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Birthday, anniversary and Valentine’s Day all Italian occasions

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Liz and I often find ourselves eating out starting with Liz’s Birthday and continuing through the middle of this month. We have our anniversary, my birthday, and Valentine’s Day, one right after the other. Except for Liz’s birthday brunch with the grands and great-grand, we tend to choose one of our favorite Italian restaurants. We both love the food and the welcoming environment that we always experience. The thing that we like about dining at a great Italian restaurant is that there is no limit to the variety of dishes offered.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we went out and enjoyed scratch-made Italian wedding soup and risotto primavera for Liz. I opted for the osso bucco served over saffron rice with a phenomenal pan gravy with Chianti, carrots, celery, and shallots. This was accompanied by sweet peas and roasted asparagus. Both of our selections were beautifully presented and spectacularly delicious.

The following weekend we got together with one of our favorite couples at another top-notch Italian eatery. In this case, Liz opted for pasta. She had a hearty serving of expertly prepared stuffed manicotti pomodoro. She thoroughly enjoyed the dish. I chose the Italian herb-encrusted rack of lamb served with a mushroom, shallot and madeira wine sauce with a side of mezze penne pasta aglio e olio. This dish was cooked to a perfect medium rare as requested. It was a delight that I completely enjoyed.

My birthday falls on Feb. 10, shortly after this issue is in your hands. I leave the dining decisions in to Liz. We usually like to get together with friends to celebrate at another of our favorite Italian restaurants in the area. I won’t know any of the details until Liz says “Get in the car. It’s time to go.” We always have a great time.

Now let’s talk about Valentine’s Day. As you know, I love to cook. My Valentine really enjoys when I cook a special meal just for her. Of course, I will stay with an Italian menu, her favorite. I have already started planning this menu and I’m leaning toward Northern Italian fare. For my first course, I am going to make miniature arancini stuffed with lentils and prosciutto and served with a very light white sauce with asiago cheese and a hint of smoked paprika. The main course combines the flavors of the Veneto region of Italy complemented by the traditional comfort dishes of the Friuli Venezia region which lies right next door. Veneto sits right up against the Adriatic Sea and features fresh seafood, in our case shrimp. Plus, this region is known for outstanding vegetable dishes which we will incorporate into our main course. Fruili Venezia is widely known for its sprawling corn fields where polenta is a staple. Most of us think of this region for the famous prosciutto di San Daniele. Prosciutto will be part of the appetizer and my cheesy polenta will be the base for our main course. For this selection I will make the polenta from scratch because that is what I do. My polenta will be creamy and rich with lots of Parmigiano Reggiano. The twist to this version of polenta is that instead of butter, I will be using a high-quality extra virgin olive oil in the recipe. The topping for this dish is a very easy and amazingly delicious sauteed recipe. I like to use the multicolored cherry tomatoes for their appearance and for their variations in sweetness and acidity. Red has a high acidity level with an expected tomato flavor that intensifies as it cooks. The yellow and orange tomatoes have a lower acidity and have a sweet fruity flavor. The purple or sometimes referred to as black tomatoes are somewhat higher in acidity and are unique in their rich smoky flavor. When combined in our dish, they deliver a beautifully balanced and exotic flavor. The dish marries the tomatoes with jumbo shrimp, red bell peppers, garlic, Vidalia onion, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil. I add only the tiniest pinch of crushed red pepper for the flavor as Liz is not a fan of too much peppery heat. I always prepare the polenta first because the rest of the dish cooks so quickly. The polenta maintains its creaminess. I serve this dish in shallow pasta bowls with the cheesy polenta as the base and the shrimp and tomato portion spooned on top. It is as good on the taste buds as it is on the eyes. I serve this with good bread and lemon garlic olive oil for dipping. Most people would pair this dish with a dry white wine. I, on the other hand, choose to pair this with prosecco. For us, it is just a better fit.

To finish off the meal nothing is better than limoncello straight out of the freezer followed by almond cookies and lemony biscotti. The cookies are complimented by rich bold Bucks County Owner’s Reserve Coffee. It is smooth as silk with absolutely no bitterness. It is the perfect flavor to go with a snifter of black sambuca, my reward for a wonderful Valentine meal. If this isn’t showing love on Valentine’s Day, I don’t know what is. Buon Appetito.

Murray Schulman
Author: Murray Schulman

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