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Love Among The Pots and Pans
by Elliot Essman
"Put love into your cooking, and you'll get love back," sounds like your typical Eastern European folk saying. I wish it were, since my extensive research has not unearthed such a saying; I had to make this one up myself. The raw, uncooked fact is, if you want to impress the one you love with your cooking on Valentine's Day, you'd be advised to cook first and woo later. Things can go wrong in the kitchen. The best cooks, like the most successful stock speculators, know how to prepare in advance to beat the averages.

As with any theatrical performance, planning and rehearsal are critical. The best chefs work as generals, obeyed and often feared by their underlings. Love may play a part in the work they perform, but it's tough love for sure. Everyday cooking to fill your belly takes care and attention, but special occasion cooking requires military precision. The crowd around the table at Thanksgiving may be forgiving, but when you cook for a single person on the year's most important holiday, failure is simply not an option.

Even if you have top cooking credentials, cooking in advance for Valentine's Day is up there in terms of advisability with putting on a suit when you go to the bank to ask for a loan. The more you cook in advance, the greater your ability will be to add theatrical "fuss elements" to critical parts of the evening. When you have the cooking elements clearly under control, you have the ability to turn on "concern" and "nonchalance" according to the dictates of the moment.

The first step in your "victory at all costs" Valentine's Day cooking campaign will be fundamental research. Bear in mind that you are unlikely to succeed in reproducing your loved one's favorite dish, unless you've made it before. The most important research will instead cover what the loved one does not eat: meat ("red" or otherwise), dairy, wheat, carbohydrates, sugar, garlic, and so on. Even if you both like very spicy foods, they may not be such a good idea if afterwards you have-well let's say-"plans." The best foods for romance are basic and satisfying, with deep, well-developed flavors.

You can make nearly all of the meal in advance, even the previous day, a tactic that will allow you to vector all your efforts into presentation. You will precede the meal with the beverage Sir Winston Churchill believed should precede every meal: champagne. Champagne is a beverage that comes from a certain region of France. There are beverage manufacturers that bilk and defraud the public by putting the label "Champagne" on sparkling wines from other parts of the world, but only the French product will do for Valentine's Day. Pay cash for it, so you don't get a reminder of the cost when you get your credit card bill (a particularly painful event if the special evening has failed to live up to expectations).

Avoid the temptation to display champagne knowledge. Remove the price tag with care, but make sure, without being obvious about it, that the loved one can see at least three-quarters of the label. For best effect, resist the urge to mention the beverage at all, just pour it with silent confidence.

You must start your meal with a salad, the only course of the evening you will make in real time. You must make the dressing for the salad yourself as well; it will be a no-nonsense vinaigrette dressing you'll practice the day before. Make sure your greens are very fresh, thoroughly washed, and nicely dried before applying the dressing. If you've purchased the bagged variety of salad greens, get rid of the bag before your guest arrives. Keep salad portions small so they don't visually overwhelm the plate. For the vinaigrette, combine a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar with a teaspoon of good Dijon mustard. Slowly whisk in-drop by drop-a quarter cup of fresh extra-virgin olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon-do not pour-the dressing onto the dried greens with as much delicacy as you can muster.

Once you pay your dues by eschewing bottled salad dressing (I should hope, forever), you earn the right to use a tried and true quick culinary shortcut-frozen puff pastry shells-to add fail-proof elegance to your romantic production. The puff pastry shells obviate the need for a messy starch like pasta or potatoes; they also turn what is essentially a simple stew (beef, chicken, seafood or vegetarian), into an elegant delight. Though the original product may be frozen, you produce the baked shells "fresh" from the oven; their aroma as they bake can be devastating. Just make sure you pre-heat the oven. If your oven gives you uncertain results, bake a shell or two for yourself the day before and adjust baking time and temperature to achieve that golden brown perfection your sweetie deserves.

Your main course will be a stew you will make the day before; it will improve in the refrigerator until the time comes to fill your residence with its aroma half an hour before your special guest arrives. You will use a measured amount to fill the puff pastry shells, knowing that the bulk that remains will serve you well if you get hungry much later in the evening, preferably in the company of your guest (in which case, the ice long broken, you both can eat it cold right out of the pot).

My beef or chicken stews are invariably simple; they become complex mainly through patient slow cooking and careful monitoring of liquid levels. A stew always starts with diced aromatics: onions, celery and either carrots (to make a mirepoix) or green bell peppers (to make the "holy trinity," which I personally prefer). Shallots make a nice substitute for the onions. I take five to eight minutes to "sweat" the vegetables in a thin layer of olive oil or butter in my largest cast-iron Dutch oven. In a separate skillet, I brown my meat at least two minutes a side before adding it to the stew on top of the bed of vegetables. I add liquid, like wine or stock, very sparingly since I don't want the stew to be too thin. I cover and cook on low heat (setting 3 out of 10) for about two hours, adding liquid at the hour point if needed. I season when necessary, sometimes with just a hint of cayenne pepper. If I do add herbs (I like fresh marjoram or sage) they go in toward the end of the cooking process. In the case of a chicken stew, I'll take the extra step of letting the stew cool, removing the meat from the bones, and cutting it into manageable chunks before refrigerating for 24 hours. All that remains then is to reheat and make a spectacle out of spooning the stew into the waiting puff pastry shells.

Slow cooked down home southern greens are my favorite prepare-in-advance vegetables. I use a combination of greens like Swiss chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens or kale. I wash the greens very well, cut off the stems, fill a large pot with water, score a ham hock all over with a knife, then let the hock and the greens simmer together for at least four hours; no further seasoning is necessary. The wonderful aroma of the greens should join that of the stew just as your beloved is ringing your doorbell. If you like you can make a production of discarding the ham hock and draining the greens. As an additional option you can let the phrase "and then I just simmer it for five hours," trip off your tongue in a "doesn't everybody" tone of voice.

The finest quality chocolate-carefully researched to match your loved one's tastes-will do double duty as both dessert and gift. But the chocolate is really only "insurance." Your real hope is that it will only be opened much later, after you've both gorged on the cold leftover stew. Top -- Food Articles Home

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