I’ve kept a wary eye on Valentine’s Day since I was a kid. Elementary school was the stage of a drama that played out every year, annually confirming for me that this was not a day to be coveted, but rather one to tip-toe around, oh so quietly. Schools encouraged the hoopla of the holiday by providing time for the annual ritual of Passing Out Valentines. This was one of those treasured childhood activities like Picking Teams, which often planted seeds of self-doubt and inadequacy in kids who looked to their peers for validation and acceptance. We learned early on to count our valentines, to compare with our classmates, and take note of who did not pass by our heart-shaped-mail-pocket. This activity did not warm my heart, and when the drama wasn’t taking place in the classroom, it was flourishing on the playground, in the halls, and later, in the quad.
Adulthood didn’t really add to the charm of February 14th, and every year the holiday seemed to become more loaded with meaning and expectation. No amount of positive thinking or media avoidance could keep me from the avalanche of messages about love, and relationships, and whether I was in one or not, disappointment was sure to be lurking behind the shadows of doilies and hearts. And it wasn’t just me…well meaning men, who I knew without doubt to love me inside and out, would get nervous, and freeze up the same time every year. The torture was mutual, so I’d always advocate in advance that we call a moratorium on Valentine’s Day. You can’t be disappointed when there is a mutual agreement to expect nothing, and do nothing, right? Of course you can. Because, I’ve never been able to resist an opportunity to make a loving gesture, especially if it involves food, flowers, or handwritten notes. Yet, then I’d be bummed that this man, who I knew loved me, didn’t think it was essential to break the rules and show me so. Dizzy yet? I know.
For the last four years I’ve experienced Valentine’s Day as a single woman in her upper thirties. Now, this is a whole new level of February hell, which I’m sure you can well imagine. But, it’s interesting to note that the ferocity of deficiency-based-messages with which this holiday inundates someone in my situation, have become increasingly more amusing to me every year. And each cycle through the season has brought me closer to where I found myself this past valentine’s weekend: in love with my life, the people in it, and hopeful in a way that is new to me.
So, I threw a dinner party, for couples and singles alike, and there was a click in the dynamic that night, that had us claiming hopes, encouraging dreams and toasting it all in abundance. I felt enamored of the good people that surround me, and thankful for the beauty that is so present, even in times of great stress and uncertainty. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me before; my February 14th is essentially what I make of it, and this year, I saw it as an opportunity to bring together those I care about, and to wear a sassy red dress, to boot. Valentine's Day, I've made you mine.
My not-so-small gathering was a party of 10, which is my largest sit-down, three-course meal, to date. One good friend made these pretty little menus to display at each place setting.
I think my impulse to offer the choice of two entrees resulted from either an over-abundance of valentine’s joy, or a psychotic break brought on by the rapidly sinking ship that is my job. Either way, miraculously, it turned out pretty darn well for my first attempt at such a feat. My nine guests were patient and hilarious as they waited for their second course of choice, while I slammed my way through the final steps of preparing the seven dishes needed to plate our entrees. (Yikes.) Every dish truly was delicious, although, I think the star of the evening was the spiced pork stew served over polenta with root vegetables and gremolata. Talk about a love fest…I’ve never heard so many oohs and aahs.
SPICED PORK STEW WITH POLENTA, ROOT VEGETABLES, AND GREMOLATA
- Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin
All of my extravagant culinary adventures this past year have originated in Suzanne Goin’s cookbook, and it has never let me down. The recipes are complex (note the rather long recipe that follows), but not difficult. As a result, her dishes are full-bodied and layered with tantalizing flavors. This dish is mouth-wateringly good, and may convert the most hesitant of pork-eaters, while satisfying the most vigorous of meat-eaters. This is a great dish for a party because you can make the stew one to two days in advance, making your prep the day of much easier.
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
2 Tbsp. coriander seeds
2. Tbsp. fennel seeds (all of these seeds are sold cheaply at Mexican markets!)
3 lbs. pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1 Tbsp. oregano leaves, plus 3 whole sprigs
1 Tbsp. thyme leaves
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
¼ cup diced carrot
¼ cup diced fennel
2 fresh bay leaves
1 chile de árbol, crumbled
1 cup white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
2 cups veal stock (I got mine at Bristol Farms)
2 cups chicken stock
4 sprigs cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 recipe roasted root vegetables with gremolata (recipe follows)
1 recipe polenta (recipe follows)
Toast the cumin seeds a few minutes in a small pan over medium heat, until they release their aroma and are lightly browned. Pound them coarsely in a mortar. Repeat (separately) with the coriander and fennel seeds. (You can use a mini processor or coffee grinder if you don’t have a mortar. A mortar is much more fun, though!)
Place the pork in a large bowl with the cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, cayenne, smashed garlic, oregano leaves, and thyme. Using your hands, toss the pork and spices together to coat well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Take the meat out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before you begin cooking it. After 15 minutes, season it on all sides with 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt and some black pepper. Reserve the garlic and any excess herbs and spices.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat a large Dutch oven over high heat for 3 minutes. Pour in the olive oil and wait a minute or two, until the pan is very hot and almost smoking. Place the meat in the pan, being careful not to crowd it. (You may need to cook the meat in batches.) Sear the meat until well browned and caramelized on all sides; this will probably take at least 15 minutes. As the batches of meat brown, transfer them to a baking sheet.
Turn the heat down to medium, and add the onion, carrot, and fennel. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the tasty crusty bits left in the pan. Stir in the bay leaves, crumbled chile, and reserved garlic and spices. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables start to caramelize.
Pour in the wine and reduce by half, about 5 minutes. Add the stocks and bring to a boil.
Use a vegetable peeler to pull long strips of zest from the lemon. Turn off the heat, and add the pork to the pot. Tuck the cilantro, oregano sprigs, and lemon zest around the meat. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Braise in the oven about 2 ½ hours.
To check the meat for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the hot steam. Spoon a piece of meat out of the pan, and press it with your thumb or a spoon. If it’s ready, it will yield easily to a knife and almost fall apart. Taste it and weep.
Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Ladle most of the braising juices and vegetables into a strainer set over a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with the ladle to extract all the juices. Discard any remaining herb sprigs from the braising pan.
Return the pork to the oven for about 15 minutes to caramelize the meat.
Skim the fat from the braising juices. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat about 5 minutes, to thicken it slightly. Taste for seasoning.
Pour the hot broth over the browned meat, and stir to coat well. Transfer the stew to a large platter. Scatter the warm gremolata-coated root vegetables over the stew. Serve with the bowl of hot polenta. Tell your guests to spoon the polenta onto their plates and top with the pork and vegetables, making sure to get lots of the delicious braising juices. (You may need to serve more juices on the side if your platter is too shallow to hold them all.) We enjoyed this with a nice bottle of Malbec, which was a lovely combination.
ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES WITH GREMOLATA
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. minced garlic
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
9 small or 3 medium carrots, peeled
9 small or 3 medium parsnips, peeled
9 small or 3 medium turnips
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup 1/4 –inch thick slices shallot
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Place the lemon zest on a cutting board and chop it coarsely. Place the garlic and parsley on top, and chop the whole mixture together until very fine. This mixture is called gremolata.
Slice the carrots, parsnips and turnips into spears of approximately the same size. (Mine were about the size of my pinky…not too thin, not too thick.)
Heat 2 large sauté pans over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in the olive oil and wait 1 minute. Divide the root vegetables between the pans and season each with 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and the thyme. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables just start to caramelize.
Add the butter and sauté another 5 minutes, tossing them often. Add the shallots and a bit more salt and cook another 5 minutes or so, until the shallots and all the vegetables are tender and nicely caramelized. If you’re serving dinner soon, turn off the heat and hold them in the pan. Re-warm if necessary. Toss with the gremolata just before serving.
1 cup medium-grain polenta/cornmeal (Bob’s Red Mill brand, if possible, available at Whole Foods, among other places)
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring 5 ½ cups water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil over high heat. Add the polenta slowly, whisking continuously. Turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, whisking often. Add another ½ cup water and cook 1 more hour, whisking often and adding ½ cup water as needed, about every 20 minutes. The flame should be low, so that the polenta is barely simmering. As you whisk, make sure that you reach the bottom of the pan to prevent the polenta from scorching, or sticking. A rubber spatula works well to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot.
Whisk in the butter, and taste for seasoning. Even when the polenta is finished, you might sense it thickening up a little. If so, add a little more water and whisk to get the right consistency. If you’re not serving right away, cover the pan with plastic wrap to keep the polenta from thickening or losing moisture. If necessary, re-warm over low heat before serving.