Many couples take the easy way out and book a restaurant for Valentine's Day. But if you're unwilling to pay the higher prices that restaurants charge on that day, and prefer a more intimate meal at home, one of you has to do the cooking.
Fortunately, these dishes are easy and don't require any shopping beyond what you can find at the frozen meat shop (for the duck breasts) and your neighbourhood supermarket (for everything else). The dough for the strawberry shortcakes can be made the day before and refrigerated. When it's time to prepare the meal, take the duck breasts from the fridge and let them come to room temperature, then macerate the strawberries and preheat the oven. After eating the duck breast salad, it only takes a few minutes to roll out the shortcake dough. Bake the shortcakes and serve them, slightly warm, with the whipped cream and macerated strawberries.
Five-spice duck breast salad (pictured)
This is probably one of the easiest dishes you can make. If you want to make the meal a little more substantial, serve the salad with couscous mixed with lots of fresh herbs.
2 duck breasts, about 200 grams each, thawed, if frozen
10 grams medium-grain sea salt
5 grams five-spice powder
200 grams mixed salad greens
Olive oil, if needed
About 20ml red wine vinegar
A few drops of honey
Sesame seeds, to sprinkle (optional)
Take the duck breasts from the fridge and dry them as thoroughly as possible with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to score the duck skin, cutting in a crosshatch pattern at 1cm intervals, taking care not to cut into the flesh. Leave at room temperature for about 45 minutes.
Wash the salad greens and dry them. Thoroughly combine the salt with the five-spice powder.
About 15 minutes before you want to serve dinner, spread the salt/five-spice mixture over the entire surface of the duck breasts, to coat them evenly but lightly. Shake off the excess (this is important, or the duck will be too salty); discard any leftover salt/spice mixture. Lay the breasts skin-side down in an unoiled skillet, preferably cast iron. Place the skillet over a high flame. After about a minute, the duck will start to sizzle. When you see the fat starting to render - it will ooze out around the edges of the breasts - set the timer for five minutes and reduce the heat slightly, to medium-high. After five minutes, flip the breasts over, turn off the flame and let the meat cook in the residual heat of the pan. After three minutes (for medium-rare; adjust the time as needed if the breasts are larger or smaller, or if you like the meat more well done), place the breasts on a cutting board and leave to rest for five minutes while preparing the salad.
Put the salad greens in bowl. From the pan used to cook the duck breasts, pour off all but about 60ml of the fat (if there's not enough fat, add some olive oil to the skillet). Heat the fat over a medium flame and use a whisk to stir in the red wine vinegar. Whisk in a few drops of honey then dip a salad green into the mixture and taste to see if the seasoning is correct; if needed, add more vinegar or honey. Immediately pour the hot dressing over the salad greens, to wilt them slightly. Mix well then divide the greens between two plates. Slice the duck breasts against the grain and place them on the plate. Sprinkle lightly with sesame seeds and serve immediately.
This makes more shortcake than you'll need for a dinner à deux (unless you're cooking for someone who really likes sweets). Use what you need for tonight's dinner, keep the leftover dough in the fridge, and bake it within a week.
250 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
50 grams granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp fine sea salt
80 grams unsalted butter, cut into 1cm chunks then chilled
1 large egg
60ml cream, chilled
For the filling:
250ml cream, chilled
500 grams fresh strawberries
About 20 grams granulated sugar, or to taste
10ml fresh lemon juice
About 30ml Grand Marnier or Cointreau
In a large bowl, mix the flour with 50 grams of sugar, the baking powder and salt. Add the butter and use your fingertips to break the chunks into pieces that are about the size of small peas. Whisk the egg with the cream, then drizzle half of it into the flour/butter mixture. Mix the ingredients to form a cohesive mass; the dough should be firm and damp, but not sticky. If needed, add more of the egg/cream (you won't need all of it; save it, and use it to brush the shortcakes before baking them). Do not overwork the dough. Pat the dough into a rectangle, wrap it in cling-film and refrigerate until needed.
Remove and discard the core from the strawberries. Cut the strawberries in halves or quarters, depending on the size, then mix them with the sugar, lemon juice and liqueur. Refrigerate until needed.
When it's time to bake the shortcake, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. On a very lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough until it's about 2cm thick. Use a 6cm round cutter to cut out two to four discs of dough and place them on a baking tray that's been lined with grease-proof paper. Use a pastry brush to lightly coat the top of the discs of dough with some of the remaining egg/cream mixture (from making the dough). Sprinkle with a little granulated sugar and bake at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 180 degrees and bake until the shortcakes are fragrant, golden brown and firm to the touch. Cool for 10 minutes.
While the shortcakes are cooling, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Taste the strawberry mixture and stir in more sugar, if needed.
Split the shortcakes in half horizontally and add a good dollop of the whipped cream over the bottom half. Spoon some of the strawberries over the cream, then add the top half of the shortcake. Add more cream and strawberries around the shortcake and serve immediately.
Styling: Nellie Ming Lee