Impress your Valentine with easy salmon, mussels in white cream sauce

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What to do with your sweetheart on Valentine's Day?

Three years ago, it was the day we moved into our present home. Although it has proved to be the right move for us, scheduling his and hers root canals may have been a more romantic way to spend that Valentine's Day. The roses I bought shriveled and died from neglect as we tried to make sense of the chaos all around us over the ensuing days.

Obviously, my suggestion is to not do anything like we did three years ago, but to use the KISS method instead. I mean, of course, the acronym for Keep It Simple Stupid. If you keep it simple and elegant, there can be nothing more relaxed, appreciated and romantic than staying home, preparing a special meal for you and your sweetheart, followed by a favorite movie on Netflix.

Almost 20 years ago, when my daughter was in her first job after graduating with her degree, she'd periodically call asking me for instructions on food preparation. She'd never taken much interest in cooking while she'd been home; it was when she was on her own, making her own meals that she began to wonder how to make the food she'd been used to growing up.

One evening, she called to tell her mother and me she'd invited a special man for dinner. Her mother's first questions were about the man and how they'd met. Being who I am, my first question was what she planned to serve. Her answer came in the form of a question, "Dad, how do you do that salmon you make?" That was plainly the primary reason she called.

I knew which salmon dish she meant because it was a favorite of hers at the time. In French, the preparation is Saumon et Moules au Vin Blanc; translated to Salmon and Mussels with a White Wine Cream Sauce. I gave her instructions over the phone for the version I'd make at home and wished her the best. Later, she reported the dinner turned out really well and they'd had a wonderful time. That man is now her husband; proof once again, at least in my mind, a well-prepared meal warms the heart.

Valentine's Day menu

The featured dish, Salmon and Mussels with a White Wine Cream Sauce, sounds much more imposing to prepare than it is. Once you have all your ingredients prepared, cooking utensils and table service ready and organized (the all-important mise en place), the preparation is really quite simple.

The first thing to consider is where to purchase your seafood. It's important to make your purchase from a knowledgeable fishmonger selling the freshest fish, preferably the day of, but no earlier than two days before you'll be serving it. I've found the best quality and most readily available salmon this time of year is farm-raised from the Faroe Islands. Ask for salmon as close to the center as possible.

When purchasing the mussels, they should be closed or nearly closed. When storing, don't seal them in a closed container or plastic bag as they will suffocate. I always purchase a few more than I need and cover them with cold water for a few minutes before cooking to both clean them and make sure they all close underwater. Discard any that don't close and remove any "beard" appearing between the shells of the mussels.

Secondly, let's consider what you're going to serve with this dish. A fresh chevre, served at room temperature, sweetened with a drizzle of honey, garnished with dried sour cherries and served with a warm baguette makes a nice, simple pairing. Pressing the cheese into a heart-shaped cookie cutter is totally unnecessary, but could be worth the extra points. For wine, a Macon-Villages Chardonnay, a usually affordable unoaked wine from France's Burgundy region, is an elegant, clean and fresh complement for both the chevre and the main seafood course.

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As you move on to the main course, steamed asparagus definitely falls within the KISS method and makes for a nice complimentary vegetable. Move the baguette to the table as you'll want to sop up the delicious sauce.

What better way to finish than with some special chocolates as you settle in on the sofa for your movie? Totally unnecessary again, but a sparkling rose wine is wonderful and festive with chocolate.

Finally, once again following the KISS method, it's vitally important in a successful Valentine's meal to include actual kisses.

SALMON AND MUSSELS WITH A WHITE WINE CREAM SAUCE

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INGREDIENTS:

1 pound Faroe Island salmon, cut into 2 pieces

12 mussels

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 shallots, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided in half and softened

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2 medium plum tomatoes

1 branch of basil

1/2 cup heavy cream

6 large asparagus spears or 12 thin ones

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 400 F. Peel the 2 plum tomatoes by using a thin sharp paring knife. Starting at the bottom end, peel around in one piece to make a tomato rose by re-wrapping the skin into the shape of a rose. Alternatively, cut an X on the bottom end and plunge into boiling water for about 30 seconds or until the skin begins to loosen. Remove to an ice bath and peel the loosened skin. Cut out the stem end, cut the peeled tomatoes in half, remove the seeds and cut the flesh into a fine dice. If making tomato roses, pinch off 4 basil leaves to serve as rose leaves. Tightly roll approximately 4 large basil leaves together and cut into fine strips (chiffonade).

Butter the bottom of an oven-safe saute pan (preferably with a cover) large enough to hold the salmon and the mussels with 2 tablespoons of butter. Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with the sliced shallots. Lightly salt and pepper the salmon portions and place them in the buttered pan with the mussels and 1/2 cup wine. Cover and place in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

Take the pan from the oven and remove the salmon and mussels to a warmed plate and cover with foil. Strain the liquid and shallots from the pan into a 2-cup liquid measure or a pitcher. Pour the strained liquid with the diced tomato back into the pan over medium-high heat and boil until approximately half remains.

In the meantime, remove 1 of the shells from each of the 6 best-looking mussels and steam the asparagus.

Add the heavy cream to the liquid and continue boiling until large bubbles form and the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Quickly whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and remove from the heat. Adjust the seasoning of the sauce, plate the salmon and mussels, spoon the sauce over all, plate the steamed asparagus and garnish the salmon with the chiffonade of basil and the tomato rose (if using) on the side.


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