Before the roses and the romance, Valentine's Day commemorated the Roman Saint Valentine — Valentinus, in Latin. And in her new cookbook, Nigellissima: Easy Italian-Inspired Recipes, chef Nigella Lawson offers up simple recipes that celebrate the cuisine of the country Saint Valentine called home.
Lawson joins NPR's Renee Montagne to share some recipes for a romantic dinner for two, and describes the time she spent in Italy.
"Between school and university I went to live there and worked as a chambermaid. You don't make a lot of money chambermaiding, but you do need to eat," says Lawson. "And so you have to learn how to eat on a budget, and that teaches you about cooking."
For Mini Macaroni & Cheese All'Italiana, Lawson mixes pennette, or what she calls "pixie penne," with a "wonderfully gooey, stringy, fairly light cheese sauce" made with Gruyère, mascarpone and truffle butter.
"I wanted to add some of the more sophisticated Italian flavors to a fantastically old-fashioned comfort dish," she says. "And I do think often when people think romantic or special occasion dinners, they get too fancy, when what we all know is we all love comfort food. This is just an elegant version."
Lawson calls the thinly cut steak in her Tagliata "incredibly luxurious, but also quite budget conscious. Whereas normally you'd get two steaks for two people, this works just getting one steak for two people. Because you cut the steak in such thin diagonal slices, it goes that much further."
A simple side of bread with the Tagliata will do, says Lawson. "I think you want to keep the stress factor out of any special occasion like this."
Since Valentine's Day is really all about the sweets, Lawson shares two recipes for delicious desserts. One-Step No-Churn Coffee Ice Cream is exactly what it sounds like. "I'm so keen on this recipe, simply because it's so easy to make," she says. "Whip everything together, and then you just freeze it. And then it stays so creamy. And even though sweetened condensed milk is indeed sweet, the sharpness and bitterness you get from the instant espresso powder balances it out, and it gives it a bit of pep. It's one of my absolute supper stalwarts."
The creamy ice cream tastes like gelato, and Lawson says it's easy to "gussy up" with amaretto and toasted flaked almonds.
The inspiration for Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake, Lawson says, is "Italian only in the sense that the chocolate hazelnut spread is Italian. And also because I know all my Italian friends are crazy for cheesecake, because for them it's exotic."
"It's so easy and so delicious," she says, "because the tang of the cream cheese counters the enormous sweetness of the chocolate hazelnut paste."
Macaroni and cheese is the quintessential comfort-food supper; this version, while even simpler to make than the nursery staple, is altogether more elevated. The cheese sauce is almost instant: no roux at its base, just grated cheese mixed with a little cornstarch whisked into wine-lightened chicken broth. For this method, I have the maestro Heston Blumenthal to thank. The broth base stops the sauce — with its three cheeses and truffle butter or oil — from becoming unmanageably rich; the portion size helps, too. My decision to bake the pasta in little ramekins was originally made to speed up cooking time, certainly not to be chichi. Indeed, I usually avoid the individual-portion approach, feeling it not suited to eating at home. Here it works: cute meets cozy and becomes chic. Of course, it's partly the pennette that make it — think enchanting little pixie penne — but if you can't find them, use the small bulging crescents that are chifferi, or indeed regular elbow macaroni, instead.
Makes 6 ramekins
Soft butter for ramekins
1 cup grated Gruyere
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 ounces fresh mozzarella (not buffalo), chopped
8 ounces pennette, or use chifferi or elbow macaroni
Salt for pasta water, to taste
1/4 cup dry white vermouth or wine
1 1/4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup mascarpone
1 teaspoon truffle butter/paste or a few drops truffle oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
Freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, or heat the broiler. Butter the 6 ramekins, and put a pot of water on to heat for the pasta. While you're waiting for the water to come to a boil, toss the grated Gruyere with the cornstarch in a bowl, and chop the mozzarella and let it stand somewhere to lose any excess liquid.
Salt the water once it's boiling, and cook the pennette until on the firm side of al dente: Read package instructions and start checking 3 minutes before the pasta is meant to be ready.
Meanwhile, heat the vermouth (or wine) in a saucepan big enough to hold the pasta later, and let it come to a boil before adding the chicken broth. Let it come to a bubble again, then take it off the heat and whisk in the cornstarch-tossed Gruyere. The cheese will melt into a mass of gooey cheese strings.
Add the mascarpone to the pan and whisk again, then add the truffle butter/paste or oil — go slowly and taste — stirring it into the sauce.
Tip the cooked, drained pasta into the sauce and stir to coat. Then tumble in the chopped mozzarella, and stir again so that it is distributed throughout.
Ladle the cheesy pasta into the ramekins, trying to get an even amount of pasta and sauce in each. The sauce will seem very liquid but don't panic, as the pasta sucks it up in the oven. Sprinkle the Parmesan on top, dividing it equally between the 6 ramekins, and give a good grinding of white pepper to each one. Don't worry if black pepper is all you've got. It's more a matter of aesthetics (mine) than taste.
Bake for 10 minutes in the hot oven, or broil until golden on top, and let stand for 5 minutes, at least, before eating.
The French and the Americans may be proud of their steaks but, for me, the Italians win hands down. Nothing can compare to a tagliata (pronounced "tallyata") in its full glory: a vast, juicy, rare steak, big enough for a tableful of people, cut into thin slices (tagliare simply means to cut) and served most often over arugula and with some Parmesan shaved on top.
I've given recipes for just such a dish before, but it seemed to me that it might be possible to downsize a little, making this a more easily accomplished dish for a midweek meat feast. That's to say, instead of going to the butcher and asking for a huge hunk of steak cut specially, you can make one supermarket strip steak (it still should be good meat, or don't bother) stretch to feed two of you with no suggestion of scrimping; and the "marinade" is really a post-cooking dressing, so can happily be used as such. This is fabulously fiery, and the cherry tomatoes somehow serve as both condiment and accompaniment. Of course, you could add potatoes — steamed would be good to stab with a fork and use to soak up the piquant juices — but I am happy with nothing more than some bread alongside. My son (whose absolute favorite this is) thinks likewise.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus some for oiling
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano just under a teaspoon
Kosher salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 New York strip steak (approximately 12 ounces)
8 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
Few sprigs fresh oregano, to serve (optional)
Heat a grill pan, or cast-iron or heavy nonstick frying pan.
In a small dish that can take the steak snugly later, combine the extra-virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, dried oregano, salt and red wine vinegar.
Oil the steak lightly and put it in the hot pan and cook for 2 minutes on each side, then remove it to the dish of spicy marinade and sit the cooked steak for 2 minutes a side in the dish. Your steak will be rare, but that's the way it's meant to be — although if you want to cook it for longer, I won't stop you.
Remove the steeped steak to a board, ready for slicing, and while it sits there, arrange the cherry tomatoes, cut-side down, in the marinade dish. Cut the steak into thin slices on the diagonal and arrange on a serving dish or 2 dinner plates.
Smoosh the tomatoes around in the marinade, then pour them, and the marinade, over the ribbons of meat. Add a few leaves of fresh oregano, if you can get them, and serve immediately.
I'm almost embarrassed at how easy this is but, as you will find out, simple though it is to make, its flavor is deep, complex and utterly compelling. So, here's how it goes: You don't make a custard and you don't need an ice-cream maker. You could (and I often do) serve it with a chocolate sauce (see previous page) but my absolute favorite way of eating this is by squidging it into little brioches, like sweet burger buns, as they do in the south of Italy. Luckily, I live near an Italian caffe that will sell them to me, but I am also searching dutifully for an online source. I use Illy espresso liqueur here, but any coffee liqueur would do, even if it weren't quite as strong. I have never tried using regular instant coffee granules in place of the instant espresso powder stipulated, though I dare say if you boosted quantities and dissolved the granules in a little boiling water first, you could make it work for you.
But this works so perfectly for me that I have no desire to meddle. And I whip up this ice cream so often, it makes comforting sense for me to keep the key ingredients in stock. Maybe I don't have to add this but as a security measure, let me remind you that 1 tablespoon is 3 teaspoons. My instant espresso powder comes with a teaspoon measure inside, so, if it helps, use 6 of these to make sure you are adding the right amount.
Makes 1 pint
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons espresso liqueur
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1-pint airtight container
Put the condensed milk in a bowl and stir in the espresso powder and liqueur. In a separate bowl whisk the cream until it reaches soft peaks. Fold the cream into the condensed milk mixture, then pour this gorgeous, caffe-latte-colored, airy mixture into an airtight container and freeze for 6 hours or overnight.
Serve straight from the freezer.
I don't know if I should apologize for this or boast about it. Either way, I feel you will thank me for it. The thing is that it's embarrassingly easy and, although I first started making it last Christmas — a lot — reckoning that it was just the sort of count-no-calorie indulgence that the season demands, I have since decided that something this good, and this speedily simple to conjure into being, needs to be in our lives all year round.
Don't be tempted to let the cheesecake come to room temperature before serving. It slices and eats better with a bit of refrigerator chill on it. However, you must have both Nutella and cream cheese at room temperature before making it. To simplify your life a little, try to buy the hazelnuts already chopped and toasted.
Serves 8 to 12
10 ounces graham crackers (about 16 sheets or 2 1/2 cups crumbs)
5 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
1 13-ounce jar Nutella or equivalent chocolate hazelnut spread, at room temperature
3/4 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
9-inch springform cake pan
Break the crackers into the bowl of a food processor, then add the butter and 1 tablespoon of Nutella and blitz until the mixture starts to clump. Add 3 tablespoons of the toasted hazelnuts, and continue to pulse until you have a damp, sandy mixture.
Tip this into your springform pan and press it into the base, using either your hands or the back of a spoon. Place in the refrigerator to chill while you get on with the filling.
Beat together the cream cheese and confectioners' sugar until smooth and soft, then patiently scrape the rest of the Nutella out of its jar and into the cream cheese mixture and continue beating until combined.
Take the springform pan out of the refrigerator. Carefully scrape and smooth the Nutella mixture over the cracker crumb base and scatter the remaining chopped hazelnuts on top to cover. Place the pan in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Serve straight from the refrigerator for best results, unspringing the cake from the pan, still on its base, just before you eat. To cut it, dip a sharp knife in cold water, wiping it and dipping again between each cut. And don't worry: It may look disappointingly flat when whole, but when sliced, its dark depths are revealed.
Recipes reprinted from Nigellissima: Easy Italian-Inspired Recipes by Nigella Lawson. Copyright 2013 by Nigella Lawson. Reprinted by permission of Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House Inc.