Valentine's Day is tricky. Should you get a gift? Flowers? A card? Will it be romantic?
Expectations can be high, but after many years of marriage, I've come to understand one thing: If we can share a good meal together, just the two of us, it's a success.
For years, those meals contained a special cut of meat. Rack of lamb or filet mignon often made an appearance. They're a great choice, not only because they're delicious, but they're also fairly quick and easy.
Just to mix things up a bit, this year I'm taking a different approach in the form of lasagna.
By its very nature, lasagna almost always takes a few steps. After all, it's a layered pasta dish and each layer needs to be created before the lasagna can be assembled.
Sometimes those layers are simple. Grate some cheese, cook some sausage, buy some ricotta, open a jar of marinara and you're ready to go. But for a special meal, I'm happy to make a special effort to get memorable results, and trust me, this Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagna is memorable.
Roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions with a splash of balsamic vinegar, brown butter-infused béchamel and crunchy hazelnuts — every layer is deeply flavorful on its own, but stacked together, they sing.
Each step of the recipe is easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you cook.
Taste each element and season accordingly. For instance, butternut squash can vary wildly in sweetness. Sometimes it needs no help at all, and other times it can be a bit bland. If that's the case, an extra pinch of salt and/or a touch of brown sugar or maple syrup can bring out the squash's natural flavor.
Caramelized and burnt are two different things. Properly caramelized onions have to be cooked low and slow. You can get them off to a fast start, but once they begin to brown, you need to take your time in order to coax out the natural sugars. Don't rush it by turning up the heat.
Brown and burnt are two different things. Brown butter gives the béchamel sauce a nutty, nuanced flavor that plays beautifully with the squash and hazelnuts. But because we're making a relatively small amount for this two-person lasagna, the browning step only takes a few minutes. Be careful not to step away, or brown can turn to black before you know it.
Get your act together. Because there are three distinct layers, plus a top, you'll need to know how much of each element to use in each layer. I like to pre-measure the filling and sauce so I don't come up empty by the time I get to the last layer.
The perfect couple
Of course, most special meals come in courses. While you don't have to serve a salad as a first course, this Romaine, Pear and Gorgonzola Salad deserves a moment all its own.
Crispy romaine lettuce is tossed in a creamy shallot and Dijon mustard vinaigrette. A perfectly ripe pear is sliced thinly, along with a little red onion, and lightly coated in dressing together with the romaine. Creamy Gorgonzola is crumbled over the top before serving.
It's a simple salad, but it packs a punch in terms of contrast of texture and flavor with the winning combination of crunchy lettuce, creamy dressing, sweet pears and salty, pungent Gorgonzola.
Here are some helpful tips before you start tossing.
Rinse onions to keep them from biting back. Two things can reduce the sharp, astringent flavor of raw onions: cooking them or rinsing them. For this salad, they get a quick rinse so we can enjoy their crunchiness and bright flavor without any of the off-putting raw onion flavor.
The right pear makes a good pairing. Pears and cheese have long made a perfect couple. The sweetness of the fruit plays off the strong flavor of the cheese, making them both taste better. But we also want to enjoy the pear's texture, so a soft pear is not ideal. Boscs are a good choice because they retain their crisp texture, and their honey notes work well with the cheese.
Save room for dessert
To officially make this the most romantic meal ever (talk about high expectations), there's really only one choice for dessert — chocolate. And to that end, Dark Chocolate Orange Pots de Crème does not disappoint.
Quick and easy to make, and intensely chocolate with an addictive hint of orange, this dessert is perfect for a party of two, as it lends itself well to scaling down in size. It's also a great choice when you're busy in the kitchen with other dishes, because while it does take time to chill, the hands-on time is minimal.
But first, a couple of important points.
Go with the good stuff. In general, when you start with good ingredients, you get a better result. But when a dish has just a few components, the quality becomes even more critical. So, make sure you're using high-quality chocolate. I like Scharffenberger Bittersweet (usually found in the baking section of the grocery store) or Chocolove (found in the candy section).
Don't scramble the egg. To get a rich, luxurious texture, an egg yolk is cooked with the hot cream until the sauce is just thickened. It's a quick technique that will be familiar if you've ever made Crème Anglaise, but it can also go wrong if you overcook it, turning a silky sauce into a scrambled mess. Don't worry, just make sure you don't let the sauce start to boil. You only want it to get hot and thicken slightly, just until you can leave a path on the back of a sauce-coated spoon when a finger is drawn across it.
Now that you've set the table for a lovely evening with a sure-to-impress meal, relax. You've got this. Still, it might not hurt to pick up a bouquet of flowers and a card. It is Valentine's Day, after all.
Romaine, Pear and Gorgonzola Salad
Note: Pears and cheese are natural partners; the sweet freshness of the pear enhances the flavor of the cheese. Any type of pear will work, but Boscs are a particularly good match with Gorgonzola. The pear should be just ripe, but not soft. From Meredith Deeds.
• 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
• 2 tbsp. heavy cream
• 1 tbsp. finely chopped shallots
• 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 4 c. chopped romaine lettuce
• 1/2 medium ripe Bosc pear or crisp apple, cored and thinly sliced
• 1/4 c. thinly sliced red onion, rinsed briefly under cold water
• 1/4 c. crumbled Gorgonzola
In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, cream, shallots, mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk in olive oil.
In a medium bowl, add romaine lettuce, pears, red onion and 3 tablespoons dressing. Toss to coat. Transfer to two serving plates. Scatter the crumbled Gorgonzola over the top. Serve immediately.
Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagna With Brown Butter Béchamel
Note: Brown butter creates an intoxicating aroma and flavor in this scaled-down but sophisticated lasagna. From Meredith Deeds.
• 1 small butternut squash (about 1 1/2 lb.), peeled and cut into 1-in. cubes (about 14 oz. trimmed)
• 2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
• 1/2 tsp. salt, divided
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
• 1 to 2 tsp. brown sugar, or as needed
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 2 tbsp. flour
• 1 1/4 c. whole milk
• 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
• 1 large onion, thinly sliced
• 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
• 1 tbsp. water
• 4 fresh or dried lasagna sheets
• 3/4 c. shredded Fontina cheese
• 2 tbsp. grated Parmesan
• 2 tbsp. chopped toasted hazelnuts, for garnish
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In large bowl, toss squash with 1 tablespoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper; arrange on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, stir and continue to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until tender and lightly browned. Transfer to a medium bowl and mash with a fork. Taste and add more salt and/or a teaspoon or two of brown sugar if the squash needs more flavor.
Meanwhile, in small (1-quart) saucepan, heat butter on medium for 2 to 3 minutes, or until browned and fragrant, swirling often. Stir in flour. Cook 1 minute, stirring continuously. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and nutmeg. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the sauce comes to a simmer and is thickened. Remove from heat.
In a medium skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the onion begins to brown. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is deeply golden brown, about 8 to 10 more minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon water and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan to lift any browned bits, until liquid is evaporated. Remove from heat.
Working in batches, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 30 seconds. (If using dried noodles, cook until al dente.) Transfer noodles to a large rimmed baking sheet as you go. Do not overlap.
Grease a 9- by 4-inch loaf pan or small baking dish. Place one lasagna sheet in the bottom of the dish and top with 1/3 of the squash and 1/3 of the onions. Spread 1/4 of béchamel sauce over squash, then top with 1/3 of Fontina. Repeat layering twice. Top with the remaining lasagna sheet. Spread remaining sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Bake 25 to 30 minutes on the middle rack of the oven, until top is golden brown. Sprinkle hazelnuts over the top. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Dark Chocolate Orange Pots de Crème
Note: A chocolate lover's dream, this decadent dessert is a special treat that's quick and easy to make. If preferred, you can substitute coffee for the orange liqueur in this recipe. This recipe must be made in advance to give it time to chill. From Meredith Deeds.
• 2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped
• 2 tbsp. orange liqueur
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla
• 1 egg yolk
• 2/3 c. heavy whipping cream
• 2 strips orange zest (about 3- by 1-in. each)
• 2 tbsp. sugar
• 1/8 tsp. salt
• Whipped cream, if desired
• Thin strips of orange zest, if desired
In a medium bowl, combine chocolate, orange liqueur and vanilla. Place a fine strainer over the bowl. Set aside.
In a small (1-quart) saucepan, bring the cream and orange strips to a simmer. Remove from heat and let steep for 5 minutes.
Place the egg yolk in a small, heatproof bowl. Set aside.
Remove orange strips from cream and discard them. Add sugar and salt to cream and bring back to a simmer, stirring, over low heat. Slowly whisk the hot cream into the egg yolk. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, just until hot and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Do not overcook.
Immediately pour the hot cream mixture through the strainer, into the chocolate mixture. Whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Pour the mixture into two small dessert bowls or espresso cups. Chill, covered, for 2 hours. Garnish with whipped cream and orange zest, if desired.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.