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Modern Wine Country, haute cuisine meet in chef John Ash's Valentine's dinner

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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.

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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

Serves 6

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.

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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.

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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

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons each finely sliced garlic and shallot

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

2 cups (1 15-ounce can) canned diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire roasted)

1/2 cup hearty red wine such as zinfandel

3 cups rich chicken or vegetable stock

— Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cups cubed (1/2 inch) good quality peasant style bread, crusts removed

1/4 pound or so smoked goat cheddar, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves coarsely chopped

Quarter and wash the radicchio. Remove core and slice thinly. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a deep saucepan and over moderately high heat, sauté the radicchio until it just starts to wilt, for a minute or two, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper.

Remove and set aside.

Add 2 more tablespoons olive oil to the pan and sauté the garlic and shallot until softened but not brown.

Add the fennel seed, tomatoes, wine and stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes or so.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, toss the bread cubes with the remaining olive oil. Quickly sauté bread in a large sauté pan over moderately high heat until they are golden brown.

Add more oil if necessary. Can be made a day ahead.

To serve, stir the radicchio into the hot soup. Divide the cheese and bread cubes among 4 large soup bowls and ladle soup over.

Sprinkle basil over the top and serve immediately.

Note: If making soup ahead, do not add radicchio until serving time. The soup will become too bitter if radicchio is left in for more than a few minutes.

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This recipe depends on getting the best scallops available. Diver scallops (also known as dry pack) are those that are harvested daily and never put into a brine solution.

As a result, the texture is meatier, and they sear or grill beautifully, as opposed to those that have been soaking in a brine solution, which is often laced with a preservative called tripolyphosphate that encourages the scallops to soak up water. This recipe makes more cauliflower puree than you’ll need, but that’s a good thing!

Cover and refrigerate for another use.

Pan Seared Scallops with Cauliflower Puree

Serves 4

— Cauliflower Puree (recipe follows)

— Canola oil as needed

1/4 cup drained capers, patted dry

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1-1/4 pounds diver scallops, side muscle removed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter; more as needed

2 teaspoons finely chopped tarragon

Heat 1/4 inch of the oil in a medium, deep-sided saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the capers and 1/2 teaspoon thyme and cook until the capers are golden and crisp, about 2 minutes.

Add the lemon zest, cook for just a few seconds, and then, using a slotted spoon, transfer the capers, thyme and zest to a paper-towel-lined plate.

Pat the scallops dry. Heat a large, heavy-duty nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.

Add a tablespoon or so of oil and the butter. Season the scallops with salt.

Working in batches if necessary to keep from crowding, cook the scallops, undisturbed, until very well browned on one side, 2 to 3 minutes.

Flip and cook until just barely cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes more, depending on size. Transfer to a plate.

Repeat, if necessary, wiping out the pan and adding more butter and oil as needed.

Spoon some of the cauliflower purée among serving plates, and top with the scallops.

Garnish with the fried capers and tarragon and serve.

Cauliflower Puree

Makes about 1 quart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced

4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 2-pound head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets

2 cups heavy cream or chicken stock (or a combination of the two)

1 sprig thyme

— Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

— Drops of lemon juice and cayenne to taste

In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat.

Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Lower heat as necessary to prevent browning.

Add cauliflower, cream and/or stock and thyme. Cover, bring to a simmer and cook, adjusting heat to maintain simmer, until cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes.

Uncover and continue to simmer for another 3 or 4 minutes to thicken the liquid. Discard thyme sprig.

Using a blender or immersion blender, blend cauliflower and liquid to form a very smooth purée.

Season to your taste with salt, white pepper, drops of lemon juice and a little cayenne.

You can adjust purée consistency as needed: thicken by cooking down further while stirring often over low heat or thin by whisking in liquid, such as stock, cream or water. Serve warm.

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Based on the classic French dessert “oeufs à la neige” or snow eggs, this is one of the most elegant yet simple desserts that everyone should know how to make. It consists of light, airy poached meringues floating on a sea of custard sauce.

Typically, the meringues are drizzled with a caramel sauce. I’ve included that recipe below if you decide to do this. Make the custard sauce ahead so it has time to chill.

Floating Islands

Makes 6 servings

— Vanilla Custard sauce (recipe follows)

4 cups whole milk

1 cup superfine sugar

6 egg large egg whites

— Neutral vegetable oil

2 cups fresh berries of your choice

Make a batch of the vanilla custard sauce and refrigerate.

Place the milk and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a wide, deep sauté pan and add enough water to bring the combined liquid up to a depth of about 1 inch. Place over moderate heat and bring just to a simmer, about 160 degrees.

Beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle in the remaining sugar and continue to beat until whites form stiff peaks and are still glossy.

With two large spoons dipped in cold water, form 6 large egg-shaped ovals of meringue and gently slide them into the simmering liquid as they are formed. (You may need to work in batches — the meringues should not touch as they poach.)

Poach the meringues on one side for about 2 minutes, then gently turn over and poach on the other side for 2 to 3 minutes or until they are delicately firm to the touch. If not, poach a little longer.

Lift the meringues from the liquid and drain briefly on a clean, dry kitchen towel. Transfer to a lightly oiled sheet of foil.

To serve: Spoon the chilled custard sauce into shallow bowls and place a poached meringue in the middle. Garnish with berries and a drizzle of caramel sauce over the meringues, if desired.

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This classic dessert sauce, called Crème Anglaise in French, is something everyone should know how to make. It can be flavored endlessly and is the base for the best homemade ice cream you’ll ever taste.

Vanilla Custard Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

1/4 cup sugar

4 large egg yolks

1 1/2 cups light cream (half and half)

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Beat sugar and egg yolks together until lightly colored. Heat cream in a small saucepan until steaming but not boiling. Slowly beat hot cream into yolk mixture, being careful not to scramble the eggs.

Return mixture to pan and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until sauce just begins to thicken. Off heat, strain sauce through a fine mesh strainer to catch any errant bits of scrambled egg. Stir in vanilla.

If you are not serving the sauce warm, pour into a bowl and let cool, stirring occasionally. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce and refrigerate up to 3 days.

Caramel Sauce

Makes 2 cups

1 cup heavy cream

1 3/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup water

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons rum, brandy or bourbon

Scald cream in a small saucepan and keep warm.

Combine the sugar with the water in a deep saucepan. Cover and bring to a simmer for 3 or 4 minutes to thoroughly dissolve the sugar.

Uncover and increase heat to maintain simmer. Do not stir but wash down any sugar crystals clinging to side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water.

Watch pan carefully, swirling it from time to time until syrup turns a deep golden brown (and registers 325 degrees on a candy thermometer), 10 minutes or so.

Take off heat and slowly stir in cream in a steady stream. Caramel and cream will bubble dramatically, so stir carefully. Stir in butter by bits until completely combined. Stir in vanilla, salt and rum. This stores indefinitely covered in the refrigerator and can be reheated.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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