FOOD plays a major part in pretty much any major date in the calendar and Valentine's Day is probably one of the most likely to be associated with eating and drinking.
Indulgent chocolates, prosecco and fine wines, oysters and asparagus are just some of the treats associated with romance.
And while thousands of us will be heading to the warm interiors and dimmed lights of a favourite restaurant or gastropub, whipping up a tasty dish at home might also be the way to impress a loved one come February 14.
But with a whole host of recipe books, online advice and suggestions it might be confusing to know which approach to go for.
Here a host of North Essex chefs show us how to impress with a plate you could put together for your partner this year whether they are trying to get, or maintain, a trim figure for the summer, avoid eating meat or have a particular liking for the pudding course.
Tom Hartman is head chef at the recently launched White Rose Bistro in Great Bromley.
His roasted sweet potato, red pepper and baby spinach mac ‘n’ cheese is topped with a herb crumb and makes enough for two - making it a perfect dish to serve up on the night couples traditionally get together to celebrate.
"It's vegetarian dish packed full of flavour perfect for Valentine's night, and it can be made in advance so you have more time to get ready for the big night," says Tom, who has worked in a number of top establishments across the country.
Together with owner Andrea Lindsay and hard-working team, he has helped put the premises, which formerly housed the Snooty Fox in the picturesque north Essex village, back on the map.
1 sweet potato
1 red pepper
50g baby spinach
150g macaroni pasta
40g soft unsalted butter
2 tbsp plain flour
250ml full-fat milk
1 tsp English mustard
¼ tsp paprika
125g mature Cheddar, grated
4 sage leaves
1 sprig of rosemary
100g japenese bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Put on a pan of water to boil.
- Place the whole sweet potato on to a baking tray and into the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, take out of the oven and allow to cool slightly.
- Peel the skin off using your fingers, then take a knife and dice the sweet potato into roughly 1cm square sized cubes.
- The red pepper can also go into the oven at the same time, but will only take 15 minutes, when ready, cut in half, de-seed and cut into small pieces.
- In another saucepan, gently melt the butter and add the flour, whisking to form a roux, then take the pan off the heat, slowly whisk in the milk and, when it’s all combined and smooth, put back on the heat.
- Exchange your whisk for a wooden spoon, and continue to stir until your gently bubbling sauce has lost any floury taste and has thickened. Add the mustard and the ¼ teaspoon of paprika.
- Season to taste, but do remember that you will be adding cheddar later, so under-do it for now.
- Cook the macaroni pasta starting to check 2 minutes earlier than packet instructions dictate, as you want to make sure it doesn’t lose its bite entirely. To make the herb crumb place the rosemary, sage and breadcrumbs into a food processor and blitz for 20 seconds.
- Add the pasta, cheese, baby spinach, red pepper and sweet potato to the sauce, and heat gently so the cheese melts in.
- Check for seasoning again, then, when you are happy with the taste, spoon the macaroni cheese into two ovenproof dishes, sprinkle the herb crumb over the top and place in the oven for five minutes. These can be made ahead ready to go straight into the oven to save time.
- SWEET TOOTH
THOSE of us who would gladly skip the starters and head straight for dessert are in for a treat here thanks to Chef Samantha Dorling.
The head chef at Tymperley's Restaurant Colchester has kept the recipe for her baked cheesecake super secret until now but in the spirit of romance is offering the chance for others to try it at home.
But if you can't face getting in the kitchen the dish forms part of the cheesecake trio, one of three pudding choices on Tymperley's first ever Valentine's dinner which it will be serving up on the evening itself.
Owner Alice Tymperley advises booking early though, to avoid disappointment though.
For the base:
3oz caster sugar
3 oz plain flour
For the cheese cake mix:
115g caster sugar
900g full fat cream cheese
- For the Sponge Base whisk three eggs and 3oz caster sugar together until fluffy and then fold the plain flour in. Bake this at 160°C in an 8” tin for 10 mins. Set to one side to cool.
- Sift the cornflour and sugar together before adding the cream cheese – beat this mix until smooth and creamy. Beat in the eggs.
- Mix the vanilla extract with the warm double cream and then very slowly mix in with the rest.
- Tip the mix on top of the cooled sponge (still in the 8” tin) and level the surface. Bake at 200°C for 40-45mins until golden brown and the edges are set. For the last 10 mins of baking, cover the top in tin foil. * Leave it to cool and then place in the fridge for at least three hours – overnight is best.
- Serve with poached berries and a glass of bubbly
If you are looking for tasty food without blowing the health plan for the night then fish is the way to go.
And seafood expert Tom Haward knows a thing or two about that having grown up on Mersea Island and worked for a number of years in the kitchens of his family's two restaurants.
Now running his own pop-up seafood restaurant, Tom's Salty Shack, he says his recipe for bass fillets with raspberry Jus and ratatouille will fit the bill for anyone looking for a go-to plan for a loved one who likes to stick to healthy, but tasty, food.
He explains: "It is an impressive looking dish which isn’t too complicated and an unusually delicious mixture of flavours. "As with any cooking, if you prepare well beforehand, the cooking itself doesn’t need to be stressful. "Prepare the elements to this bass dish right and the final product will impress your dinner guests. You don’t need to use bass either; bream, snapper, gurnard and turbot are great alternatives."
2 x 200g bass fillets
Knob of butter
Sprig of rosemary
Olive oil sea salt and pepper to season
2 medium carrots with their tops
For the ratatouille: Olive oil
1 diced red onion (diced)
1 aubergine cut into one inch cubes
1 courgette, in cubes
2 diced cloves of garlic
1 red pepper, in cubes
2 tomatoes roughly chopped
1 tsp mixed herbs sea salt and pepper to season
For the raspberry and port jus:
400g frozen raspberries
2 tbsp icing sugar
1 large tsp red currant jelly
Sea salt and pepper to season
- Dice your vegetables for the ratatouille and set aside. Next, prepare your jus. It doesn’t need to be warm when serving it.
- Tip the frozen raspberries into a saucepan on a med heat.
- Add 2 tbsp of icing sugar and continuously stir until the raspberries break down and combine with the sugar. You will have a slightly lumpy sauce. Whizz it in a blender and then pass it through a sieve with a spoon as you don’t want any seeds.
- Pour the raspberry mixture back into a pan, add 30ml port and a generous teaspoon of red currant jelly. Season. Continuously stir on a med heat until the mixture is happily bubbling away and is a nicely thick sauce. Set aside.
- On a med heat add a glug of olive oil to the pan, add the onions until they are softened then the aubergine and stir until they begin to brown. If they start to stick add a bit more oil. Add the courgette, red pepper and garlic. Season and put in the mixed herbs. Cook for 2-3 minutes and add a glug of white wine. Finally add the tomatoes and combine the ingredients. Turn the heat down to low, cover and allow to simmer for 30mins.
- Check occasionally and stir. The juice from the tomatoes should be sufficient but if it sticks add a bit more wine.
- When the ratatouille has been cooking for 10mins put your carrots on. Put them in a pan of cold water, add and sprinkle of salt and cook on a med heat.
- Once your carrots have been cooking for 15mins put a glug of oil in a non-stick frying pan on a high heat. Once the oil is hot add the fillets, skin-side down. The fillets may want to arch from the heat so, with a spatula, press the flesh down until it stays flat. Season. Cook for 3 mins until the skin is crispy and turn the fish over. Cook for a further 2 minutes. At this point take the ratatouille and and carrots off the heat. Ready for serving. Turn the fish over again and turn the heat down. Add rosemary and butter to the pan and once the butter melts spoon it over the bass for a few seconds.
- Turn off the heat.
- Spoon ratatouille on to the centre of the plate so it’s a bed for the bass. Slice the carrot into four or five chunks and lay it on the side of the plate so it looks like a whole carrot still. On the opposite side of the plate drizzle your raspberry jus around the edge. For a final time turn the bass back over so the skin is facing up and gently place it on top of the ratatouille.
Ian Hargreaves, of Faze Caterers in Pitsea, says: "Our seared beef fillet is the perfect dish for Valentine's Day. The fillet is succulent and tender with the wild mushroom sauce adding just the right finish. The recipe for our 'marry me' seared beef fillet has been shared with many friends and customers who have prepared it for someone special. More than one response came in the form of a marriage proposal. Coincidence? We don't think so. So whether you are making this dinner for your significant other or for someone new in your life be prepared for a loving response!"
'Marry me' seared beef fillet with wilted baby spinach, parmentier potatoes, wild mushroom and tarragon cream sauce (Serves two)
2 x 6oz beef fillet steaks
350g baby spinach leaves
25ml olive oil
25g unsalted butter
3 x large Maris Piper potatoes
½ glass white wine
1 x shallot
2 x cloves of garlic
150g mixed wild mushrooms
150ml double cream
Maldon sea salt
- Pre-heat your oven to 180c. Season the beef well with Maldon sea salt and black pepper. Put a frying pan on the heat and leave until the pan is smoking hot. Add 10ml olive oil and place the steaks flat side down into the pan. When the beef starts to caramelise and is golden brown, turn over and repeat.
- Place on a baking tray and pop into the oven. The time you should cook your steaks for depends on how you would like them cooked. For medium rare you should cook in the oven for around 7 minutes. The core temperature of the steak should be 47c-52c. Take out of the oven and allow to rest for at least 7 minutes.
For the spinach:
- Wash the spinach leaves really well in cold water until all of the dirt and grit has been removed from the leaves. Drain well.
- Gently heat the butter in a pan and add the spinach leaves. Stir continuously until the leaves have wilted. Season with sea salt and black pepper and drain of excess liquid. The most effective way to drain cooked spinach is to put it in a sieve and press down firmly with a spoon.
For the potatoes:
- Peel the potatoes and cut them into 2cm dice. Toss in a bowl with 10ml olive oil and lightly season. Bake in the oven at 10c until tender and golden brown.
For the sauce:
- Peel the shallot and garlic cloves and finely chop. Slice the wild mushrooms. Cook the shallot, garlic and wild mushrooms in a saucepan with 5ml olive oil until soft. Add the white wine and simmer until the wine has reduced by half. Add the gravy and double cream.
- Bring to the boil and gently simmer until the sauce has reached the consistency that you require. Pick the tarragon leaves from the stalk, roughly chop and stir into the sauce. Season with sea salt and black pepper.
- Place the spinach neatly in the centre of the plate.
- Spoon the sauce around the outside of the spinach.
- Place your cubed potatoes around the plate.
- Slice the beef fillet and place on top of the spinach.
What could be a more romantic end to your Valentine's Day meal than sharing a chocolate dessert ?
Paul Boorman, Colchester chef and the mastermind behind the town's monthly Pudding Club, says this recipe for Chocolate Fondue is so simple anyone can give it a go.
"But the results are perfect for Valentine’s Day. "Supercharge it with a shot of brandy, or your favourite liquor. But only a shot, too much and you will spoil it," adds Paul, head chef at Play Golf, Colchester.
Ingredients : 400g dark chocolate 85g unsalted butter 284ml carton double cream 300ml milk Your choice of treats for dipping such as strawberries, marshmallows or banana pieces.
- Put the chocolate, butter, cream and milk into a saucepan.
- Heat gently, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted and the sauce is smooth.
- If you are a little nervous about melting the chocolate, then put it all in a small bowl and rest the bowl on a saucepan of barely simmering water.
- Stir until melted, this will also keep the fondue warm until you want it but do take the saucepan off the heat so as not to burn the fondue.
- When ready to serve pour the fondue into a warmed pot, arrange your favourite treats on a plate with small forks and enjoy feeding each other this delicious dessert.