This should not come to a surprise to anyone who has been reading Dinner: A Love Story for the past few years, but when we are looking for ways to celebrate special occasions, whether that’s a birthday, a return from sleep-away camp, the last day of midterms, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Hump Day…we usually don’t look much further than our kitchen. (Good food is inherently celebratory, and why would we pass up any opportunity to link that celebratory happiness with memorable meals?) This is especially true when Valentine’s Day rolls around. We aren’t a chocolate-truffles-and-long-stem-roses type of couple — in fact, for the past dozen or so years, the holiday has been largely about the kids, the gluey doilies and last-minute dashes to CVS for Snoopy Valentines. (Free advice: Always get the Snoopy Valentines!) So when it comes time to think about celebrating Valentine’s Day, you know, as a couple, my brain short-circuits a bit, then — shocker– defaults to dinner.
But not just any old dinner…I make Andy any old dinners several times a week. The question is: What dinner can I make for him that’s meaningful?
When I think back to my more successful food-related Valentine’s Day gifts, almost all of them are tied to something sentimental. The time I bought Andy a bottle of the Rioja he went bonkers for after a spontaneous afternoon glass of wine at NY’s Gramercy Tavern. The biscotti I made my mom using her mother’s (my grandmother’s) recipe. The batch of Muesli I made Andy, attempting to recreate a bowl he ate at a small hotel in Munich and described as though it was a work of art by Albrecht Dürer. I always think about the gift my friend Jen gave her husband, Ben, on Valentine’s Day one year: All the ingredients to make authentic pad thai, the meal they shared when they went out on their first date. She tied up the brown grocery bag with a big bow, and instead of dining on the customary champagne and chocolate mousse, the two minced lemongrass, whisked tamarind paste, boiled rice noodles, and cracked eggs together, then sat down to toast their history. How sweet is that? My point is: When you’re stumped for gift ideas, ask yourself: What recipes carry meaning in your family? Which ones qualify as special? Which ones might remind the recipient of something happy?
This year, the answers to all of those questions can be found in the menu below, my best recreation of a perfect dinner we had in Maine last summer. It was one of those golden summer nights in New England, the air was clear and briny, the oysters were just-shucked and plump, and the lobster rolls were MADE WITH BROWN BUTTER. You heard me. Brown butter. I don’t think a week has gone by since then when Andy hasn’t asked me “Remember those brown butter lobster rolls we ate in Maine?” So I set to work designing a meal that reminded us of that night. In the name of presentation, I’ve decided to forgo the stuffed roll for a broiled wild-caught tail — it feels more refined, yes, but here’s the thing, broiling a lobster tail is about as fast and un-fussy a way to prepare lobster as you can get. And with a brioche dinner roll on the side (instead of a buttered Martin’s hot dog bun) the original is still represented in spirit. I also decided on oysters (remember: Maine) as well as a sparkling wine like Dechanceny Brut Rosé (remember: Valentine’s Day) and the requisite heart-shaped accompaniments, beets “tartare” molded in a cookie cutter and mud cake, studded with chocolate-covered strawberries.
I know it sounds super fancy, but the truth is, the cooking time is minimal (especially if you decide to buy a Sweetheart Cake from the Whole Foods Market bakery department instead of baking one from scratch) and the shopping list is ridiculously short. If you don’t believe me, here’s a copy you can download and take with you. Print it out and hit Whole Foods Market for all the goods.
Valentine’s Day Menu for Two
DeChanceney Crémant de Loire Rosé Brut
Oysters with Champagne Vinegar Mignonette Brown Butter Lobster Tails
Brioche Dinner Rolls
Beet Tartare with Goat Cheese
Mud Cake with Chocolate-covered Strawberries OR Sweetheart Cake from Whole Foods Bakery
Reminder: You can always click the green “Print Friendly” button on the bottom left of any DALS post to create a print-friendly version of my recipes.
Oysters with Champagne Mignonette
Make sure you store your oysters on ice, in an open container. (Remember: They are alive, so you don’t want to suffocate them.)
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons shallots, finely chopped
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar
¼ teaspoon finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
8 oysters, West or East Coast (I prefer East, but choose what’s local)
Special equipment: Crushed Ice (ask seafood department at any market for a bag right before you check out)
Lemon wedges for serving.
Make mignonette: In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together vinegar, shallots, pepper, sugar, parsley. Pour into a tiny dipping bowl. Scrub and prepare oysters (here is a helpful video), placing them in a bed of crushed ice as you go. Serve immediately with mignonette and lemon wedges.
Heart-shaped Beet Tartare
Makes four hearts, with extras. Feel free to ditch the fussy mold and just serve in an artless mound. (In my defense, buying pre-marinated, pre-cooked beets cancels out a lot of other fussy roasting-and-peeling work.) No matter what form it takes, it will taste delicious.
2 cups pre-cooked beets in vinegar (we use Love Beets brand) minced into tiny cubes
½ cup goat cheese crumbles
2 tablespoons chives, plus more for serving
olive oil for drizzling
Freshly ground black pepper
Special equipment, small (2-to-3-inch) heart-shaped cookie cutter
Place heart-shape cookie cutter on dinner plates and spoon enough diced beets into mold for it to fill almost all the way up. Press down so beets are packed together. Add a layer of goat cheese crumbles and carefully remove heart mold. Repeat on same plate if you have room. (Each plate should have two hearts.) Sprinkle with chives and a small drizzle of olive oil. Repeat on second dinner plate. Serve remaining beets in a bowl on the side, tossed with remaining goat cheese, more chives, black pepper, and a little olive oil.
Lobster Tails with Brown Butter and Herbs
Cooking time varies based on the size of tails, but the rule is generally cook one minute per one ounce. So a 6-ounce lobster tail takes about 6 minutes. Serves 2.
4 6-ounce lobster tails, thawed and rinsed
6 tablespoons salted butter
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
Lemon wedges (for serving)
Brioche dinner rolls (optional)
Heat broiler to high and set oven rack to upper most level.
Using kitchen scissors, cut the round top side of the lobster tails lengthwise. Begin the cut with the bottom blade right under the shell, cutting only the shell and not the meat. Proceed the cut down the center all the way to the base of the tail. Grab each side of the shell and gently open, away from the meat. Carefully push the meat out of the shell, then place on top of the shell. Place the tails (in their shells) on a broiling pan lined with foil.
Add butter to a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Do not leave your stovetop perch. Watch as the butter melts, then foams, then begins to brown, swirling occasionally as you go. The whole process should take about 4 minutes, but it’s really an eyeball (and an aromatic) thing: As soon as the butter starts to turn brown and smell nutty, remove the pan from the heat so the butter doesn’t burn.
Brush the lobster meat with a light coating of the brown butter. Pour remaining butter into two small ramekins or dipping bowls.
Broil lobsters for 6 to 8 minutes. (The lobster is done when the internal temperature reaches 145°F.) The meat may be slightly browned but should be firm to the touch.
While lobster cooks, stir Worcestershire in to brown butter bowls. Remove lobster from broiler, brush with one more coat of brown butter mixture, then shower with herbs and fresh lemon juice.
Serve with lemon wedges and side bowls of extra brown butter for dipping.
Mud Cake, Valentine’s Day Version
This makes two 9-inch round cakes. I know that’s a pain, but I always make one and freeze one for later. (You can also just stack them together, spreading your favorite chocolate frosting in between.)
1 1/4 cups flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups cocoa
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup brewed black coffee, at room temperature (I used Stumptown)
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
Powdered sugar in a shaking canister for design (optional)
8 chocolate-covered strawberries
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans with butter, and lightly flour, shaking off any excess.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and baking powder. Add the eggs, coffee, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and chocolate chips, if using. Stir until incorporated, then pour into the prepared pans. Bake for 30 to 33 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and let them cool in their pans for 20 to 30 minutes. Run a serrated knife along the edges until they pull away from the sides. Place a cooling rack on top of the cake and slowly, carefully invert the cake onto the rack to finish cooling.
Once your cake is cooled, freeze one (for later consumption) and then place the other on a large round platter (there should be at least an inch perimeter of plate around the edge of the cake). Place a piece of parchment paper over the surface of the cake, tracing the edges with a marker, outlining a circle. Cut out the circle, then draw a medium-size heart in the center of the circle. Cut out the heart so your parchment has a heart-shaped hole in the middle. This is your stencil. Lay on top of your cake and shake powdered sugar on top. Carefully peel back parchment to reveal the heart. Place strawberries and chocolate covered strawberries around the perimeter and serve.
Menu note: You will have leftover buttermilk and a lot of leftover herbs. Best use? Homemade ranch dressing. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for my favorite recipe.)
Happy Valentine’s Day!