Valentine’s can be an awkward day to be a poet. It shouldn’t be. It should be a day of gratitude since it is one of the main times when the culture comes looking for poets, seeking out those lapidary phrases to commemorate important sentiments. Poets have been insecure about this role for what seems like always, but definitely English-language poetry has been afflicted since the beginning. Just consider Sir Philip Sidney’s defensive blast against poetry’s haters in his sixteenth-century Defence of Poësy: “yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet, and when you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.” There’s something revealing in the overselling of his poetic returns, and I’m sure if Sidney produced on demand as an inscription for a Valentine’s Day card his sonnet 31 (“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!”) or sonnet 45 (“Stella oft sees the very face of woe”), which are two of my favorites from his Astrophil and Stella sequence, there would be a severe case of buyer’s remorse. The problem is those sonnets aren’t really occasional verses. Occasional verse is good for weddings and graduations and inaugurations and Valentine’s Day cards, because in each of those instances the event is more important than the words. They’re times of action, not reflection. They require expressions that are unequivocal and un-conflicted. If you have to clear your throat while giving a wedding toast, you’re kind of a jerk. Just say something nice, and sit back down so the good time can keep on going. That’s what everyone is there for. I can’t think of a good love poem that doesn’t clear its throat in some way. And that’s a good thing. One of my go to love poems is William Meredith’s “Crossing Over,” a poem full of honest doubt and an honest insistence on affection despite it all, with a nod toward a larger historical-social milieu to put that affection into perspective for good measure. I have actually read this poem at weddings, but I imagine everyone just pretending not to hear the complicated parts.
Where poetry has failed me for occasions needing commemoration (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays), cooking has served just fine. It has provided the right amount of ritual and ceremony to acknowledge the importance and has expressed sentiment unambiguously. And it’s a gesture I can believe in (unlike a bad poem) or don’t have to practice selective attention to enjoy.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned to streamline the menus for these celebratory meals. After all, you need to be sharing in the moment, not just cooking in the background. One way I’ve done this is by planning dishes I can prep in advance and that I can finish cooking and assemble quickly.
Valentine’s Day this year, I also decided to let certain ingredients appear across the meal to give it a sense of transformation and cohesion. I knew I wanted to do something that would be striking visually, and I got into my head an image of hearts, like what might come with a reduction on a dessert. It’s a little cheesy and gimmicky, but that is the spirit of the day, no? That thinking led me to rhubarb. I diced some of the rhubarb and added sugar, a little water, and some cherry tomatoes that were halved and marinated with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a chopped garlic clove, and salt and pepper. I broke all of that down on the stove and then blended it with a hand blender. The hearts would be created by making a sphere and then running a toothpick from one edge straight through and out the opposite side. I needed a base to hold and contrast these hearts, so I decided on the avocado cream, which is just a ripe avocado, a pinch of kosher salt, and a dollop of sour cream to smooth it out. The hand blender was used for this as well. I also quickly pickled some of the rhubarb with sugar, kosher salt, and a splash of rice wine vinegar.
Dessert was ice cream with homemade chocolate chip and walnut cookies with pink sea salt. No decent pictures came out, but that’s okay. I can only take partial credit for the dessert.
For the past few years, cooking an elaborate and decadent New Year’s meal has become a tradition in our house. The rituals of the preparation and the consumption seem appropriate for the reflective mood of the holiday. Cooking, like writing, has its personal pleasures and significances for me. A meal, like a poem, can have private associations and satisfactions that don’t get communicated in the completed creation, but those things are part of what make the work fun and meaningful. When I was making this menu, I wanted it to incorporate and acknowledge as many people and experiences that have been important to me from the year that was now folding over into the next. This year’s menu started with a bottle of Vintage Dom Pérignon, which Holly and I received as a wedding present. I wanted the first courses to center on that, before we transitioned to the meat of it and a bottle of Premier Cru Aloxe-Corton. Following clockwise from the bottle, we have foie gras with a Calvados and agave nectar syrup with brioche toast points. (But I can’t take credit for the foie gras or the brioche.)
2012 was the year of the avocado. Or the year Holly learned she liked avocado, and I started bringing it into meals. The year before was the year of the mushroom and the year we travelled to Nova Scotia and stayed at Trout Point Lodge, partly with the intention to learn to like cooked fish, which is still a work in progress. Raw wins out for now. This dinner was going to pay homage to our evolving eating traditions. So for the second course, we had yellowfin tuna and avocado three-ways: tuna and avocado sashimi with radishes; crudo of tuna rolled around avocado cream with sesame seeds, radishes, and brûléed red grapefruit (a nod to an excellent brûléed red grapefruit we ate at The Inn at Dos Brisas) to accompany a citrus-dressed frisée and heirloom tomato salad; and finally, a tuna, avocado, and heirloom tomato tartare.
For the third course, I initiated a birthday present: the sausage grinder attachment Holly bought me for the KitchenAid. The sausage meatballs are duck meat (breast and leg) ground with smoked bacon. (I saved the removed duck skins and rendered the fat from them to cook the meatballs.) I incorporated the zest of a satsuma orange and a microplaned Oregon white truffle that was rather underachieving. Since I had the foie gras, and decadence is the theme of New Year’s, I stuffed the meatballs with bits of that too. The broth is mushroom based (chanterelles, criminis, and more of those Oregon white truffles), with vegetable stock, soy sauce, mirin, and the juice of the satsuma. Onions, popcorn, and green cabbage (strained out before serving) provided some depth. Rice noodles were also incorporated, along with a shock of frisée. I owe thanks to my brother Matt for the thoughtful gift of those soup spoons.
The fourth course was a New York strip with a port, espresso, chocolate demi-glace; micro arugula; caramelized pearl onions; and a celery root purée. The steak and the port and chocolate covered espresso beans I used for the sauce were all gifts from friends and family. Using those ingredients was an excuse to have them present to me during the meal.
I bought dessert (crème brûlée with a chocolate sauce), so it doesn’t appear photographed here. Desserts, I’m thinking, are on the list of things to learn this year.