The Simple Kitchen: Valentines Day at Home
What do you do on Valentine’s Day? Go out to dinner and wait for an hour behind a dozen Valentines couples? Go on a first date and bask in the awkwardness? Lament (or revel) in your singlehood? Have a party with a big group of friends? In any circumstance, Valentine’s Day probably more than any other holiday is a minefield of weird choices, emotional roller-coasters and big expectations that no one – single, not single – can uphold.
So what do you do about it? Why, cook some food of course! The real answer to that question, really, is to do what you’re passionate about. Just like every day. “Everyday is Valentine’s Day,” I told our girls. Their eyes rolled.
In this entry for the Simple Kitchen, we talk not about a specific recipe but rather the concept of layering flavors upon more flavors, and then more flavors on top of that. There’s nothing wrong with serving the salad next to the meat, which is next to the grilled veggies or fries. But don’t miss the opportunity to layer them all together. As an added bonus, this technique works really well when you have next to nothing in the fridge except for a few plates of leftovers and vegetables that really need to be cooked soon.
It’s not greatly romantic to serve leftovers on Valentine’s so instead I picked up a tri-tip roast, salad greens, Brussels sprouts, wine, and crossed my fingers about what was waiting for me in the fridge at home.
Dinner was layered starting at the bottom, like building a pyramid: salad greens, Brussels sprouts, roasted garlic, slices of trip-tip and topped with pickled onions. But layering works best in the details:
Cooking started with thinly sliced red onions marinated in in grapefruit juice, salt, pepper, pepper flakes and oregano. This marinade takes at least 30 minutes, after which you can just bunch it on top of something dense like grilled meat, roasted chicken, or stuff it into a Cuban sandwich. Most of the harsh oniony-ness goes away, leaving behind a satisfying, tart crunch.
With the onions safely marinating in the corner, I set up the roasted garlic. Once the garlic was roasting in the oven, I sliced raw Brussels sprouts and dropped them into boiling water for about five minutes.
Now that the sprouts were keeping to themselves in the pot, I started on the pancetta. Basically cubes of pure fat sprinkled with bits of pork meat, pancetta is the answer to pretty much every question you have at this point. Put a saute pan on a hot fire and throw in the entire package of pancetta. Once it starts sizzling like bacon, drop the heat to a gentle simmer and stir occasionally. When is really, really crispy then turn off the heat, push the pancetta to one side and tip the pan forward in the other direction to let the fat gather. More on this in a minute.
The Brussels sprouts went into a roasting pan with the crispy bits of pancetta and a bit of olive oil and into a 375 degree oven. I turned my back on the oven and threw the salad greens into a bowl with pomegranate seeds and chunks of goat cheese. Then I squeezed lime juice and grapefruit juice on top. Every salad dressing needs an acid (vinegar or citrus) and an oil, right? So my hand skipped past the olive oil bottle and instead drizzled spoonfuls of the pancetta fat onto the lettuce.
The tri-tip got a simple dusting of just salt and pepper, and then onto the grill outside and sat in indirect heat. A thick and dense piece of beef like tri-tip can easily char on the outside while remaining uncooked on the inside. This is not the same as rare beef, it’s just uncooked meat. We can solve that problem by putting the meat off to one side while all the heat – whether coals or gas flame – on the other side.
Put the meat fatty side up onto the grill, then close and leave it alone for at least 15 minutes, then turn it, cook another 5-10 minutes and start testing for doneness. If one of your guests is smart enough to be standing nearby, then you can bribe them with “testers”.
The variety of tastes is what makes layers or flavor work. It stands up well to a high quality ingredient like the tri-tip, together with many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle: grapefruit juice, pancetta, roasted garlic, goat cheese. Sometimes, of course, the layers don’t work so well. When that happens, you punt and make a nice salad dressing to pour over it. But hopefully that would never happen on Valentine’s Day.