As we have done over the past four or five Valentine’s Days, my wife and I have retired from the restaurant dinner scene with a special dinner at home. Even if we had not had children over that same time, we likely would have made the move. The Valentine’s Day crowd makes the brunch crowd look like gourmands by comparison, which is really saying something, and we didn’t like dealing with exasperated servers or some of the step downs in menu and step ups in prices that we saw. We could go out whenever and save frustration by doing our thing in the comforts of home on days like Valentine’s or Mother’s days.
Looking at the prior two Valentine’s day menus, heart had been incorporated into the meals in a singular way each year, most notably last year with a whole beef heart, confited and grilled. Since then, as I have alluded to in prior posts, we have moderated our input, but still love the deliciousness of offal. This year, we were to have heart, but we would diversify our heart intake to include all sorts of hearts – animal and plant alike.
Reading Twitter on Valentine’s Day, you get a sampling of Valentine’s Day views, mostly cynical, and the common view from two of the chefs that I really respect and admire most in Chicago talked about not serving anything heart shaped. I totally understand that they are intent on serving honest food every day and not making this day any different. In fact, their restaurants are two that we would choose to go to for the reasons stated above (they are not dumbing down their menus or catering to the rookies), but I will divert from their promise and serve nearly everything in a heart shape. Not because I am enticing dining rookies to attend, but rather because I have a heart shaped ring mold, I am not eating cookies – gotta use it some time – and to show my dining companion that not only will she be eating heart, but has my heart.
The first course was a simple salad of hearts including my favorite part of an underrated vegetable, celery hearts, with beet pickled hearts of palm and crispy confited duck heart croutons. This sounds complicated, but with only three ingredients it was dead simple. The celery hearts are peppery, bitter and fresh, kind of like someone put parsley into a megaphone. The hearts of palm, while mild in flavor, are a nice contrast in texture as they are exceeding tender and take very well to pickling. Think of them as bright pink in color, pickles in flavor, and fresh mozzarella in texture.
The duck heart croutons are my take on the fried oyster croutons that I have seen at a few places lately. I poached the hearts in duck fat and herbs sous-vide, then rolled them in an eggwash, dusted them with cornmeal and fried them. They provided a savory crunch to the salad. The whole salad was dressed with olive oil, horseradish, and some of the brine from the pickled hearts of palm.
I was not expecting the favorite part of this course to be the hearts of palm, but they were really, really great. I will have these on hand, in one form or another, on a relatively constant basis. Really amazing texturally and if you drop a half of a beet into your favorite pickle brine, you get a visual contrast that is really something. Hearts of palm, who would have known?
Next, I picked up a lamb heart, chopped it by hand and kept it as a simple tartare with an heart shaped egg garnish, capers, shallot, chilis, cornichons, and olives. I prefer the luxurious texture of a raw egg with tartare, but this dinner was not (all) about what I wanted. Not to mention that the hard boiled egg was heart shaped.
To contrast the cold tartare, a lamb leg bone was cut length wise and roasted with coarse sea salt. The marrow was rich and super lamby. I am not sure why lamb marrow is not something that is everywhere that lamb is butchered, but it was easily the most delicious decadent part of this meal and, in my opinion, an upgrade over beef marrow. It also served as a tremendous delivery device for the tartare, which is ten times cooler than bone luge.
The next course was a crepinette of pork heart and jowl seasoned with ras al hanout, salt and pepper served with pickled beet, roasted artichoke hearts and harissa. My original plan here was to use scraps from the lamb heart paired with lamb bacon in a burger, but when I heard from Rob at Butcher and Larder that the lamb that they got in that day seemed to be closer to Lebron James than Michael Jordan in the heart department, we had to make other plans.
The crepinettes fit the bill without having to alter the remainder of the dish. I supplemented the pork heart with some cured jowl and wrapped it in the caul fat. The ras al hanout gave the most offally tasting course a delicate sweetness and paired nicely with the harissa. The roasted artichokes and crunchy pickled beet offered additional contrasts in temperature, texture, and flavor. I thought this was the most balanced dish of the night.
Finally, since the dinner, despite introducing more vegetables per ounce of meat than each of the prior 3 Valentine’s Day dinners combined, was still pretty rich, we kept dessert light – coconut creme with berries and anisette crackers. The coconut creme was simply coconut milk, chilled until the fat separated from the water, whipped. It was slightly thicker than whipped cream and had a light coconut flavor. The berries, while out of season, were still pretty good and the anisette crackers followed suit with the creme – not too sweet, but a perfect end to the meal.
A lesson learned here as well is to be flexible. If you read and watch interviews of chefs, you hear constantly about “whatever is good at the market”. It sounds great and romantic. When you have planned out a menu weeks in advance, you lose that flexibility and until you get a jolt, you lose sight of the goal. I got that jolt two hours before dinner and I was afraid that I would not recover, but what we came up with, I think, was an improvement over the original idea.
In the end, the dinner accomplished what I had intended. It was an expression of love for my dining partner through hearts and heart shaped food. Though I am far from a emotionally stifled caricature of what some think of men, I have found that my favorite way that I express my appreciation for my partner is in the meals that I cook for her.