Valentine’s Day Tasting Menu: Pecan-Cran Couscous & Chicken Roulades & Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes

12 Feb

After four-plus years of marriage, Stephen and I are very comfortable with each other. For better or for worse, I see us less and less as individuals, and more and more as some sort of amorphous, evolving, symbiotic unit.

On your average Sunday in Our Kitchen, Stephen and I will hang about, reading periodicals or splayed out on the couch watching Stephen Hawking unravel the mysteries of the universe, smacking our lips in anticipation of the Sunday Night Culinary Odyssey ahead. We’re usually dressed like 18-wheel truck drivers on their last leg of a 36-hour drive in a rig with a busted furnace. Creating a harmonious and pleasing visual expression of our inner selves with our garb doesn’t come into it. It’s just us — why dress up? Our hair resembles giant tumble weeds. I often wander about our apartment with face masks of various hues and consistencies.

This is just how we roll, ya’ll — how you doin’?

Most of the time, I embrace our homely homeyness.

On occasion though, as I gaze at Stephen through my rather dingy pair of green spectacles that are invariably slipping halfway down my unpowdered nose, I think: I used to be cute! I would primp for this man when he was coming over to my apartment to sit on the couch and order greasy Chinese take-out as assiduously as I would for an audience with the Queen Mum. That level of care, along with any observance of romantic anniversaries and holidays, has fallen away, somewhere between walking down the aisle, law school, paying the bills, working for the man, filing our TPS reports and walking the dog.

I’ve wondered lately: have we gotten into a rut? That, coupled with my lovely husband’s holiday ‘tude, my sights for Valentine’s Day were set at subdural levels. (Stephen is a notorious Grinch when it comes to anything that traditionally involves small boxes with bows and girlish frivolity.)

He has never been observant of any holiday, much less the ones that the rest of the country greets with bedazzled pageantry and buckets of incense. Valentine’s Day, much to my dismay, tops his list of holidays which should, nay must, be actively and violently spurned and derided.

Corporate marketing conspiracy, yada yada.

I accepted his nonobservance this year with such an uncharacteristically plodding, tail between the legs, head down, Eeyore-like resignation, he became alarmed and immediately sprang into action.

I came home on Friday night to a giant, hot pink Heather bush — and the wild and zany suggestion that we re-create our first date on Sunday night, Valentine’s Day Eve.

Like it or not, Stephen was going to eject us, like aesthetically challenged cannonballs, out of the rut — or pit — in which we’ve been comfortably and unattractively reclining for some time now.

I love the Heather bush, though I’m less than confident about my ability to not turn it into a dessicated bundle of bare branches. I adored the notion of helping him recreate the dinner he made for us on our first date.

It’s hard to believe it was almost seven years ago! Stephen greeted me in his most polished outfit, with a freshly mixed martini, couscous, chicken roulades and asparagus. It was the first (and last) time he ever cooked an entire meal for me and managed to do the dishes, without a pinkie’s worth of liftin’ from me. It was the first (and last) time I ever grinned, sat back, sipped a martini and watched him cook me a meal without neurotically issuing advice (commands) or trying to help (meddle).

On Sunday, we did our best to completely recreate the meal, seasonally inappropriate asparagus included — though I couldn’t resist gussying up the couscous a bit and adding a sexy dessert. Dating again for the first time was just what we needed. We’ve still got it! (Though our hair still does and forever will, resemble tumble weeds).

Below, check out our recipes for Brined Pecan and Cranberry Couscous, Chicken Roulades and Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes. Pictures too!

Brined Pecan and Cranberry Couscous

Makes 6 Servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 TBSP butter
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • 8.8 ounce package of whole wheat Israeli couscous
  • 2 1/4 cup homemade chicken broth
  • 1 tsp sea salt, pepper to taste
  • 2/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 2/3 cup brined and toasted spiced pecans, or just toasted if you’re pressed for time (I used Food 52’s wonderful recipe, swapping lemon peel for orange and allspice for mace and doubling the salt)
  • 2 scallions, chopped white and light green parts only
  • Handfuls of basil and cilantro, cut thin
  • Juice of one lemon

Method:

  • Heat butter in small saucepan. When melted and foamy, pop in garlic and spices and toast for about 30 seconds over low to medium heat, being careful not to burn the garlic.
  • Add couscous and toast for another 2 minutes, until golden brown and fragrant. Add broth, bring to boil, reduce to simmer. Add cranberries and salt. Cover and remove from heat.
  • Let stand for five to seven minutes, until tender. Fluff with fork. Toss with pecans, scallions, herbs, lemon juice and serve, with salt and pepper to taste.

Nutritional breakdown for Brined Pecan and Cranberry Couscous: About 260 calories and 11 grams of fat per serving. Whole wheat couscous is a great source of selenium, fiber and protein. Pecans and cranberries bring in a whole host of vitamins and minerals, with Vitamins E and C leading the pack, along with cholesterol-busting plant sterols, potassium and zinc.

Cost breakdown for Brined Pecan and Cranberry Couscous: If you have the spices and herbs, plan on spending about $10, or $1.67 a serving.

Verdict / In the Future: Toasting the couscous in fat before cooking it, pilaf-style is key. Most couscous is parboiled before it’s packaged, so by the time we toss in hot water for a few minutes it’s insipid. Roasting the grains in fat and not being shy with the salt infuses the little kernels with flavor, as does cooking them in nice, homemade stock. The couscous is unbelievably flavorful with these simple steps; the cranberries are sweet, the pecans add a lovely toasty crunch, the combination of herbs and spices offer distinct bouquets of picquant freshness and boldness in each bite; the lemon juice ties it together in a bright, floral bow.

Chicken Roulades:

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, butterflied (sliced in half lengthwise)
  • 1 jar marinated, roasted red peppers
  • About 4 ounces soft goat cheese
  • About 12 big basil leaves, blanched in boiling water to remove bitterness and chew
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1-2 TBSP olive oil

Method:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Butterfly the chicken breasts as neatly as possible; save the chicken tenders to make teensy roulades. They’re messy, but super cute.
  • Lay 2″-3″ wide and 3″ long (roughly) strips of marinated peppers on plate. Line each with a few leaves of  blanched basil. Dot with lots of goat cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Drizzle 1-2 TBSP olive oil in glass baking dish.
  • Salt and pepper the chicken strips and place pepper and cheese mix on top. Roll up like a fruit roll-up, starting at the narrowest end. Roll it tightly! Secure with a toothpick. Or two. Put them seam side down in the baking dish. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper to taste.
  • When finished, cover with foil and stick in the oven for about 40 to 50 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. (Test one piece by cutting in half: chicken should be tender, but not pink. Juices should run clear). I had some extra cheese after my roulade-ing was done, so about 30 minutes into cooking, I tossed the rest on top, recovered it, and finished cooking it.
  • Remove, let rest for five minutes and serve!

Nutritional breakdown for Chicken Roulades: Depending on the size of the breasts, about 250 calories and 10 grams of fat per serving (using 1 TBSP oil). Great source of protein, iron and Vitamin  B6.

Cost breakdown for Chicken Roulades: Organic, humanely raised chicken ain’t cheap. Good organic goat cheese isn’t either. But it’s worth it to shell out the extra cash — you’ll feel good about what you’re putting in your body and it will taste so much better. I spent about $30, or $5 a serving.

Verdict / In the Future: Ours ended up being a smidge messy, with great gusts of goat cheese spurting out of some of the sides. But like our hair, who cares when it’s just us? The meat was tender, the roasted red peppers were lovely and soft, the basil was pungent and the goat cheese lent a grassy, earthy note. They are also perfect for popping in our lunch boxes later in the week!

Healthy fudge pudding? Oh yes. It exists.

Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes

Makes 4 Servings

Ingredients:

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 1/4 cup sugar, separated
  • 1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa, separated (unlike most processed foods, processed, or Dutch cocoa, actually tastes more pure and chocolate-y than regular cocoa; it also performs better in the oven)
  • 1/2 cup AP flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup soy milk (I didn’t have regular milk at home; the soy milk worked and it produced a sweeter batter–try it!)
  • 1 TBSP butter, melted
  • 1 TBSP sour cream (low-fat is fine)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 1 TBSP coffee (this enriches the chocolate flavor without overwhelming it with coffee flavor)
  • Optional garnish: Something red and delicious. I used candied cranberries (lonely leftovers from Thanksgiving Dinner — delicious! Also excellent dropped into glasses of champagne. I got the recipe from Bon Appetit).
  • Non-optional garnish: Sprinkles of sea salt

Method:

  • Spray four ramekins or small baking vessels with nonstick cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In small bowl, whisk together 2 TBSP sugar and 2 TBSP cocoa powder. Set aside.
  • Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and the remaining 2 TBSPs sugar and cocoa powder in medium bowl.
  • Whisk soy milk, butter, sour cream, egg yolk and vanilla in small bowl until smooth. Pour into flour mixture, stirring until everything is incorporated and smooth. Don’t over-mix because the gluten in the flour will start to perk up and develop, making the finished product taste gummy. Mix in the chocolate chips.
  • Spoon out batter into the sprayed ramekins. Top with cocoa mixture. Pour boiling water and coffee on top. Pop in oven and cook for about 20 minutes.
  • Sprinkle sea salt on top and garnish with something red so it looks even sexier. And don’t mention that it’s low-fat and healthy. Ever.

Nutritional breakdown for Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes: 250 calories and 9 grams of fat per serving. OK, so you’re not going to get skinny by loading up on my (Semi) Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes, but you will be happy, and feel much more virtuous than you would after your average serving of Hot Fudge Yum Cake. As with all chocolate products, these puppies are full of heart healthy flavanols. Two TBSPs of cocoa powder actually has more free radical-busting antioxidants than about four cups of green tea or a cup of blueberries.

Cost breakdown for Healthy Hot Fudge Yum Cakes: Most of these items are cheapo pantry staples that you shouldn’t have to run out and buy; feel free to sub yogurt or creme fraiche for the sour cream, milk for the soy, and mix up the spices. Nutmeg would probably be yummy too!

Verdict / In the Future: Stephen was shocked — truly — when I told him what was in the cake. It tastes, and looks, much richer and naughtier than it is.

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