Wondering what to serve up on Valentine’s Day this year? A simple platter has all the right ingredients.
What to eat on Valentine’s Day? That is the most important question. What to eat. After all, everything in lockdown ultimately boils down to that really, doesn’t it?
For how else to make yet another evening sitting on the sofa with the one person that you’ve been sitting on the sofa with since March last year feel special?
I’m not convinced I’ve ever had a completely successful Valentine’s Day dinner. The intractable problem I find – without making any sweeping generalisations based on gender whatsoever – is that one party’s grasp of what is required of them typically falls so far short of the other’s expectation.
Invariably while one (non-gender specific) party is dreaming of the top of the Empire State Building a la Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, the other is nipping out to the petrol station for the last bunch of red roses.
I am now married to the man who once took me to the Engagement Floor of Tiffany’s in New York (yes, when you get into the elevator the button actually says “Engagement Floor”).
We wandered around for a while, even pausing to discuss the relative merits of one or other ring. I lingered. I waited. Then, inexplicably, we left and descended in said elevator.
We emerged on the non-engagement floor. Not engaged. It turned out, I was later informed, that we had been engaged in a “fact-finding mission”.
At least no one could accuse the man of a lack of strategic planning. As my tears fell on a Central Park bench, I reduced it to a footballing metaphor.
What had just occurred was the romantic equivalent of a tour of Old Trafford, even visiting the executive box, with the added excitement that it was cup final day.
Except we left before kick-off because, you know, we could watch the game on catch-up later. Once we’d had a chance to get properly excited.
I think at this point the penny dropped. And so I learned the hard way that when it comes to romance, it pays dividends to lay the foundations myself.
Best not leave it to chance.
This year, a graze board is the order of the day. A lockdown craze that shows no sign of tiring, grazing seems the ideal way to make sitting on the sofa watching The Crown on Netflix a little more special than your average evening.
And the greatest thing about grazing at home, with someone you know inside out, is there’s no need to politely dance around the last piece of salami. It’s all fair game.
Bypass the supermarket
There’s a lot to love about grazing. You could order in and there are many fabulous options for delivered graze boxes. But if you do it yourself, the fun starts with shopping for the individual elements.
Bypass the supermarket and shop local, it might just be the most exciting thing you do all week! In all honesty, visiting a local deli or farm shop is how I get my kicks at the moment.
Standing at a deli counter ogling bowls of glistening Gordal olives, vibrantly green Nocellara del Belice olives from Sicily, dry cured Moroccan Beldi olives, charcoal grilled artichokes hearts – this is as close as it comes to a sun-soaked market square and it’s a little legal pleasure that’s worth chasing in these straitened times.
Moving on to the cured meats, lingering over the salami finnochiono or the salami Milano, the wafer thin Serrano ham, and completely unable to resist the Venison bresaola.
And if, like me, you want to add a warm element to a graze board, something oozing and unctuous, the answer is a whole baked cheese.
Camembert lends itself to baking, but Scottish brie or something similar is closer to home and completely delicious. Morangie Brie is smooth, sweet and creamy and comes in the perfect size for baking whole, as does Wee Comrie, another diminutive mellow cheese that’s just right for two.
Assemble the graze
The next step is to assemble the graze. Here, there are no rules. Just find a handy board (or platter, plank, slate, log slice, old picture frame, tray – the cupboard is your oyster).
You could even rope in your Valentine and build your graze board together, unleashing your collective creativity! The overall effect should be luxuriant, sumptuous, overblown and irresistible.
Think “peel me a grape, darling”. My only word of caution would be to think about the combination of textures and flavours… the saltiness of cured meats works well with the creaminess of mozzarella for example, the tang of blue cheese pairs well with the dusky sweetness of a fig; and think seasonal too, eg strawberries add colour for sure, but they’re not in season yet, nor are they the best partner for a sundried tomato.
Start with the basic foundation of cured meats, folded into loose triangles or curls, creating islands at this stage. Then add the structural fillers, eg roasted artichoke, tomatoes on the vine, the larger olives, little bunches of grapes, halved figs, celery. You can add little bowls of dips at this stage, eg a zingy pesto, garlicky hummus, chilli jam or tapenade.
Then fill in the gaps and layer up with the smaller items, eg crackers, thinly sliced radish, breadsticks, lightly toasted pieces of sourdough.
Lastly have fun with the fripperies. Little scattered touches like hot roasted nuts – walnuts roasted with a drizzle of honey and sea salt are delicious – dried fruit, even some pieces of dark chocolate and cherries.
If you’re planning to add the baked cheese, leave a space on the board to slot it in. Simply place the whole cheese (rind on) on a piece of baking paper on a baking tray.
Cut some slashes on the top, drizzle with some honey and stud with sprigs of pungent fresh rosemary. Put it in the oven at 200C/Fan 180C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for 10 to 15 minutes until squidgy but not quite oozing out of the rind.
Then simply slide on to the graze board, baking paper and all, at the last minute. Then simply peel back the rind and dip into the heavenly, gooey melted centre.
For dessert, would it even be Valentine’s Day without chocolate? Salted caramel brownies are everything they need to be for this occasion… gooey, decadent, rich and grown-up enough to feel special.
The salted caramel must be made first, to give it chance to cool before the brownies are ready to bake. Put 200g sugar in a pot on a medium/high heat.
Do not stir, but instead gently swirl as the sugar melts and turns a dark amber caramel (if it’s darkening too quickly around the edges simply hold it off the heat and gently swirl the pot). Heat 140g double cream and 100g unsalted butter until the butter is melted and combined.
Add to the caramel and stir on a gentle heat to make a smooth caramel sauce then stir in a generous pinch of sea salt. Now pour into a large flat dish to cool while you make the brownies.
Melt 330g 70% dark chocolate with 330g unsalted butter, and stir until smooth. Whisk six eggs with 450g caster sugar until pale and thick.
Gently fold in the chocolate mixture. Then fold in 150g plain flour and 50g cocoa powder. Pour into a rectangular baking tin, greased and lined with baking parchment.
Dollop spoonfuls of the cooled caramel over the top then use a knife to swirl through the brownie mixture and submerge most of the caramel under the surface. Leave a couple of spoonfuls of caramel aside. Bake at 170C (150C fan) for 30 minutes or until baked with a slight wibble when you shake the tray.
Once cool, portion into squares, then drizzle the remaining caramel over the top (re-heat it gently in the microwave if it’s not runny enough) and sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts.
Gazing into each other’s eyes is optional, as is watching Sleepless in Seattle (which, incidentally, was directed and co-written by a woman).
And just in case you were wondering, he did eventually propose, and the circumstances were a timely reminder that there’s an exception to every rule.