Modern Wine Country, haute cuisine meet in chef John Ash's Valentine's dinner
All of us, every once in a while, need to do what I call the “Big Deal Dinner.”
Maybe the boss is coming over, the in-laws or future in-laws are visiting or there’s a special person in your life you’d like to impress on Valentine’s Day weekend.
Restaurant reservations may be hard to find at this point, unless eating at 5 p.m. strikes your fancy. So why not stay home, light a fire and pop open some sparkling wine as you cook? For double the fun, invite another couple to help prepare and enjoy the feast.
This “Big Deal” menu highlights a mix of modern Wine Country cuisine and classic haute cuisine: Grilled Wild Mushroom and Citrus Salad with Aged Goat Cheese; Radicchio Soup with Smoked Goat Cheese; Pan Seared Scallops with Cauliflower Puree and Floating Islands, a French dessert featuring meringues floating on a sea of crème anglaise.
If you’re short on time, choose either the soup or the salad to prepare, and no one will be any the wiser.
Any wild or exotic cultivated mushroom such as oysters, trumpets, maitake, morel, chanterelle could be used.
Use any soft-ripened (bloomy rind) goat or cow’s milk cheese you like, such as Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam or Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog. I’m also including peppered maple walnuts in this recipe. You could use just plain toasted walnuts, but these are very tasty - plus you’ll have some leftover to serve with more cheese!
Grilled Wild Mushroom and Citrus Salad with Soft-Ripened Cheese
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons or so white balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons finely minced shallots
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thickly
6 cups lightly packed savory greens such as a combination of frisée, arugula and watercress
Walnut oil vinaigrette (recipe follows)
4 cups orange, grapefruit, pomelo sections or a combination
1/2 cup or so peppered maple walnuts (recipe follows)
6 ounces soft-ripened cheese sliced into 6 wedges
- Savory sprouts such as daikon, corn, lentil or fenugreek, for optional garnish
Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, shallots, thyme, salt and pepper. Brush the mushrooms with this mixture and grill over moderately hot coals on both sides until tender and lightly browned. You also can use a ridged grill pan on the stove top. Set aside.
Toss greens with the vinaigrette and arrange artfully on plates with the citrus, mushrooms, walnuts and cheese. Scatter sprouts over and serve immediately.
Walnut Oil Vinaigrette
Makes about 1 cup
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
2 teaspoons honey, or to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots
1/3 cup toasted walnut oil or fragrant extra virgin olive oil
- Drops of hot sauce
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
Add the grapefruit juice, honey and shallots to a blender. With motor running slowly, add walnut oil to form an emulsion.
Add drops of hot sauce and salt and pepper to your taste.
These are delicious as a little snack with cocktails, to add to salads or serve with a cheese plate.
The first time you make these, use 1 teaspoon pepper, and if you like them spicy, add more the next time.
Peppered Maple ?Walnuts
Makes 3 cups or so
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper or in combination with pure chile powder, such as ancho
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
3 1/2 cups (10 ounces) raw walnut halves
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Combine all the ingredients except the walnuts in a small saucepan, stir and bring to a simmer.
Simmer for 3 minutes or so or until thickened. Place the walnuts in a large bowl and pour the butter mixture over, tossing them to evenly coat.
Line a baking sheet with parchment, foil or a silicone baking mat and spread the coated walnuts out in a single layer.
Bake for 45 minutes, stirring and turning the walnuts every 10 minutes or so.
After 45 minutes, walnuts will appear fairly dry and maple glaze will be mostly absorbed. Resist the temptation to eat them at this point because they will be very hot!
Slide them off the tray onto a wire rack and let them cool. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
This is a very simple soup, but it brings together interesting flavor contrasts - bitter from the radicchio and smoke from the cheese - that I think are delicious and intriguing. The cheese I like to use for this is the smoked goat cheddar from Redwood Hill Farms (redwoodhill.com). You could use any good smoked cheese such as smoked gouda, mozzarella or Scamorza.
Radicchio Soup with Smoked Goat Cheese
Makes 4 servings
1 small head of fresh radicchio
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil