Saint Valentine's Day

From Living Within, page 21, February 2013

imagea mated pair of pheasants is always to be found together; detail from “The Unicorn is Found

St Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, celebrated for centuries on 14 February each year in spite of there being no clear single identity for him or striking reason why he has become associated quite so completely with romantic love. Nevertheless, the name Valentine is very much associated with hearts and flowers and all things pertaining to lovers and his Feast day is documented as being so connected as far back as the late 1300s when Chaucer made reference to St Valentine’s day in his poem The Parliament of Fowls; the birds of the air gather on this particular day in this particular poem to plead for and choose their mates (some, it must be said, more successfully than others).

Modern day St Valentine sentiment may be considered to have become a little formulaic and lacking in imagination. There is attached to Valentine’s day, as with so many other religious days of observance, a bit of an industry, and cards and gifts may tend toward the cheesy and the more general rather than the personal. An anonymous card sent to the object of one’s affection may suffice for the young and the young at heart but, assuming that, like me, you are past the stage of furtive cards and mystery admirers, how best might one push the boat out and show that you care this St Valentine’s Feast?

You could book a table at a restaurant and let someone else do the cooking. You will, of course, have to sit with other Valentine couples trying hard to find a little personal romantic space in a public setting, and you will probably need to have planned well ahead - good restaurants will be busy - but there is no doubt that good food cooked by an expert can be a treat.

But to avoid the cliché, not to mention the slight awkwardness of attempting romance against all the odds in a crowded room, you could stay home instead and cook for your beloved. It is probably best to Invest in something a little special ingredient-wise, chill a bottle of bubbles, with no need to worry about who is going to be noble and drive home afterwards, and do make a dessert. I would avoid, however, going in for anything that is going to take hours of work or likely to be in any way a disappointment in terms of reaction gained against time spent or from over ambitious menu planning.

As the old dictum has it “Faites Simple”. While a little luxury is unlikely to go amiss and pains should be taken to avoid the humdrum for this particular week night supper, this doesn’t have to mean a multi-coursed extravaganza either. Choose what you will, a good steak or something roasted if you like, but some shellfish I think would be perfect; lobster, perhaps, if your wallet runs to it, but, if not maybe some clams or prawns. Mixing any of these with a little pasta will stretch them to a filling supper with a touch of the exotic about them and they couldn’t be easier or faster to cook.

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Clams require scrubbing when you bring them home, individually, under clear, cool, running water; any open ones that don’t close up when they are tapped should be discarded before cooking, and conversely, any that don’t open up when cooked should be discarded after. Once washed, leave them covered with a cool damp cloth (or newspaper) in a cool place (the salad compartment of the fridge is probably best) until you are ready to cook them.

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When you are ready to eat, place a large pan of water on to boil for the pasta (linguine or spaghetti would be good), and, when it is boiling, salt it well. In the meantime, heat a wide, shallow, heavy-based pan, one for which you have a lid and one in which the clams will sit comfortably in one layer, add a little oil and a clove or two of garlic, sliced or chopped, and, as soon as the garlic starts to cook (and well before it starts to burn) add a generous splash of white wine, and/or a few diced, skinned and seeded fresh tomatoes. When, all is good and hot, throw in the clams, clamp on the lid and time for about 3 minutes, cooking all the time over a fairly high heat and shaking the pan a couple of times during cooking.

Check after 3 minutes and, if the majority of the clams are open wide and looking plumply ready, turn off the heat, sprinkle the whole with some chopped fresh parsley, check and adjust the seasoning (ie add salt and/or ground black pepper to taste) and give a quick stir. Leave, uncovered, to one side until the pasta is done. If you are feeling perfectionistic, you can remove about two thirds of the clams from their shells, leaving a few with shells intact to look decorative, and you can strain off the sauce and reduce it a little to concentrate the flavour (before seasoning) but neither step is strictly necessary.

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While the clams are cooking, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet but set your timer for a minute less than those instructions say that it will take to cook. When time is up (bar that minute), test the pasta for doneness - it should retain a little hardness at its core but be almost cooked through. Remove the pasta from its boiling water (using tongs, a spaghetti fork or a large slotted spoon or spider) and put it into the pan with the clams; turn the heat back on under the pan. Toss the pasta with the clams until it is well coated with the sauce that the clams have given off and serve immediately (sprinkled with a gesture of olive oil and more chopped parsley if you like). From start to finish, the whole thing can be made in just a little longer than the time it has taken for you to cook the pasta.

Lobster can be added to pasta in similar fashion; if it is already cooked (as I am assuming is likely) you can warm chopped lobster flesh (with or without shell attached) with similar ingredients used as a base to those that I have suggested for the clams (you will not need a fiercely high heat this time - cooked lobster requires only gentle warming, not further cooking). You may want to soften some finely chopped fennel in a pan and add a small splash of pastis and a scant sprinkling of chopped tarragon as substitutes for the garlic, white wine and parsley (allow the fennel to cook gently until it is nice and soft before adding the lobster) - these gently sweet aniseed flavours, if not overdone and overpowering, can complement lobster very well. Tomato gives additional colour and flavour, but is, as for the clams, entirely optional.

Given that it is Valentine’s day, whether you choose to stare doe-eyed at each other across a shared dish of noodles, like that famous scene from Disney’s “Lady and The Tramp”, is your affair entirely and I shall not make any further suggestions except to say that I would add a simple dessert - a crème brulée, a melting chocolate fondant, or perhaps a pink tinged cake of some sort - and to wish you all a Happy St Valentine’s Day.

Erica x
(www.acookinthekitchen.co.uk)

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“spice a dish with love and it pleases every palate” ~Plautus