This Valentine's Day, opposites attract

Rebecca Powers
Special to The Detroit News

Once, at a swanky cocktail fundraiser, I gamely sampled a chocolate-covered salmon appetizer.

My husband — in a you-go-first moment — watched my face, anticipating a grimace. But it wasn’t awful. Maybe chocolate, like love, conquers all.

Or not.

The seafood-cocoa bite wasn’t sweet harmony. Like two reasonable strangers seated beside each other on a plane and making small talk, there was no clash, but there were no romantic sparks, either.

I’ve seen people shake salt on apples, and tried that, too. It’s not awful, just no match made in heaven (taste-wise or health-wise). In romance and in food, opposites attract — sometimes. Love can be bittersweet.

Consider the lemon-meringue pie, all tart and sugary — the Bogart and Bacall of pastry — or the visually appealing contrast of New York’s famous black-and-white cookie. And anyone who has ordered Cantonese takeout has at least a kissing-cousins’ affection for the classic blend of sweet and sour.

Strange-bedfellow combinations have been enjoying a culinary infatuation that may be maturing into a deeper relationship. Think brown-sugar glazed bacon, rosemary-flecked shortbread or fig preserves with cheese. And basil has become almost commonplace in various sweets. Basil gelato? Sure.

Differences, our palates tell us, can be good, which may explain why dessert ingredients are increasingly becoming bi-flavored affairs.

Sister Pie, the bakery in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood, is making a name for itself by consciously coupling nontraditional elements. Temptations on display in the corner confectionery include salted-maple pie and odd-couple cookie combos, such as fennel-snickerdoodle and peanut butter-paprika.

Experimenting with food pairings is like dating. There are flings and long-term affairs. Some ingredients, even unexpected ones, just offer a more enduring pleasure. Other combinations, often perpetrated for shock value — think prosciutto ice cream — would have few takers on match.com.

My husband grew up on a family dinner-table mix of Canadian-British and Eastern European food. My mother cooked and baked traditional American dishes with a Southern influence — especially at Sunday dinner. As a result, our own kitchen is a blended family of biscuits and chicken, borscht and butter tarts.

In recipes, when combining unexpected ingredients and opposite flavors — bitter, sweet, tart, savory — what works? Subtlety. Recipes, like matters of the heart, shouldn’t try too hard. The goal should be to offer a pleasant surprise.

It’s like combining colors, which, when done with thought, produces a ‘feast’ for the eyes. The bold pairing of cupid’s favorite colors — pink and red — has the effect of intensifying both hues. As Los Angeles architect Barbara Bestor once told House Beautiful, “Red and pink create warmth, vibration, excitement.” Sounds like inspiration for Feb. 14.

In that spirit, why not add an unexpected flavor to make this St. Valentine’s dessert memorable.

The first time I tasted balsamic vinegar drizzled on fruit, it was in the home kitchen of Rina Tonon, owner of Café Cortina in Farmington Hills.

Tonon was raised in The Bronx in an Italian neighborhood in an Italian household where, she says, her mother often had balsamic reduction simmering on the stove. To this day, Tonon says, the tangy-sweet condiment on fresh fruit (with a twist of black pepper) is a favorite finish to a peasant-style repast.

Chocolates and long-stemmed reds may be a courtship classic, but a bit of cayenne (in the chocolate) will also heat things up. Use ground cayenne rather than pepper flakes, though, because the flakes can create uneven hot spots.

“Southerners like their sweets sweet,” I recently read. And it is hard to beat a dollop of whipped cream on a hefty slice of pecan pie. But try chevre whipped cream and your fidelity to tradition may be sorely tested. When the goat’s-cheese blend meets pastry, it’s a “When Harry Met Sally” attraction of food personalities.

Consider serving the chevre whipped cream in an antique teacup with a plate of ginger snaps for dipping as a relaxed, milk-and-cookies style treat for you and your sweetheart. I’m guessing that if Harry and Sally, those unlikely cinematic soul mates, could see you, they would want to have what you’re having.

Strawberries with Black Pepper and Balsamic Reduction

From Rina Tonon, owner, Café Cortina, Farmington Hills

8-10 ounces balsamic vinegar (needn’t be expensive)

1/2 cup sugar

Orange peel, if desired

4 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and thickly sliced

Fresh-ground black pepper to taste

Balsamic reduction

Combine the balsamic vinegar and sugar in a stainless-steel saucepan. (Add orange peels for additional flavor, if desired.) Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer. Let the mixture simmer and reduce, about 20-30 minutes. (Vinegar is pungent, so run the hood fan for your range.)

Cool and pour into a jar or measuring cup, discarding the optional orange peel. Refrigerate. Makes 4 servings.

Strawberries

Wash, pat dry, hull and thickly slice the strawberries. Place berries in a bowl with two twists of a peppermill per person (three per, if you’re bold). Drizzle with room-temperature balsamic reduction (about 1/2 tablespoon per person). Spoon into individual serving dishes.

May be served with vanilla ice cream and lemon zest, if desired.

Per serving: 186 calories; 0.4 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 2 percent calories from fat); 44 g carbohydrates; 40 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 2 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Chevre Whipped Cream

Rodalesorganiclife.com

8 ounces soft, fresh goat cheese

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

Beat all ingredients together until smooth and creamy. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, if desired. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 114 calories; 9 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 71 percent calories from fat); 3 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 23 mg cholesterol; 133 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 0 g fiber.

Salt & Pepper Chocolate Bark

8 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

8 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

3 tablespoons pepitas (pumpkin seeds).

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.

Pour the melted chocolate over the paper and spread to form a 9-by-10-inch rectangle. Sprinkle chocolate immediately with sea salt and pepitas (or other toppings of your choice, such as cashews, pistachios, chopped dried apricots or dried cranberries). Let sit 2 hours, until firm. Cut the bark into uneven pieces and serve at room temperature.

Bark works well as dessert or as a gift. For giving, wrap pieces in parchment and tie with string. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 297 calories; 21 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 64 percent calories from fat); 34 g carbohydrates; 26 g sugar; 1 mg cholesterol; 127 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 4 g fiber.