Arguably the best opportunity of the year for impressing your significant other or other loved one is right around the corner -- that would be Monday, for the calendar-challenged -- and you're broke, so fancy gifts and dinners out are out of the question.
You could make a special dinner at home, but figure a grilled-cheese sandwich wouldn't be all that impressive, and you don't know where to start on anything else. So what's a poor cupid to do?
Start by considering our menu of easy-to-make dishes, suitable for a Valentine's Day dinner and assembled with the help of local instructors.
First, a few tips.
Catherine Margles, president and founder of Creative Cooking School, suggests you begin by asking a few questions. Is your potential guest allergic to any foods? Prevented from eating something because of ethical beliefs, religion or other restrictions? Or just plain horrified by the thought of eating something?
"Find out your date's favorite foods, then try to take those foods up a notch and put some kind of flair on it," she said.
Once you've figured out a menu and selected recipes, read them thoroughly from beginning to end. Check to see if you need any special equipment, and be sure you'll have all of the required ingredients, and in sufficient quantities.
Then, take advantage of the fact that Valentine's Day is on a Monday this year. Use the weekend for shopping -- and cleaning -- and prepare in advance as much as possible.
For example, if you're making the Mediterranean lamb shanks that follow, you could cook them on Sunday and refrigerate overnight. All you'd have to do is heat them up on Monday.
As for the white chocolate panna cotta with strawberries, both of the major components can be made the day before, said Chris Hanmer, chef/owner of The School of Pastry Design.
Hanmer suggested serving the dessert in martini glasses to make it special, adding a red rose petal on top to make it more romantic.
To simplify, he said, "the dessert can be made with any fresh fruit. You do not need to make the strawberry sauce."
Dark chocolate can be substituted for white, he said, although the texture will be thicker.
If you're still afraid of the panna cotta, we've included a simple parfaitlike berry dessert from John Gremo, executive chef and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who also provided the lamb recipe.
"People are looking to cook at home instead of going out," Gremo said. "They're going out there and trying to learn more about cooking."
He added that the Food Network and other sources have educated people about food.
"Ten years ago, if I asked someone what a crimini mushroom or an oyster mushroom was, they wouldn't know," he said. Now they do -- and they also know "they can save money and they can create a great product."
BABY ROMAINE WITH GREEN APPLES, WALNUTS AND DRIED CRANBERRIES
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
½ cup vanilla or plain lowfat yogurt
¼ teaspoon curry powder
½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
2½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
5 ounces baby romaine, or regular romaine
1 Granny Smith apple, halved, cored and thinly sliced
½ cup walnuts, toasted (in a 350-degree oven for about 10-15 minutes) and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup dried sweetened cranberries
Mix lemon juice, yogurt, curry powder and sugar in a small bowl. Whisk in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Wash and drain romaine if not pre-washed. Combine with apple slices, walnuts and cranberries in a large bowl. Add dressing and toss gently to coat.
-- Recipe adapted from Dole
MEDITERRANEAN LAMB SHANKS
6 lamb shanks, 8 to 10 ounces each
Flour, seasoned with thyme and paprika, to taste
Olive oil for frying
¼ cup chopped garlic
½ cup chopped onions
½ cup diced carrots
½ cup diced celery
1 cup red wine
1 cup lamb, beef or chicken stock
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
½ cup black olives
½ cup kalamata olives
½ cup Spanish green olives
½ cup diced fresh tomato
1 8-ounce can crushed tomatoes
4 tablespoons lemon zest
6 sprigs fresh rosemary (for garnish)
Roasted or mashed potatoes, homemade or packaged risotto, or homemade or packaged polenta
Dredge lamb shanks in seasoned flour. Heat olive oil in skillet and pan-fry lamb shanks until golden brown; remove and reserve.
Add garlic, onions, carrots and celery to pan and saute until soft. Add wine and stock and bring to simmer. Add lamb shanks to simmering stock, then add thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, all olives, all tomatoes and lemon zest. Bring back to simmer and cover. Cook over low heat for 1¼ hours.
Serve over potatoes, risotto or polenta and garnish with rosemary sprig.
-- Recipe from chef John Gremo, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
WHITE CHOCOLATE PANNA COTTA WITH STRAWBERRIES
For panna cotta:
2 sheets of gelatin (see note)
½ vanilla bean
14 ounces cream (divided use)
2 tablespoons plus 2¼ teaspoons sugar
Zest of ½ lemon
5 ounces white chocolate
For strawberry sauce:
1 ounce strawberry puree
1 ounce cranberry juice
6 tablespoons plus ¾ tablespoon sugar
3 ounces light corn syrup
10 ounces strawberries in ¼-inch dice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Whipped cream (for garnish)
Fresh mint (for garnish)
Fresh strawberry halves (for garnish)
For the panna cotta: Your first step is to soak your gelatin in cold water. This process allows the gelatin to soften and usually takes a few minutes.
With a small knife, carefully split the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds. Set aside.
In a saucepan, place one-third of the cream, the split vanilla bean, the sugar and the lemon zest. Slowly warm up.
Strain the gelatin and press firmly to release excess water. Add to the warm cream and stir until dissolved. Add the white chocolate, being careful that the mixture doesn't get too hot, and making sure all of the chocolate has melted before going on to the next step.
Add the remaining cream to the pan, then strain to remove the vanilla bean and lemon zest. Pour into six glasses or glass dishes and refrigerate for a couple of hours.
For the strawberry sauce, mix the strawberry puree and cranberry juice in a saucepan and carefully bring to a boil. Slowly add sugar and corn syrup. (It is best to keep the mixture on a low flame to prevent scorching.) Boil for another minute while constantly stirring.
Add diced strawberries to pan along with lemon juice, and continue cooking for another 3 minutes, or until berries reach a soft and pleasant texture. Cool in the refrigerator.
To finish: When the panna cotta have set, spoon the strawberry sauce over the top and put a spoon of soft whipped cream on top of the sauce. Finish with a sprig of mint and a strawberry half.
Makes 6 servings.
Note: Sheet gelatin is available in restaurant-supply stores and some supermarkets. If unavailable, you can substitute 1 packet unflavored gelatin, following package directions for softening.
-- Recipe from chef Chris Hanmer, The School of Pastry Design
FRESH BERRIES WITH CINNAMON-VANILLA WHIPPED CREAM
2 cups heavy whipping cream
½ cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pint fresh strawberries, thinly sliced
1 pint fresh raspberries
1 pint fresh blueberries
6 mint sprigs (for garnish)
3 ounces chocolate shavings (for garnish)
Place whipping cream in mixer and whip to stiff peaks, then add powdered sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Place finished whipped cream in a pastry bag, or in a zip-top plastic bag with a small piece cut off of one lower corner.
Rinse berries and pat dry with paper or cloth towel.
In a champagne flute or martini glass, pipe in a layer of whipped cream, and then a layer of fresh berries. Repeat twice, finishing with a piped rosette of whipped cream. Garnish with mint and chocolate shavings.
-- Recipe from chef John Gremo, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
2 cups good vodka
1 cup orange liqueur
1 cup cranberryjuice cocktail
cup bottled pomegranate juice
cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 4 limes)
Frozen raspberries(for garnish)
Lime slices (for garnish)
Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher. Fill a cocktail shaker half-full of ice, pour the cocktail mixture in and shake for a full 30 seconds (repeating as needed). Strain into martini glasses, add frozen raspberries for color and to keep the drinks chilled, garnish with slices of lime and serve immediately.
-- Recipe from Chef Phillip Dell, Creative Cooking School
EASY SPINACH-STUFFED MUSHROOM
16 large, fresh white mushrooms
Nonstick cooking spray
1 package (12 ounces) frozen spinach souffle, thawed
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Remove mushroom stems (refrigerate and save for use in salads, soups, stir-fries, etc.). Spray both sides of caps with nonstick cooking spray. Place caps, cavity side down, on a shallow baking pan. Bake until tender and golden, about 10 minutes. Turn caps cavity side up. Fill each cap with spinach souffle. Bake until hot, about 10 minutes.
Serve sprinkled with cheese, if desired.
-- Recipe from the Mushroom Council
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or 702-383-0474.