There are all the traditional occasions where it is perfectly expected that my husband should take me out, especially on my birthday, our wedding anniversary, and of course St. Valentine’s Day. Dutifully, we dress in our finest and head into town, and most of the time we have a pleasant experience and an overall impression that we’ve enjoyed our meal.
Unfortunately, we can never remember what we actually eat on these occasions. And while I know that people don’t go out to dinner exclusively for the food, the food is certainly an important element, and it would be nice to remember it. But we never do. We remember the nice hostess, the nicely appointed address and the ambience, or the walk to the train. In fact, we have both come to the realization that the only meals we actually do remember eating have all been made at home.
There was a perfectly rosy pink lamb roast on my 31st birthday, and blue cheese crusted steaks for his 29th. A beautiful duck breast in a fig sauce marked our fifth anniversary, and then there was that not quite so successful cornmeal-fried shrimp he attempted for our first Valentine dinner together (the not-so-successful element resulting from the confusion of “cornmeal” with “grits”…a classic mistake). But the expensive restaurants in Manhattan, the Michelin guided fare of Paris? Well, they’re not so finely engrained in our memories.
My theory for this is that when you shop for your own food, the act of handling the raw ingredients forms a connection, as your sensory pleasures are activated through sight, touch, and smell (one of the reasons I don’t understand the concept of salad in a bag.) There’s nothing better to stimulate your appetite and love for cooking than choosing your own fresh greens, or picking the most impeccable apple, or the fish with the most luminous skin. Then, in handling that food as you prepare it for eating, there is a second connection formed between you and what you will be eating as you wash and chop and stir. In the end, you’ve spent quality time with your dinner. And isn’t a bit of quality time what we all really want?
So this year, when St. Valentine’s Day rolled around, we decided to stay home, forget about the Michelin book and let our senses guide us instead. By creating a menu ourselves, we were free to indulge in any combination we fancied, and what we agreed upon first and foremost is that one should never have to choose between oysters and coquilles St Jacques as a first course…so we made both. I had spotted some beautiful coquilles at the market, and because we had never opened them on our own, I was rewarded by witnessing my husband scream at a live shellfish. They can, apparently, quite suddenly clamp down, and I must admit that, for a mollusk, they can be a little intimidating.
But their freshness was unparalleled, and if I could recommend only one entertaining pre-dinner activity, shucking a dozen coquilles St. Jacques would be it. We eventually mastered the skill of scallop extraction, scrubbed the shells, and gave them a quick vermouth bath. Baked in the Breton style under butter and garlicky breadcrumbs, they were much more appealing than when alive and feisty.
The steaks were rare and succulent, and unlike restaurant dining, we weren’t concerned about their safety or origin because we bought them ourselves, fresh and certified and bearing the number of the man who raised them. I mixed my own salad greens, combining a winter mélange of beet shoots, mache, and frisee, and for the cheese course, we didn’t bother with an assortment but just sliced into a single large wedge of what we know we like best. In lieu of dessert we skipped the sweets and had another bottle of wine, which is something they never offer as a substitution on restaurant menus, though probably for good reason.
True, we had dishes to clean afterwards, and not everything went smoothly. We broke a crystal glass, (one we got in Venice on a special night out) and mangled one of the scallops. Trying out an indoor grill, we did set off the smoke detector a couple of times. It’s also true that we cook every night, which may suggest that this night will fade into all the others. But I prefer to believe it was, and will remain, a memorable feast.