Becca and I were away for the 14th of February, with family and family friends, so we postponed Valentine’s day until we could do the whole romantic diner a deux thing at home. Which, by the way, is where Valentine’s night dinners belong. At home. Why anyone ever even considers eating out on the 14th itself is entirely beyond me. For a start, by the time you get round to it, you have almost certainly left it too late to book a table at any of the restaurants you actually want to eat at, and end up somewhere you otherwise wouldn’t countenance – for what will probably turn out to be very good reasons. For a finish, even if you do manage to bag a table at that place you’ve always dreamed of eating at but somehow never have, you’ve only gone and done it on the single worst night of the year to eat there. Not least because it’s the worst night of the year to work there. Seriously. Flat out worst. Why would you want to celebrate your love by paying over the odds for a limited – sorry, ‘special’ – menu, served to you by people who are not only rushed off their feet, but actively hate you.
What do you mean? Of course they hate you. Not only are you contributing to their busiest, most thankless night of the year (other nights, round Christmas, say, may be busier than Valentine’s in terms of total covers, but because those covers, on Valentine’s, are all divided into tables of two, the work involved in servicing them is far greater, and at Christmas, season of goodwill to all men including waitresses, the tips are way, way better than the night when everyone is at least pretending to only have eyes, or thoughts, for the person directly across the table from them), but you are simultaneously either keeping them apart from their loved one on this special night, or reminding them that they are single, loveless and alone. They hate you. Even if only for that one night.
None of which, of course would have prevented Becca and I eating out on February the 24th, which was when we finally got round to it, but even so. There are other reasons to keep it at home. After all, if all goes well, and the romance works its magic, why would you want to be out, in a public place? A hotel restaurant, maybe, where you could, literally, get a room, but then you are seriously talking about paying for your love. And while there are those for whom a credit card is, among other things, a sex aid, and the strength of a relationship is measurable by the length of the statement, the rest of us prefer to believe that such people fail to understand the true nature of romance, and will never find true love, let alone live happily ever after. Which, without wishing to come across as a cheapskate, is another very good reason for keeping it at home. Keeping the cost down, that is, not running the risk of finding oneself inadvertently a loveless billionaire (which of course you may well want to do, whichever way you are reading the phrase ‘finding oneself”…).
Of course, it’s always cheaper to eat at home than to eat out, particularly on a night you would be paying a premium for the privilege of being hated, but even more so if you and your loved one can find the romance in offal and vermin. Or lamb’s hearts and pigeon, to be precise. In which case you can return home from a friendly butchers with the feature items of your special meal, and paper change from a tenner, just about. (You could, of course try and catch your own pigeon, and then it’d be even cheaper…)
Lamb’s hearts is something of Valentine’s tradition in this house – and a fairly obvious reference to (or parody of, perhaps) romantic symbolism, although one, I have to admit, that only works so long as the object of your affections isn’t too literal minded: ‘So you’re offering me the heart of a cute little baa lamb. Cut into tiny pieces and flash fried. As a token of your love. Yeah, thanks… ‘ Fortunately Becca is neither so literal minded, nor too sentimental about cute little baa lambs. Or if she is she’s just too damn polite to mention it. Previously I’ve fried the hearts and served them as a main course salad, but this year that was precisely my plan for the pigeon breasts, so I needed to do something different. Cooking them up with onions in sherry, seemed right: light and simple but sweet and a little bit luxurious.
Light and simple is a key element in a Valentine’s meal, I think. You’re not looking for big, heavy, comfort eating, no matter how much you both may like it. And you don’t want to be doing anything too fiddly or labour intensive. The last thing you want to be doing is working up a sweat, juggling pans over a hot stove and clock watching while your beloved twiddles their thumbs and gets prematurely, solitarily, hammered on pink fizz. So a collection of dishes that can be mainly prepared in advance then quickly and easily thrown together at the last minute is what you’re after. On this occasion I cooked up the lamb’s hearts and onion in sherry, marinated the pigeon breasts, washed and spun dry the salad leaves and peeled, diced and par boiled the potatoes ready for sautéing, all before Becca got home from work. And laid the table with flowers and candles and all that romantic crap. So when it came to time to eat I just had to fry up the pigeon breasts and the potatoes, make a dressing for the salad, and throw it all together on the plates while reheating the lamb’s hearts. The hardest part was shucking the six oysters we had for starters.
Lamb’s hearts and onion in sherry
2 lamb’s hearts
1 small onion
garlic, a little fresh red chilli (optional), a few sage leaves, thyme salt & pepper
A glass or two of sherry. I used Oloroso, but fino or manzanilla would be fine. Or marsala, or Madeira for that matter…
First trim the hearts of all their white bits of fat, gristle and membrane, slice them in two longitudinally, then slice each half into pieces cross ways. Put them in a non metallic dish or bowl, season with salt and pepper, add the sage leaves, a pinch of thyme leaves, cover with sherry and a splash of olive oil, and leave to marinate for an hour or two, if you have the time. Peel and slice the onion into fine wedges, and finely slice a clove of garlic and just a little bit of fresh red chilli (you want a hint of warmth, not direct chilli heat, by all means leave it out if you prefer). Remove the lamb’s hearts from the marinade, and fry swiftly in a hot pan until just colouring , then add the onion garlic and chilli, with maybe a little extra olive oil if the pan looks dry. Cook until the onion is softening, then pour over the remaining marinade, and add an extra splash of sherry if necessary, but you don’t want the pan swimming. Simmer hard for just a few minutes for the sauce to reduce and thicken just a little. You don’t want to cook it too long or the hearts will go rubbery (they’re one of those things that need to be cooked either hot and quick, or low and slow).
Pigeon Breast salad
2 pigeons (or just their breasts)
Mixed salad leaves (I had radicchio, for the pretty colour, chicory and rocket)
A glass of red wine
Salt, pepper, thyme leaves, juniper berries
Sherry (or red wine) vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, for the dressing
Remove the breasts from the pigeons, it’s easy with a small sharp knife, although apparently real men do this with their thumbs… Skin the breasts, put them in a non metallic dish or bowl, season with salt and pepper and a pinch of thyme leaves, pour over the wine and a splash of olive oil, and throw in half a dozen or so juniper berries (gently crush the berries between thumb and forefinger before adding them, to better release their flavour) and leave to marinade for an hour or two. As with the lamb’s hearts, if you don’t have the time, or the juniper berries, the marinating can be skipped, but it is going to taste better if you can do it.
When you’re ready to eat, put the washed and dried salad leaves in a bowl, remove the pigeon breasts from their marinade and fry in a good hot pan, for no more than a couple of minutes a side - you want them nice and pink. Remove the pigeon breasts from the pan, but leave it on the heat. Make the salad dressing with the pan juices, while the pigeon breasts rest. Deglaze the pan with the leftover marinade and a splash of sherry vinegar, then turn off the heat, and stir in a tablespoon or two’s worth of extra virgin olive oil. Strain through a sieve or tea strainer, check the seasoning, balance the oil/vinegar and pour over the salad leaves in the bowl. It’s common with a salad like this to serve the pigeon breasts sliced (as I have done recently with veal goose skirt and feather steak), and perhaps mixed with the salad leaves, but I actually prefer to serve them whole and on the side. Either way is good, whatever works for you, aesthetically. I guess if I was serving this as a starter, I’d probably allow just one breast per person, and slice it.
Our starter, for this meal, as I’ve said, was oysters. Bit of a Valentine’s cliché, I know. But why not? Just served up with wedges of lemon, a bottle of Tabasco and an espresso cup of shallot vinegar (except I didn’t have a shallot so I finely diced about 1/8 of a red onion instead, and covered it with sherry vinegar). Damn I love oysters, and at a fiver for six from our excellent local (Stoke Newington) fish monger, they’re an affordable luxury I don’t really know why we don’t have more often.
Oh, and I nearly forgot dessert. Both in writing it up, and in making the meal. You may have noticed from this blog I’m not really much of a dessert person. So I’m afraid to say, as something of an afterthought, while I was putting together the rest of the meal, I peeled and thickly sliced a couple of oranges and put them in a bowl to soak in cointreau in the fridge, and made up a couple of very large and very sweet espressos and poured them into a shallow Tupperware container and whacked that into the freezer. By the time we’d finished the rest of the meal, that had frozen just about sufficiently to make a couple of coffee granitas served up in espresso cups alongside a bowl of cointreau orange. A sprig of mint on the oranges would have been enough to make it look almost intentional…