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Going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day is not how we do things. Going to the mattresses at home is one of those things that I get to do pretty infrequently – mostly for larger family gatherings and dinner parties. Making dinner, I do every night, but not like this. Every night is usually a little protein, colorful veg, and green leafy things, but Valentine’s Day is a fun day to go all out.

This year, I began early asking her questions like “What’s your death row meal?” and thinking to myself what I would like to make for my partner. With those two sources of information, there was a bit of an amalgam of what she likes and what I like to cook.

I wanted three small meat courses preceded by vegetables. My thought was to show my appreciation for her finer points. This would be relatively straight forward, I figured on a long car ride. Her heart, beef heart was a natural choice. Body? After telling folks about my choice of seared cured pork sirloin, many people suggested chicken breast – perverts, I tell you (psst…the sirloin comes from just North of the ham). Finally, the mind. Also straight forward, she was getting the brain.

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In long summer runs, I often distracted myself thinking about how to prepare brains that might hide them from the squeamish and the one that I had in my back pocket was brain custard. After cooking brains this summer, I realized that cooked, they were nearly identical to eggs, so an egg custard might be a natural fit. Since I had pork and beef covered, I thought that lamb would provide a delicious brain and species diversity.

Going to work, I kept at Ruhlman’s custard ratio of 2 parts liquid to 1 part eggs by weight and substituted the brain for some of the cream. After speaking about it with a few knowledgeable folks, we came to the conclusion while brains cook up like eggs, they probably did not have the setting power of eggs.

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Before adding the brains and eggs to the cream, I infused the cream with cumin and cloves. After blending the eggs and brains with the cream, I poured the custard into cling wrap lined ramekins. Cooked in a bain-marie, the custard came out of the oven puffed up, but as they cooled they set evenly and rested overnight.

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Once pulled from the ramekins, I set them on some crumbled pistachio – thinking of the crushed pistachio as almost like a crust on a custard pie. Next to the custard was a small bit of preserved lemon and atop the custard was a sprinkling of sumac.

The custard had good texture and lamb flavor was subtle, but present in each bite. The textural smoothness of the custard was countered by the crunch of the pistachio. The richness of the custard was cut by the preserved lemon and sumac. It was a pretty well balanced plate of food and more refined than I do things normally.

Working on the nduja custard served as a good warm-up for making this dish. The process was simple, but required thought of how to get a lamb brain (thanks to The Butcher & Larder), how to translate a basic custard recipe, when to prepare it, and with what to serve it. The lesson is with a little thought, you can and should be using Valentine’s dinner as a way to show love for a loved one. Not a transactional feeding process. Branch out. Take a chance.

Lamb Brain Custard

Adapted from Ruhlman’s Ratio

  • 50 grams lamb brains
  • 150 grams heavy whipping cream
  • 100 grams egg (about 2 eggs)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cloves

Step one: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a sauce pan add cloves, cumin and salt to cream. Heat gently and take off of the heat.

Step two: Strain cream into a blender jar. Add brains and eggs. Puree for 30 seconds. Strain into plastic wrapped ramekins.

Step three: Add ramekins to a roasting pan. Place in an oven. Pour nearly boiling water into roasting pan up to 2/3 the level of the ramekin walls. Cover pan with foil. Cook for 40 minutes.

Step four: Remove from oven. Uncover and remove ramekins. Once cooled, cover and transfer to fridge to finish chilling. Serve cold.

Looking at how the meal ended up, it indeed was a mish-mosh of her favorite foods and what I wanted to cook, but out of happenstance, the first half was my contribution and the second half was me cooking her favorite foods. It was a fun way to spend the holiday without needing to participate in the Valentine’s day shenanigans. A rundown is below.

We started with a plate of radishes and beets sliced thin and rolled into roses along with mozzarella. Of screen was some butter and preserved lemons salt. It was a fun take on radishes and butter.

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Next was the lamb brain custard. After that I seared two small pieces of the cured pork sirloin and paired with a Sea Island Red Pea cake, smoked rye vinegar, and cured egg yolk. Flavors were like comforting and breakfast-like.

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Next was an anticucho of beef heart salted with marrow salt and sprinkled with cured bone marrow. Sitting beside the skewer were red wine vinegar roasted shallots. Quickly seering the heart leaves it with a great texture. The cured marrow melted over the top of the skewer glazing it with crazy beef flavors. The shallots provided an acidic sweetness.

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Now we transitioned to her favorites. She said nachos were her death row meal. I sauteed onions with chorizo, then topping them with chicharones, cilantro, green onions, queso fresco and tomatillos. Serious comfort food. Don’t sleep on adding puffed pork skin to nachos. I don’t know if it is traditional, but it will be for us.

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The penultimate course was a cheese course with two French cheeses and two from Wisconsin, beer jelly and an apple served with homemade wheat brioche rolls (which were the surprise bit of food from dinner). This was my dessert course.

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Finally, L got a taste of my penchant for overbuying in the form of double doughnut. While she took down the first like a champ, the second was breakfast bound.

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