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Like New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day offers diners a dilemma. Should you risk going out and being disappointed by so-so service and overpriced food? Or stay home and cook, then face a messy kitchen at the end of a long day?

Chef Ambassador Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins in Sonoma offers up a third option: Work ahead on a romantic dinner for two.

"Every year, I do a special, intimate dinner for my husband," said Lavagetto, who is teaching a "Feast of Love" class tonight at Ramekins. "I think it's really something special, just the two of us at home."

Lavagetto, who recently celebrated her 45th anniversary with her husband, Lawrence, relies on a few tricks of the trade to prevent this elaborate, multi-course meal from stressing her out.

"You don't want to be a crazy woman in the kitchen," she said. "You want to bring these things out, using all those little chef tricks that people at home don't think about."

From Mini Beef Wellingtons with Potato Gratin to the piece de la resistance, a Chocolate Orange Tart with Chantilly Cream for dessert, the menu is prepped and prepared a few days ahead, then heated and finished off at the last minute.

"I serve and plate the food just like at a catering, and we sit down," she said. "There's no clean-up, because the pots and pans are already done."

That also leaves the chef plenty of time to create a romantic ambiance, with a vase of fresh flowers on the table and candles.

"I make my husband disappear for the day, and I clean," she said. "I pull out the good dinnerware and linens and my grandmother's silver."

This year, Lavagetto's menu will include a savory first course of Smoked Salmon and Crab Custards on Mixed Greens with a Champagne Vinaigrette.

"If you make your smoked salmon and crab custards ahead, it's effortless," she said. "I just turn them out on the edge of the salad."

For the entree, Lavagetto will serve two Mini Beef Wellingtons with Mushroom Duxelles and Gorgonzola, wrapped up like tidy packages in puff pastry.

"The most classic is foie gras, but we can't do that," she said. "So I try to use gourmet mushrooms like oysters and hen-of-the-woods from Gourmet Mushrooms (of Sebastopol)."

For the Potato Gratin, she slices and bakes the potatoes in small ramekins, then holds them in the refrigerator. To serve, she simply turns the potatoes out on a sheetpan, trims the ragged edges, then warms them up in the oven.

The Chocolate Orange Tart provides a sweet finale, and Lavagetto swears it's as easy as it is pretty.

"Chocolate is an aphrodisiac," she said. "There's just something about it."

Lavagetto has been cooking Italian food for 35 years, having picked up some skills from her husband's grandmother, who had worked at Mama Leone's in Manhattan.

"I was blessed to have her for 10 years and spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen," she said. "She was 6-feet-tall and tough as nails. Her specialty was homemade pasta."

Lawrence Lavagetto's grandparents came from Genoa and settled in Oakland, but he was raised in New York, where his uncle rose to fame as a Brooklyn Dodger.

Harry "Cookie" Lavagetto made a splash in the 1947 World Series against the Yankees when he hit a double in the ninth inning that spoiled a no-hitter. He went on to coach the San Francisco Giants from 1964 to 1967.

In her childhood, Lavagetto wasn't very inspired by her own family's cooking. Her mother used to cook mutton until it was well done and "never met a canned good she didn't love."

"I used to be Irish, but I'm Italian now," she said. "Eating what's local is the new trend. ... But these Old World people have been doing this for years. That's why their food is so good."

No romantic feast is complete without a little background music. Lavagetto likes to set the mood with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

"He's romantic," she said. "When he does the old Italian songs, my husband starts to cry."

Winter Greens with Smoked Salmon and Crabmeat Custards

Makes 3 servings

For custards

1? teaspoon of olive oil

1? teaspoon of unsalted butter

1 rib of celery, finely chopped

? cup red bell pepper, finely chopped

2 eggs

? cup of milk

? cup of heavy cream

1 tablespoons of fresh bread crumbs

? tablespoon of freshly chopped chives

— Salt and pepper to taste

4 ounces of smoked salmon

2 ounces of lump crabmeat

For salad

3 cups of Fris? or Curly Endive

? bunch of fresh dill

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 teaspoons of lemon juice

2 teaspoons of horseradish

2 teaspoons of sour cream

2 tablespoons of mayonnaise

? teaspoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

6 tiny tomatoes

Preheat oven to 325?

For custards: Melt the butter and oil together and saut?the celery and peppers until soft. Remove from heat and cool.

In another bowl beat the cream, milk and eggs together. Add the bread crumbs and chives and season with salt and pepper. Add the peppers and celery to the milk mixture.

Line tow ovenproof ramekins with the salmon so that none of the ramekins show through. Divide the crab into the ramekins. Pour the milk mixture over the crab until it reaches the top of the salmon. Place on a baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until the egg mixture is firm to the touch. Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes.

For salad: Put mixed greens into a large bowl. Tear the dill and mix into the greens. Toss the lettuce with the lemon juice and olive oil and divide onto the plates.

In another bowl combine the horseradish, sour cream, mayonnaise, garlic, and cider vinegar. Carefully unmold the salmon custards into the center of the lettuce and drizzle the dressing around the lettuce and garnish with the tomatoes.

You can purchase demi glace in the meat department of high-end grocery stores.

Beef Wellingtons

with Gorgonzola

Makes 2 servings

21? inch-thick center-cut filets mignons (about 6 ounces each)

4 large mushrooms (about ? pound total)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 large egg

1 puff pastry sheet (from a 17?-ounce package frozen puff pastry), thawed

2 tablespoons Gorgonzola cheese (about 2? ounces)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Pat filets mignons dry and season with salt and pepper. In a shallow roasting pan roast filets in middle of oven 10 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 110?F for rare, and cool (filets will be baked again after being wrapped in pastry). Chill filets, covered, until cold, about 1 hour.

Thinly slice mushrooms and in a heavy skillet cook in butter with shallot, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste over moderate heat, stirring, until mushrooms are lightly browned. Transfer mushroom mixture to a bowl to cool completely. In a small bowl lightly beat egg to make an egg wash.

On a lightly floured surface roll out puff pastry sheet into a 14-inch square. Trim edges to form a 13-inch square and cut square into two 6 1/2-inch squares.

Put 1 tablespoon Gorgonzola in center of 1 square and top with half mushroom mixture. Top mushroom mixture with a filet mignon, pressing it down gently, and wrap 2 opposite corners of puff pastry over filet, overlapping them. Seal seam with egg wash. Wrap remaining 2 corners of pastry over filet and seal in same manner. Seal any gaps with egg wash and press pastry around filet to enclose completely. Arrange beef Wellington, seam side down, in a non-stick baking pan. Make 3 more beef Wellingtons in same manner. Chill remaining egg wash for brushing on pastry just before baking. Chill beef Wellingtons, loosely covered, at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Brush top and sides of each Bbeef Wellington with some remaining egg wash and bake 20 minutes, or until pastry is golden.

Serve with red wine reduction sauce.

Red-Wine Reductino Sauce

Makes 1 cup

? large onion, chopped

1 small celery ribs, chopped

1 carrots, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1? tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoons of demi glace

1 (750-ml) bottles dry red wine

1? cups Ruby Port wine

— Ice cold butter

Saut?onion, celery, carrots, and garlic in oil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat, stirring, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add wines and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture is reduced to 2 cups.

Pour through a sieve into a saucepan and add the demi glace. Simmer until reduced to about 1 cup. When the taste is right, bring to a low simmering boil and whisk in butter in small pieces until sauce coats a spoon and is shiny. Season with salt and pepper before using.

Cooks' note: Reduction may be made 2 days ahead, cooled completely, and chilled, covered. Reheat and finish with butter before using.

Chocolate Pots de Cr?e

Makes 4 servings

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1 cups heavy cream

? cup whole milk

? cup sugar

4 egg yolks

— Whipped cream

— Chocolate shavings

Preheat the oven to 300?F. In a steam-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water, melt together the chocolate and ? cup cream. Remove from the heat. Combine the remaining cream, milk and sugar together in a saucepan and heat over a medium flame until the sugar has dissolved. Try not to stir the milk and cream mix too vigorously as it shouldn't be too frothy.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks together, then slowly stir in the cream mixture (again, try not to make too much froth). Pour the egg cream custard through a fine sieve onto the melted chocolate and stir to combine. If the mix is very bubbly and frothy, strain again to remove the bubbles.

Pour the mixture into 4 ramekins and place at least an inch apart in a baking pan. Add enough hot water to the pan to reach just under the lip of the ramekin.

Bake in the oven until the custards are just set at the edges and still a little 'jiggly' in the center about 20-40 minutes. They will continue to cook after they have been removed from the oven and the chocolate will also harden as it sets.

Try not to overcook, this dessert is best when served slightly soft. Loosely cover and refrigerate until needed. When ready to serve, decorate with piped rosettes of whipped cream on top and chocolate shavings.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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