WHIDBEY RECIPES | February has more than Valentine’s Day for dining

As I’m writing this column, it’s early February with everything but Groundhog Day still ahead of us, and that unimaginable Feb. 1 day now only a bad memory (Superbowl Sunday). But, it’s obvious that even though it’s the shortest month of the year, February is also the one most packed with “special” days and events.

Two presidential birthdays, which are now celebrated together on President’s Day; Valentine’s Day; Mardi Gras Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday and/or Fat Tuesday), followed immediately by Ash Wednesday; and this year, Chinese New Year begins the day after Ash Wednesday.

For those of you who pay any attention to it at all, this is the Year of the Goat, according to the Chinese calendar. If you were born between Feb. 17, 1931 and Feb. 5, 1932, you’re a Goat. Add to those dates in 12-year increments and if your birth date falls in any of those time slots (give or take a few days), then you, too are a Goat.

I suspect most of us have not altogether good thoughts about goats in general; they can be smelly, stubborn, feisty, and have a bad reputation for eating many odd things, including Bill Grogan’s shirts. However, according to Chinese lore, we’re wrong. In China, goats are very highly thought of, and the description of a Goat person is “gentle, gracious, gifted Goat.” Goat people are creative, intuitive, loving and trusting, perhaps too much so, because Goat people often find themselves disappointed in love because they crave security and stability. It can take gentle Goats a long time to find the right person who will provide the kind of security they must have to flourish.

Which brings us to another big event of February — Valentine’s Day, a day of hearts and flowers, a day either to proclaim your love or do something special for someone you love. I missed my red roses and box of dark chocolates this year, the never-fail “wake up, it’s Valentine’s Day” gifts from my now absent Valentine. Please take my words of advice, don’t ever take your Valentine for granted. I hope you made it a very happy day, or that you had a very happy long weekend, since Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday and the following Monday was President’s Day. A three-day getaway, maybe? Or a three-day stay-at-home and spend time, lots of time, paying attention to each other.

Finally, to finish off this eventful short month, did you even know that Feb. 28 is designated as “Floral Design Day?” I didn’t until I looked up special days on Google and found it. I’m not sure what to do about Floral Design Day, except perhaps buy some flowers and try to arrange them artfully, something at which I am admittedly a failure.

No, I’m afraid Feb. 26 is more my style for sending February on its way; it was recently designated as “For Pete’s Sake Day”.

Oh, for Pete’s sake; who makes these things up?

RECIPES

Valentine’s Day has past, but that shouldn’t keep you from making either of these delicious treats any time you want to show your loved one(s) you care. I have many truffle recipes; I like this one because it’s easy and almost foolproof (just pay attention to the heat/cooking).

COCOA TRUFFLES, WITH LOVE

2 cups bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped

½ cup heavy cream

2 T. light corn syrup

½ t. vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1 ½ T. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and softened

For the coating: 1 cup Dutch-processed cocoa and ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar

1. Lightly coat an 8-inch baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Make a parchment sling by folding 2 long sheets of parchment paper so that they are as wide as the baking dish. Lay them in the pan perpendicular to each other, with the extra hanging over the edges. Push the parchment into the corners and up sides of the dish, smoothing it flush to the dish. (That’s the hardest part of all of this.)

2. Microwave the chocolate in a med. bowl at 50 percent power, stirring occasionally, until it’s mostly melted and only a few small chocolate pieces remain, about 2-3 min. Set aside. Microwave cream in a measuring cup until warm to touch, about 30 seconds. Stir the corn syrup, vanilla and salt into the cream and pour the mixture over the chocolate. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, set aside for 3 min., then stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Stir in the butter, one piece at a time, until fully incorporated.

3. Using a rubber spatula, transfer the chocolate ganache to prepared dish and set aside at room temp. for 2 hrs. (You can make this ahead and store in the frig. for up to 2 days until ready to complete the trufffles. Bring back to room temp. and finish.)

4. Using a fine mesh strainer, sift together the cocoa and sugar into a large bowl. Sift again into a large cake pan and set aside.

5. Using the overhanging parchment as handles, lift the ganache from the dish. Cut carefully into 64 one-inch squares (8×8 rows). If it cracks during slicing, let it sit at room temp. for 5-10 min. more, then try again. Dust your hands lightly with the cocoa mixture to prevent sticking (and licking of fingers) and roll each square into a ball. Transfer balls to the cake pan and roll them to evenly coat with the mixture. Lightly shake truffles in your hand over the pan as you do the coating, to remove excess. Transfer coated truffles to an airtight container; repeat until all ganache squares are Rolled and coated. Cover container and refrigerate for at least 2 hrs., or up to 1 week. Let truffles sit at room temp. for a few minutes before serving. Makes 64 truffles; obviously you can make fewer/larger if you wish. You can also dress these up even more, if desired, by also rolling them in toasted chopped hazelnuts or shredded coconut.

Should you happen to be going to or giving a Mardi Gras party (or Fat Tuesday feast), remember it’s all about rich, satisfying, flavorful food. This is but one of too many possibilities; that all-time, much loved Mac and Cheese, with a variation or two.

HOT DOG! MAC AND CHEESE

8 oz. elbow macaroni (or other small pasta you may prefer)

1 T. unsalted butter

1 T. flour

1 t. mustard powder

Pinch of cayenne

1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk

1 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese

¼ cup diced processed cheese (Velveeta, and yes, use it. It’s what gives that velvety texture and special flavor; I typically use more than the ¼ cup called for)

Freshly ground black pepper

4-5 hot dogs, sliced

Additional ¼ cup grated cheddar mixed with 2-3 T. panko crumbs and a pinch of mustard powder, for topping

1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil, add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain pasta, reserve the cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a med. saucepan over med. heat; whisk in the flour, mustard powder and cayenne and cook, whisking, 1 min. Whisk in the evaporated milk and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 5 min. Stir in the cheeses, then the pasta and all of the reserved cooking water, to make a loose sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the sliced hot dogs.

3. Transfer to a buttered baking dish and top with the cheddar panko mixture. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 15 min., until bubbly and a bit golden. Serves 4-6.

Variation: Instead of hot dogs, stir in 1 cup prepared pulled pork; sprinkle top with crushed barbecue potato chips and grated Parmesan cheese.