It's a Keeper: Rachael Ray's Valentine's Day Menu

The Associated Press asked Rachael Ray for the perfect Valentine's Day meal. Ready, guys? This could make you Mister Perfect! Rachael recommended cognac-sauced steak, caramelized onion-dressed salad with toasted hazelnuts and chocolate cups with whipped cream for dessert.

To make this meal, Rachael hinted that preparing the dessert first would be best. Then it has some time to chill. She said make the salad next but "hold off on tossing the onions with the greens until just before serving." All the recipes, other than the chocolate cups, can be found in Rachael's new book,2, 4, 6, 8: Great Meals for Couples or Crowds.

My husband has class on Valentine's night, so we celebrated an early V-day using Rachael's recipes (except for the dessert because I don't do chocolate). This meal involved minimal chopping, which made it very low stress. You only have to chop onions, garlic, hazelnuts and some parsley. You can be lazy like me and buy chopped hazelnuts, then you'll have even less stuff to chop.

We followed the usual drill in our house when we make steaks. I become the sous chef and my husband is the chef. So I wander around the kitchen throwing things in pots and pans and every once in awhile he asks "what's next?" It's also fun to cook together like this on Valentine's Day! In case you are cooking for someone else, I found that the timing noted in the recipes were right on target. Here are the recipes and pictures of how they turned out for me:

Caramelized Onion Dressed Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts (Start to finish: 25 minutes)

1/2 cup whole hazelnuts, peeled [No peeled ones in my store. They only had chopped ones with the shells on them. They might not have looked as pretty, but they tasted great and it was one less thing for me to chop.]
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 plum tomatoes, sliced
4 cups baby spinach or arugula (or other greens)
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Place the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and put it in the oven. Toast the nuts for 10 to 12 minutes, or until just lightly browned. [When she made this on her talk show, Rachael says your nose will know when they are done and she is definitely right. All of a sudden you will think, "does it smell like hazelnuts in here? That's when they're done.] Remove them from the oven and cool. Transfer the nuts to a cutting board and run your knife through them once to coarsely chopping them.

While the nuts are toasting, place a large skillet over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the onions. Season with salt and pepper, then cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes.

Add 1 tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar and a big splash of water. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits on the bottom of the pan and cook for another 1 minute.

Transfer the onions to a bowl and add the mustard and remaining vinegar. In a slow, steady steam, whisk in the remaining oil. Set aside.

In a salad bowl, combine the tomatoes, greens, cooled hazelnuts and blue cheese. Pour the caramelized onion dressing over the salad and toss to coat. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. [The picture above was done pre-tossing.]

Makes 2 servings.

Cognac-sauced Pepper Steaks
(Start to finish: 20 minutes)

Two 10- to 12-ounce shell steaks (also called club steak or New York steak, but any sirloin will do), 1 1/2 inches thick [They call it New York steak in my California grocery store)
1 heaping tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 nip of cognac (or 2 healthy shots) [We didn't have cognac, so I used kirsch that I had from making fondue at Christmas and it tasted great!]
3/4 cup beef or chicken stock [I meant to buy beef, but habit took over and I bought chicken stock, for some reason]
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Season the steaks with salt, then sprinkle one side of each with the pepper and press it in with your fingers. [Not your elbows, that would hurt the meat.]

Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the steaks, peppered side down, and cook for 4 minutes. Turn and cook an additional 3 minutes for medium-rare. Go a minute longer on each side for medium to medium-well. [Our steaks were pretty thick, so we did 5 minutes on each side and they ended up exactly medium.]

Transfer the steaks from the skillet to a plate and cover them loosely with a piece of foil to keep them warm while they rest. [Make the tin foil so that steam can escape, but the steaks will still stay warm.]

Return the skillet to the heat and add a drizzle of oil. Add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt. Saute, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the heat, add the cognac, then carefully return it to the burner and let it flame up. Be sure to stand back. You might need to tip the pan toward the flame to get it to ignite. Do not let the contents spill onto the burner. [We didn't flame it because the sides of the pan were too high. Maybe next year?]

Once the flame dies down add the beef stock and the cream. Increase heat to high and cook until it is lightly thickened. Add the parsley to the sauce, then pour it over the steaks.

Makes 2 servings.

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