hot chocolate is steeping, or ahead of time, whip the cream with the remaining ½ teaspoon vanilla and the sifted confectioners’ sugar. To serve, strain the hot chocolate into mugs and top each one with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle with ground cinnamon. Enjoy and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Cynthia Shifrin can be contacted at cyns0117@aol.com.

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