Valentine's Day doesn't have to be a so-called Hallmark holiday. Reject the clichés—and don't bother with the overpriced candies and flowers—and you may find that the day becomes a prime opportunity to share a delicious meal with someone who loves food and wine as much as you do.
Mike Cooperman, chef of the Red Cat in New York, suggests a menu that's deceptively simple and sure to impress whomever you're cooking for. Best of all, it's light, healthy and refreshing, so it won't throw you into a food coma afterward—a true Valentine's Day buzzkill.
Start with a salad of Cara Cara navel and blood oranges, dressed with pistachio, mint and feta. The two varieties of red-flesh citrus look appropriately festive for Valentine's Day. Then move to a course of pan-seared hake, which Cooperman serves with pine nut pistou—a variation on pesto—and a fennel-saffron puree.
"It's really a versatile dish," Cooperman says of the hake. "Buy the freshest fish, and it doesn't necessarily have to be hake; it could be any white flaky fish," such as cod or black bass.
His recipe calls for salsify, a winter root vegetable and relative of the parsnip, often described as having an oysterlike flavor. But use whichever vegetables are seasonal and fresh at your market, Cooperman urges: "If you go to the market and they don't have salsify, or you're not excited about the challenge of trying a new vegetable, it's better to go with whatever is available." He's made the dish with baby beets, cauliflower, asparagus, peas, pearl onions and combinations thereof. The key to the dish is the interaction of the pine-nut pistou with the fennel-saffron sauce; the fish and vegetables are really up to you. "When I go to the market, I just buy whatever looks good," he says.
Cooperman is no stranger to improvisation on Valentine's Day. "Usually I work on Valentine's Day, but there were a few I had off," he says. "The best one, I cooked at home, and the appetizer was oysters with some caviar on top. It was snowing outside, and I went out back and scooped this snow and then shucked the oysters and put them on the snow." His girlfriend at the time must have been impressed; they're now married.
In the spirit of keeping it light, Red Cat owner Jimmy Bradley suggests pairing a white wine with the dishes. Look for a wine with some richness to stand up to the firm fish and flavors that will play well with tangy citrus, bitter fennel and savory pine nut. Bradley's choices at the restaurant are Cascina Chicco Roero Arneis Anterisio 2013 (87 points, $24), from Piedmont, and Domaine Faury St.-Joseph White 2011 (90 points, $32), from the Northern Rhône. We've compiled a list of recently rated wines to help you shop—both a selection of similarly styled Italian whites and some Marsanne or Roussanne blends from France.
Whatever you do, make sure to keep it simple. Prepare ahead to the extent that you can, especially since Valentine's Day falls on a Saturday this year. "Obviously there's going to be some festivities after dinner," Cooperman laughs. "You don't want to be so stressed out making the dinner that afterward you fall asleep."
1. Arrange the orange slices on two plates.
2. Garnish with red onion, shaved fennel, fennel tops, mint, feta and pistachios.
3. Finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, Aleppo pepper and Maldon salt. Serves 2.
For the pine-nut pistou:
1. In a blender, add parsley, salt, garlic, pine nuts and half of the olive oil.
2. Blend until nearly pureed; it should remain a little chunky, with bits of parsley still visible.
3. Stir in the remaining oil; season with salt and pepper. This can be made several hours in advance.
For the fennel-saffron puree:
1. Rehydrate the saffron in 1 ounce of very hot water. Set aside, still in the water.
2. Sweat fennel in grapeseed oil until tender. Add a pinch of salt. Add the potatoes, still in their water.
3. Cover and cook on low heat until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and discard liquid.
4. While fennel and potatoes are still hot, puree them in a blender with the saffron tea and vinegar.
5. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready to use.
For the salsify:
1. In a pot, cover salsify with cold water. Add salt, thyme, bay leaves and lemon.
2. Slowly bring pot to a boil. Cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes; allow the salsify to cool in the liquid.
3. Once the salsify is cold, remove it from the liquid and cut on a bias.
To assemble the dish:
1. Season hake with salt and pepper on both sides. In a hot sauté pan, add canola oil. When pan begins to smoke, gently put hake into the pan, turning heat to medium-high. Once the fish has a golden color, flip and brown the other side, cooking fish to medium. Set aside.
2. Put another sauté pan on high heat. Add olive oil. When pan smokes, add salsify and lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper, a splash of white wine and the butter; cook until the salsify is glazed. Add pistou. Finish the pan sauce with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
3. Arrange the salsify and pistou sauce on each plate. Top with a spoonful of fennel-saffron puree, then the hake. Garnish with pine nuts, capers and fennel fronds. Serves 2.
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