y last Valentine’s Day lunch was one of those unplanned meals whose taste you long to keep on your palate until the flavor melts away in its own time. Crazy salad doesn’t quite describe the outcome but maybe the ingredients can:
Leftover poached Scottish salmon and filet of sole, capers, Amalfi lemon, pepper, mayonnaise, tiny green onions… all of this on fresh hazelnut crisps.
Now, add a perfect tomato (so red that it’s on no painting palette) and celery root (steamed until just firm and mixed with olive oil and lemon and a little salt).
Enter fresh baked homemade bread and two rich olive oils to sample.
And, for the final act, a perfect kiwi, a tart, and a crisp autumn apple, closed out by a pear like no other, a Comice so ripe and lovely that it practically lacked a core — this with a small, buttery shard of Parmesan, separated from its giant wedge with a sharp arrow-shaped cutter similar to the one Michelangelo must have used to cut away the marble containing his Pietá.
Is it just “you and the night and the music” or do these memorable meals seem to happen on a special day — an anniversary, a birthday, or the birth of the first child? Or maybe they pop up randomly, just when it seems everything in the kitchen has gone south, when the milk for the custard has curdled in the fridge or your hollandaise has suddenly, shockingly separated into two unmanageable liquids? Can moments of perfection rise from the ashes of a forgotten cremated loaf in the oven?
My guess is that memorable meals are the result of a relaxed cook not thinking too much about the outcome. Valentine’s Day can be a recipe for anxiety among those who feel obligated to do something really special.
Since I was married on Valentine’s, it remains a special day and I’ve been responsible for my share of all-pink feasts: ravioli with beet and ricotta filling, rare lamb chops (and pink pound cake with raspberry sauce), breakfasts with heart-shaped pancakes and strawberry syrup, and an all-aphrodisiac lunch of oysters, mussels steamed in Pernod and cream. Topped off by a bitter chocolate heart-shaped marquise
These days I tend to apply Einstein’s view of physics to Valentine’s: “as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Simple for me means a dish I’ve made the day before, ready to heat and serve, thus freeing up time to see a movie that brings back memories or just loll in front of a nice, cozy fire with my honey doing Valentine-y things.
With that in mind, here’s the plan.
— The day before Valentine’s, heat the oven to 350 F/175 C. In a paper bag, toss 4 nice osso buco shanks in flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Heat 1/2 cup of olive oil in a heavy, deep casserole and brown the pieces well, along with 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped coarse.
— When the pieces are well-browned, add a generous cup of white wine and 2-to-3 cups of rich chicken or meat broth. Grate the zest of a lemon over the whole all of it, cover, and place it in the oven for 45 minutes until the meat is very tender. If you like a bit more juice, add a bit more stock during the cooking.
— The next day, heat the oven to the same temperature as before, and put the osso buco in the oven without a lid. While it heats, make a risotto alla Milanese (the only work you’ll have to do for this bash).
— Heat a good slosh of olive oil and a small piece of butter in a heavy pan. Stir in 2 cups of Arborio or Canaroli rice and cook 2 minutes until all of the rice is coated well. Add 1 1/2 cups of white wine and stir until absorbed.
— Add 2 cups of hot chicken broth three times, stirred each time until the broth is absorbed, along with a generous pinch of good saffron, powdered or threads. The rice will be creamy and a beautiful color after about 20 minutes, and you can stir in a spoon of heavy cream or whole milk yogurt and another piece of butter to finish it off.
— Serve with a dish of grated lemon and fresh garlic, chopped fine, grated Parmesan, and a salad of radicchio and arugula. After all, something deserves its place. For dessert, simply say, “Well, honey, here I am!”
Now, if you could only get your butcher to cut the osso buco into hearts.