Serve up a simple yet stunning three-course Valentine’s dinner
It is most certainly the year to book a great local restaurant and let them spoil you for Valentine’s Day but if you are cooking at home, I have an easy-to-prepare menu that should tick all the boxes. It’s guaranteed to help you woo your significant other back to the world of love and romance. When it comes to any at-home menu that’s designed for two people to actually enjoy the process of cooking and serving, I have two rules: one, it needs to be kept simple, and two, enough of the elements need to be made ahead of time, leaving you with primarily assembly work when it comes to serving.
Mozzarella arancini with sweet and spicy marinara is a good example of a starter that does take a little bit of work but can be done well in advance. Arancini are a Sicilian cheese-filled snack made with risotto rice, crumbed and fried until golden... they are heavenly. The risotto can be made and kept in the fridge until you’re ready to form the balls and, once assembled and fried, they can also be reheated with good success in a hot oven (do this the same day you intend to eat). Enjoy with the marinara dipping sauce and some Italian charcuterie.
For a simple main meal, try this spaghetti al pomodoro — tomatoes and pasta are a match made in heaven. With a recipe this simple, it’s all about the ingredients, so look for fresh pasta here. When it comes to tomatoes, things can be a little grim in February so I often cheat with a tin, but again it’s worthwhile seeking out the best. I always snag tins of San Marzano or sweet little cherry tomatoes whenever I see them: they take less work to get a rich tomato sauce with depth and sweetness than the generic-looking brands. Drain the pasta directly into the sauce with tongs, cooking and tossing until the sauce coats it fully (a step often overlooked at home), before finishing with grated pecorino and fresh basil.
Chocolate feels necessary on Valentine’s Day and profiteroles are always a showstopper. This choux pastry is worth mastering and is surprisingly easy once you get the hang of it. The pastry puffs, once cooked, can be cooled and stored in an airtight container for a day or two before being crisped once more in the oven before filling (if you want to make them ahead of time). Enjoy!
Time: 35 minutes. Serves: 4
For the arancini
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
200g arborio or risotto rice
250ml white wine
750ml vegetable stock
75g pecorino, finely grated
½ x 150g ball of mozzarella, cut into 20 pieces
150g panko breadcrumbs
3 tbsp hot sauce
½ tsp garlic powder
A small handful of basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over a low heat. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté for 6-8 minutes until softened without colour. Add the arborio rice and toss to coat. Pour in the white wine; let it bubble away for a couple of minutes until reduced, stirring regularly. Add the hot stock, little by little, until it is all used up and the rice has cooked: this will take about 20 minutes. Make sure each amount you add is soaked up before adding the next. Stir through the pecorino, season to taste, then spread the risotto in an even layer on a tray lined with parchment paper. Cover with cling film and chill for at least 2 hours.
2. To form the arancini, scoop a portion of the cooled risotto into your hand. Form a pattie 2in in diameter approximately and place a piece of mozzarella into the centre. Repeat to give you 20 in total. Place on a tray in the freezer for at least an hour until solidified to ensure they hold their shape.
3. Once ready to cook, heat a large saucepan a third full with oil, or deep enough to cover the arancini once submersed, and allow to reach a temperature of 180C. Once it has almost come up to temperature, add the flour, egg and panko to three separate bowls. Toss the arancini in the flour, followed by the egg and then the breadcrumbs, placing on a tray as you go. Deep-fry in batches of five for 5-6 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Transfer to a double layer of kitchen paper to drain.
4. Combine the passata, hot sauce and garlic powder in a small saucepan and bring to a rolling simmer. Simmer for 2-3 minutes and remove from the heat. Serve the arancini on a platter alongside the sauce and a scattering of basil leaves.
Time: 15 minutes. Serves: 4
500g spaghetti or bucatini
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp red chilli flakes
4 cups of cherry tomatoes
50g pecorino cheese, grated
A good handful of basil, leaves torn
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, season generously with salt and add the spaghetti or bucatini, cooking until al dente.
2. Add the olive oil and garlic to a large frying pan and place over a medium heat. When the garlic begins to go golden, add the chilli flakes and tomatoes. Continue to cook until the tomatoes reduce and soften slightly. Season to taste.
3. Using tongs, drain the spaghetti directly into the tomato sauce and toss until completely combined.
4. Remove from the heat and mix through the cheese and basil leaves.
5. Serve straight away in warm bowls.
Time: 1 hour. Serves: 6
For the choux pastry
60g salted butter
80g plain flour
3 large eggs
For the chantilly cream
200ml whipping cream
2 tbsp icing sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
For the chocolate sauce
60ml single cream
30g caster sugar
50g dark chocolate (70pc cocoa solids), finely chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas Mark 7 and line two large baking sheets with baking parchment.
2. Place the butter in a saucepan with 130ml water and bring to a steady boil until the butter has melted.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the flour, beating with a wooden spoon until a dough comes together. Place the pan back over the heat and beat the dough in the saucepan for about 40 seconds. Remove from the heat once again and set aside. Beat one of the eggs in a small bowl.
4. Add the remaining two eggs to the warm dough, one at a time, beating thoroughly until completely incorporated after each addition. Add a little of the beaten egg at a time until you have a consistency that will hold its shape when piped. It should be smooth, shiny and just about falling from the spoon.
5. Using a spatula, scoop the dough into a large piping bag fitted with a large round piping nozzle and pipe small swirls of dough on the lined baking sheets, leaving about 4cm between each swirl to allow for spreading. Brush each one with the leftover beaten egg.
6. Place in the oven, reducing the heat to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5, for about 15-20 minutes until the choux pastry balls have risen and are golden and crisp.
7. Transfer to a wire rack and use a sharp pointed knife to pierce holes on the underside of the buns. Allow to cool completely before filling.
8. For the chantilly cream, whisk the cream, icing sugar and vanilla extract together in a large bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks. Set aside.
9. To assemble the profiteroles, scoop the chantilly cream into a piping bag fitted with a small round nozzle and pipe it into the holes on the underside of the choux buns.
10. To make the chocolate sauce, put the cream and sugar into a small saucepan and simmer gently until the sugar is dissolved. Take off the heat and stir through the chocolate until it has melted and the sauce is silky and smooth.
11. Pile the profiteroles on to a serving plate and drizzle over the chocolate sauce and decorate if you wish. Serve straight away.