Someone once told me that New Year’s Eve is for amateurs; it’s the one night where all the people who don’t normally go out to bars, go out to bars. This is how I feel about Valentine’s Day. It’s when people who normally don’t go out to restaurants decide to dine out and splurge. The few times that I’ve been out for a fancy dinner anywhere near Valentine’s Day, the restaurant has been overbooked and the food has suffered. My idea of a romantic celebration is spending the day buying, preparing and eating food. Lucky for me, Zach finds this agreeable.
About a week ago I planned out a menu and made all the shopping lists. I had been wanting to make the Whipped Brie de Meaux en FeuilletÃ© with Tellicherry Pepper ever since I got my French Laundry Cookbook, almost two years ago. I love brie and the idea of whipping it into a different texture is really appealing. I also decided to make the Herb-Crusted Beef with Chanterelles and Jus from the Rob Feenie Cooks at LumiÃ¨re cookbook. I’ve made this before and if you have good homemade beef stock handy it’s an easy and impressive main course. I wanted to pair it with a simple risotto and found a recipe for Risotto with Radicchio on epicurious that sounded good. For the salad course, I chose a Fig, Prosciutto and Arugula Salad, which is one of my favorite salads ever. Since most of the dinner recipes were fairly simple, I figured we could make an extravagant dessert from French Laundry. I picked the Poached Banana Ice Cream with White Chocolate-Banana Crepes and Chocolate Sauce. The recipe was several pages long, but I figured we could at least do the ice cream part and then skip the rest if we ran short on time.
As sometimes happens with the best-laid plans, the day turned out spectacularly like nothing like I had envisioned…
It started out with a great breakfast of lox and whipped cream cheese on toasted bagels. One of the best things you could ever hope to do with cream cheese is to whip it. Whoever thought of that, I thank you. I also had some really good leftover roast beef, so we made roast beef, cheddar cheese and horseradish bagel sandwiches as well. Then we headed out to go grocery shopping, but we were quickly distracted.
We went shopping, but not for food. We found ourselves at the salvage store looking for shelving ideas for Zach and, somehow, I ended up at DWR buying carpet. I shouldn’t have spent the money, but the carpet was gorgeous and not outrageously expensive. Plus I hate my current carpet. My cat, Dylan, has managed to completely destroy it buy pulling out clumps of fibers like it’s his personal scratching post. To make matters even worse, he knocked an industrial-sized bottle of liquid cement onto the carpet—and let me just tell you, liquid cement does not come out of carpet. In fact even while cleaning it, it seems to attract irremovable dirt. I’m excited about the new carpet because it’s modular and comes in squares like linoleum tile. This means that when Dylan ruins a square (notice I say when and not if), then I can just buy a replacement tile instead of a whole new carpet. You can also just pick the tiles up and wash them in the sink.
Zach and I are a lot alike in that we often tend to slide into paralyzing periods of indecision and wishy-washiness. So we’re lying on the amazingly comfortable foam bed floor sample at DWR and I’m starting to feel lazy. It’s 4pm, so if we left now, we could be in Canada by 6pm and eating dinner at LumiÃ¨re by 7pm. I run this by Zach and his eyes light up. We’re not 100% sold on the idea, so we head home to check out last minute hotel deals on Priceline. We decide to leave it up to fate; if we land a hotel for $20, we’ll go. I start by trying to get a four-star hotel for $20. It didn’t work and Zach accuses me of being ridiculous, but I prefer to use the term insouciant. We keep putting in offers, but give up after our bid of $25 for a two-star is rejected.
I am experiencing the height of flip-flopping at this point. John Kerry has nothing on me. I bring up the idea of going out to eat instead of cooking. We can’t decide so we toss a coin and tails, end up booking a 7pm seating at the bar of XO Bistro. After Zach has changed into nicer clothes for dinner, we both realize that we’d much rather stay in jeans and t-shirts. So we cancel the reservation and head out to Whole Foods to pick up groceries for the original dinner plan. By now, it’s 5:30pm.
When we get to Whole Foods, I waiver, yet again. There aren’t any fresh chanterelles. I totally forgot about the season and had basically planned a summer meal… for the dead of winter. Zach points out that we’re already at the store, so we should just continue on with the plan. I reluctantly put dried chanterelles in my basket. There are no fresh figs either so we, again, get dried ones. Then we find out there’s no arugula. Something about the entire crop being ruined due to rain. I’m quickly losing my enthusiasm for cooking, but we finish the shopping and head home to cook.
When we get to my place I get Zach started on the appetizer—whipping the brie and making toasts. I throw the dried figs into some balsamic and set it on low to reduce and then soak the dried chanterelles in boiling water. I start the risotto. The user comments on the recipe said to use red wine instead of the white that is originally called for, but as soon as I dump it in I realize it’s a mistake. It turns the rice an awful purple-pink color that’s really unappetizing.
I then make the jus, chanterelles and herb crust for the steak. The seared and crusted steaks go into the oven at 7pm, just around the time we give up on the brie. It’s been in the KitchenAid for over 45 minutes (the recipe said it would take 10) and it’s still as runny as ever. I re-read the recipe and realize it was supposed to be chilled before whipping. I’ve already long surpassed the threshold for being upset, so I just have Zach spread the gooey brie onto toasts and drizzle them with the reduced balsamic that I’ve just rescued, seconds from being burnt.
Amazingly, we’re sitting down at 7:15pm to eat. I’m exhausted and a little sad because I feel like nothing’s going to taste very good. I have this theory that the deliciousness of food is directly proportional to the amount of time and love that goes into the cooking. So when I literally throw together a meal, I never expect it to taste very good. We start with the brie toasts, and while they are not what I had originally planned, they are incredibly good. The brie is perfectly ripe and the figs I tossed in the reduction have given the balsamic a rich, earthy flavor.
After we clear the appetizer plates, I cut into the steaks en route to the table and find that they are still raw. I have an issue with overdone steaks, so I always err on the raw side. Unfortunately, I also have a bizarre aversion to using a meat thermometer. I feel like I’ve had enough experience in the kitchen that I should be past the point of needing to use a thermometer, but invariably I should. I actually think that the steaks would have been perfect had I remembered to leave them out instead of putting them in the fridge—especially since they were close to two inches thick in the middle. I toss them back in the oven and Zach and I play some cribbage while we wait.
I get the steaks out of the oven and this time they are absolutely perfect. The dry-aged beef is juicy and flavorful and the tarragon in the herb crust is a perfect complement. The jus is delicious, but the chanterelles are a disappointment; even with soaking and sautÃ©ing, they are still hard and chewy. The risotto is great and the radicchio has turned a beautiful tobacco brown color and mellowed in flavor, providing a subtle and interesting bite. I think it would have been even better made with white wine instead of red. The red overpowered the subtle flavors a little too much—and the color is god-awful.
After the main course, I quickly assemble and present the salad. It really is a gorgeous salad, with ribbons of pink prosciutto contrasting with the brilliant greens. The salad is much better with only arugula, but it was still delicious with mixed greens. The dried figs simmered in balsamic, however, were surprisingly better than using fresh figs.
We completely skipped making dessert, so we drove down to Serafina instead. It was packed full, even at 10pm, but it still had a really romantic and relaxing atmosphere, complete with live lounge singers. I had profiteroles with an amazing caramel ice cream. Zach had some sort of mousse, which was really good but I was too interested in my own dessert to pay much attention.
I may need to reconsider the whole not going out on Valentine’s idea, because it is awfully nice to just take it easy.