If you’ve got a special someone to impress, Valentine’s Day really does take things to a whole new level.  Sure, we all talk a good game about what a made-up, commercialized holiday it is, and how we really don’t even understand what all the fuss is about in the first place.  But even couples who make a pact to ignore the day are loath to tempt the fates and skip the romance altogether.

Seems like a perfect opportunity to celebrate with a nice meal, right?  Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day ranks right up there with New Year’s Eve on the Capital Spice “worst times to dine out” list.  Prix fixe menus (often at inflated prices), crowds of diners and a general lack of inventiveness mean your meal is unlikely to deliver the romantic message you wanted it to.

A better – if not always safer – option is to take what you know about your Valentine’s likes and translate them into a home-cooked meal.  This year , I took the chance to cook up a three-course dinner for Elizabeth, with the goal of putting together a restaurant-quality meal in our new kitchen.

Along the way, I came across a couple of recipes that are likely to make future appearances in my cooking repertoire – a bright, citrus salad from Jose Andres, a savory duck breast/pear combination and a pie that would bring tears to Mrs. Fields’ eyes.

Colors, flavors and peanut butter cookie pie after the jump.

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nfns5 leftIf we had any question about the ‘narrative effect’ that goes into the editing of a show like The Next Food Network Star, this episode helped to put them to bed once and for all.

As you may recall, we left our aspiring TV personalities on something of a sour note, with just about everyone mad at Teddy for his actions and Teddy fighting tears.  Naturally, you might assume that such powerful emotions would carry over into the very next challenge that would be thrown at the group…right?

Not so much.  The distrust and (frankly) dislike of Teddy seems to have melted away as we head into the fourth episode of the series.  The remaining seven contestants (“the last seven people in the world” to have this opportunity, as Bobby Flay reminds them later in the episode) are going about their business as if none of the oh-so-dramatic events of last Sunday’s episode ever happened.

With Teddy Folkman out of town for a family reunion, we watched this week’s episode from the comfort of our own couch.  No commentary from fellow fans and well-wishers to accompany this one…but at least it was a quicker trip home at the end of the show!

IMG_6242The episode begins in earnest when the competitors assemble in the test kitchen to face Bobby Flay and another challenge: design a gourmet burger to appear on the menu at Bobby’s Burger Palace – a chain that Flay has been opening throughout the tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT).  We’ve actually had burgers at the Eatontown, NJ branch, so we can say from experience that most of the dishes that the contestants turned out would have been right at home alongside the Miami, the Philadelphia, the Dallas and the Napa Valley Burgers that already appear on the menu. 

Michael channelled Little Italy with a Mulberry Street Burger that included chunks of mozarella tucked inside the patty itself and a garlic bread bun.  Melissa’s Burlington Burger recalled her college days with melted Vermont cheddar and turkey chili atop the burger.  Teddy drew inspiration from the fresh Amish-grown produce that he works with in his restaurants, paying tribute to those farmers with a Pennsylvania Burger topped with heirloom tomatoes, peppery arugula, and other fresh flavors.  Jamika thought of New Orleans as she whipped up a spicy cayenne burger atop a flayed sausage link.  Debbie and Jeffrey stuck with their California comfort zones – a bulgogi burger for Debbie and a sweet-heat offering from Jeffrey.  Katie stuck to her green guns as she put together a San Francisco Farmers’ Market turkey burger…a risky move, as turkey burgers generally need to cook at lower temperatures for longer periods of time to avoid drying out.

So who ended up going home at the end of the show (SPOILER ALERT)?  And whose burger will be making its way to Connecticut?  Find out after the jump. (more…)

With the premiere of Top Chef’s fifth season a little more than two weeks away,  I really wanted to make it a point to visit season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Perilla while we were in New York over the weekend.  Though I’ve been impressed by individual dishes and the overall level of competition over the subsequent seasons, I feel like we haven’t yet seen a contender who measures up to Harold.  Maybe that’s why he’s the only winner to have seen a restaurant through to opening thus far (the fact that he did so within a year of winning makes it even more impressive).

On a previous visit to New York, we simply ran out of time to check out Perilla.  Thanks to the wonders of weekend brunches and OpenTable, we were able to plan ahead and make sure that we had a chance to visit this time around.

What a great meal!  I know the experts (chief among them Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential) look down on brunch and predict that you’ll get sub-par food from a kitchen staff that couldn’t care less, but that simply wasn’t the case at Perilla.  And the opportunity to watch the deliveries of fresh fish and produce and the kitchen’s prep work in action gave us a greater appreciation for what goes into Perilla’s dinner service on a busy weekend night.

Our meals, another Bloody Mary, and Harold after the jump. (more…)