When it comes to Valentine's Day, chef Nigella Lawson admits she's sort of a Scrooge. But despite her V-Day aversions, she's managed to cook up a romantic dinner menu that could melt the heart of Ebenezer himself.
Her first suggestion: Skip the fancy restaurant reservation. Why spend Valentine's Day with other couples going through the motions, when you could prepare something nice for the love of your life?
"Apart from everything else, cooking something — and connecting — seems to me to be a very good way of approaching the day," Lawson tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
Steak, All Dressed Up and Ready to Go
First up on the menu, Lawson proposes "The date steak" as a treat for meat-lovers who want a delicious, but simple meal.
"People really get nervous about cooking for someone, especially someone they love," Lawson says, "... because they feel like they've got to do something very fancy."
So after cooking up a plain steak, Lawson just throws together a quick stove-top barbecue sauce — (without offending too many Texans, she hopes.)
"I just get a saucepan out, and I put a bit of dark brown sugar, some red wine vinegar, a bit of Dijon mustard, soy sauce, red currant jelly, some ginger, a bit of tomato paste and boil this up," she says. "It's not too sweet and it has edge."
The result is a spiced-up steak that is still a little casual. "It makes a regular steak look like it's got a party dress on — but it's not wearing uncomfortable shoes," says Lawson. (You can find Lawson's detailed recipe for Date Steak below.)
But if the Date Steak's mix of ingredients seem a bit too pungent for the aspiring Romeo, don't despair. It may have a bite to it, but "you don't have to rush off and gargle with mouthwash straight away afterwards," she promises.
For chefs who are anxious about undercooking or overcooking their meats, Lawson offers simple advice for cooking your steak to perfection.
"I always cook my steak for much less time than I think it needs and then I double wrap it in foil and I leave it on a newspaper," she explains. "It carries on cooking and yet it stays tender."
After leaving the steak to cook in its own heat for about five to 10 minutes, Lawson collects its "lovely juices," adds it into the steak sauce, and it's ready to serve.
An Aromatic and Colorful Curry
For all the vegetarian lovebirds out there, Lawson suggests a tasty and quick curry dish that even a carnivore could love. For this tomato curry with coconut milk rice, the hardest thing you'll have to do is chop some tomatoes in half, she says.
"This would also be a lovely recipe to do if you don't want to serve up something as if you were working in the restaurant, but wanted to have your partner with you and chatting. He or she could be chopping some tomatoes as well," Lawson says.
To start off this two-part recipe, Lawson cooks up some onions and garlic, and then adds the halved tomatoes and a whole range of spices. She uses English mustard powder, but says a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper works, too. Then she adds two teaspoons of turmeric for a nice golden color, some hot chili powder and a bit of garam masala.
After cooking the tomatoes in these spices, Lawson adds in frozen peas for the last five minutes of cooking. This last step adds a fantastic splash of color, she says.
To accompany the curry sauce, Lawson makes coconut rice, flavored with coconut milk and spices.
"In an egocentric way, I use some Nigella seeds," she says, but black mustard seeds are also fine.
After frying up some scallions — "most things start with an onion in a pan," she says — Lawson adds basmati, or Thai rice. But it's a flexible recipe. "There's no reason why you couldn't be patriotic and do American long grain," she says.
Lawson finally mixes in coconut milk out of a can and some water, which the rice absorbs as it cooks. Fluffing the rice up with a fork to finish, the result is a curry dish that is flavorful and aromatic, but not spicy enough to clear your sinuses.
"It's a rather fantastically simple, but appealingly exotic meal," Lawson says.
Dessert With A Little Derring-Do
To polish off your Valentine's Day evening, Lawson recommends doing something a little dangerous — deep-frying churros.
But to take the pain out of deep-frying, she suggests avoiding the huge vat of oil and using a smaller pan. She uses a pan that could boil an egg, and fills two-thirds of it with flavorless oil. (Find Lawson's detailed frying how-to below.)
Once the oil is ready, prepare yourself for an exciting ride. "There's something incredibly compelling about a pastry bag," she says. "... There's something almost criminal about the pleasure of squeezing out the dough."
After squeezing out the "crenelated" doughnuts with little ridges, it is time to prepare the piece de resistance — the hot chocolate sauce. Again, the recipe is surprisingly simple — Lawson just melts high-quality bittersweet chocolate and adds a touch of milk chocolate.
"You can lounge about, loll around in a Barry Lyndon kind of a way, dipping your churros into hot chocolate sauce," she says. "If that's not a good way to end dinner on Valentine's Day, tell me what is?"
Recipe: Date steak
All steak is a treat, but this juicy strip steak with its sweet and sharp barbecue sauce is something special: perfect for a little dinner a deux on a Saturday night or any other evening when the occasion calls for it.
It may sound a little too hearty, if we're talking romantic suppers, to be suggesting a baked potato with sour cream on the side, but you and I both know that would be too right to avoid. You could always consider just the one potato, half each. I think, too, some crisp green beans alongside for crunch and general liveliness, but I take a laissez-faire attitude here and know that you won't go far wrong whatever you choose to serve with this.
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon red currant jelly
2 teaspoons chopped fresh gingerroot
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon garlic flavored oil
2 boneless strip steaks (top loin), approx. 10 ounces each
Put the sugar, vinegar, mustard, soy sauce, red currant jelly, ginger and tomato paste into a small saucepan and whisk together over a gentle heat.
Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce has thickened slightly; now take it off the heat and leave to one side while you cook the steaks.
Either fry or grill the steaks: If you are frying, heat the garlic-flavored oil in a heavy-based skillet or frying pan first; if you are grilling, paint the meat with the oil before placing it on a very hot grill pan.
Cook the steaks for about 3 minutes a side, for warmed through but still rare meat — how long you need to cook them depends on the thickness of the meat and, of course, how you like your steaks.
Take the steaks off the heat and double-wrap in aluminum foil; let them rest for about 5 minutes out of a draft.
Open the foil and put any juices that have collected there into the saucepan of barbecue sauce, whisking to mix.
Put the steaks on two warmed plates and pour or drizzle the sauce over them, to taste.
Note: If you can only buy 1-pound steaks, then cook the steak for a couple of minutes extra per side, or until done to your liking. You may prefer to share one steak between two people, thinly sliced and slathered in the sauce.
Recipe: Churros With Chocolate Dipping Sauce
Makes 16 churros, which should be enough for 4-6, but ...
I have been desperate to find a churros recipe I can happily live with, and after much research and many churros — though overeating sugar-coated Spanish doughnuts is not in itself a hardship — I have found The One, in Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Simple, a book of enormous charm and possessing that essential ingredient: It both induces and rewards greedy curiosity. This, my version of her churros, is slightly different; but then, we all, when we cook, tend to fiddle a bit.
I have never — sadly — been to Mexico, but I've eaten churros in Spain, grabbed from a bakery as I pass, in the morning or late at night, with a cup of sauce-thick hot chocolate on the side. At home, they are a sudden afternoon treat, an indulgent, late-morning weekend breakfast, or a gratifying finale to a meal of tapas-style offerings. The chocolate sauce that you dip each sugar-and-cinnamon-coated doughnut into is luscious and thick, and if it looks at first to be too much for the amount of churros you've made, bear in mind that it makes sense to give each person their own little bowl of chocolate sauce.
Enough: Now get frying. I use a small saucepan, not just because it makes sense to do just three or four per batch, but because deep frying in the kind of pan you'd boil an egg in is so much less daunting (in fact, not daunting at all) than having a great big bubbling vat of oil in front of you at the stove.
In Spain, and indeed in Miers' Mexican version, the churros are like long spindly ridged batter worms: Mine are squatter, chunkier, altogether shorter and fatter, like pointy-corrugated puffs of doughnut, all the better for dipping and dunking.
for the churros:
1/4 cup superfine sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup freshly boiled water
approx. 2 cups corn (or vegetable) oil, for deep-frying
for the thick chocolate sauce:
4 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate (or 1/2 cup chips)
1 ounce milk chocolate (or 2 tablespoons chips)
1 tablespoon golden syrup (such as Lyle's), or corn syrup
2/3 cup heavy cream
Mix the sugar and cinnamon for the churros in a wide, shallow dish: this is for coating the cooked churros later.
Melt all the chocolate sauce ingredients in a heavy-based saucepan, really gently, and once the chocolate starts to melt, stir everything together, take off the heat and leave in a warm place.
To make the churros, put the flour into a bowl and stir in the baking powder, then beat in the olive oil and 1 cup freshly boiled water from a kettle. Keep mixing until you have a warm, sticky dough, and leave to rest for about 10 minutes, or for as long as it takes for the corn (or vegetable) oil to heat up.
Heat the oil for frying in a smallish saucepan; it should come about a third of the way up the sides of the pan. When you think it's hot enough, toss in a cube of bread, and if it sizzles and browns in about 30 seconds, the oil's hot enough; or if you're using an electric deep-fat fryer or otherwise have the means to check the temperature, it should be at 325 degrees F. Keep a watchful eye on your hot oil pan at all times.
When you are ready, load up a piping bag with a large star-shaped piping tip and fill with the churros dough. Squeeze short lengths (approx. 1 1/2-2 inches) of dough into the hot oil, snipping them off with a pair of scissors as you go. I love the squishy feel of this.
Cook about three or four at a time and, once they turn a rich golden brown, fish them out of the oil with a perforated spoon or spatula, or with tongs, onto a cookie sheet lined with some paper towels. To keep the cooked churros warm while you fry the remaining dough, transfer them, after blotting with paper towels, to a parchment paper-lined lipped baking sheet and hold in a low oven (175 degrees F). Even if you let them sit out of the oven, they do need 5-10 minutes to rest before you eat them, to allow them to set inside.
Toss all the hot churros into the sugar and cinnamon and shake them about to get a good covering, just before serving.
Once you have finished making the churros, pour the chocolate sauce into individual containers (to avoid the double-dipping dilemma) and dip'n'dunk away.
From Nigella Kitchen by Nigella Lawson. Photographs by Lis Parsons. Copyright 2010 Nigella Lawson. Photographs copyright 2010 Lis Parsons. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.