Okay, let’s be honest. Valentine’s Day is a marketer’s dream. Red, pink, chocolate, hearts, Cupids with chubby dimpled buttocks–it’s all very sweet, and entirely manufactured. I’ve long been a cynic about Valentine’s Day, far more so than about any of the other Hallmark Holidays. For me, the real magic comes the day after, when chocolate goes on sale.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something inherently lovely in the day. Showing loved ones a little extra care and devotion is never a bad thing. And if there has to be a designated calendar day to remind us of that, then so be it. For me, Valentine’s Day is about genuine displays of warmth and affection, whether it be for romantic partners or friends, parents or siblings or children.
And when I want to lavish someone with love, I feed them. (This should come as no surprise to…well, anyone.) To me, it’s the ultimate homemade gift: a special meal of favorite ingredients, prepared by hand and served with care. As The Boyfriend said, “It’s like flowers, but I can eat it.”
There’s an inside joke among several of our friends that Boyfriend–who really needs a better blog-nickname–is actually secretly a bluefin tuna. (Long story.) But be that as it may, the man loves tuna. Loves. Loves with the kind of passion I’ve only rarely witnessed between human and foodstuff. On a recent trip to a sushi bar, I watched as he consumed not one, not two, but six portions of tuna sushi in rapid succession. So I knew what would be on the menu for Saturday, when we decided to stay in and have our Valentine’s Day dinner for two at home.
Now, I’ll be honest. This was an expensive choice. The two top-grade yellowfin steaks I bought were costly enough to tip this whole endeavor over into the realm of outright extravagance. This is clearly a Very Special Occasion type of dish. But that’s fine, because this is a story about pampering, and besides, look how pretty:
Because the tuna was clearly destined to be the star, I considered serving it just over salad greens, with a light vinaigrette. But it is still February, after all–though the unseasonably warm California sun almost convinced me otherwise–and I wanted something a little more substantial. I settled on petite portions of fettucine, choosing fresh because, well, it’s special. I thought of lemon-caper sauce, which I love on salmon, and figured it would pair nicely with another dark oily fish. The salad idea still nagged at me, though, so I tossed in a couple handfuls of arugula for kicks.
As for dessert: among the leftovers from Super Bowl Sunday was a single untouched baguette. No one around had any particular use for it–my friends are all engineers who get fed at their jobs, and I wasn’t too keen on taking custody of a loaf of bread. “Why not make bread pudding?” someone suggested. So I looked up a simple recipe, and good thing, too: after a week, the baguette had gone so stale that when I took a knife to it, it shattered. Clearly, it was begging to be doused in custard and baked until golden.
Now, here’s the other insidious thing about Valentine’s Day. If you go about doing something like this, planning an elaborate treat of a meal for your designated honoree, the Powers that Be say it must be flawless or your relationship is doomed. Do I really need to clarify that this is hooey? Saturday night’s dinner was anything but flawless. I didn’t turn the heat on high enough for the tuna, and it stuck to the skillet. I ended up with about half the amount of pasta sauce I thought I would (the recipe below is doubled). The arugula wilted too much, turning oddly stringy. I stupidly tried to fit all of the tuna onto two plates, when I was really dealing with four people’s worth of food. And by the time I’d gotten all the pieces together, dinner was no longer warm.
But you know what? Despite all the mishagas, it was still delicious. And I still got to watch Boyfriend’s eyes roll back with pleasure as he took his first bite of lightly seared, perfectly rare tuna. So there, candy heart manufacturers of America. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Seared Tuna with Lemon-Caper Fettucine and Arugula (serves 4, or 2 with leftovers)
1 lb fresh tuna (I used two half-pound steaks)
3 tbsp olive oil, plus more for searing the tuna
1 lb fresh fettuccine noodles
2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup capers, drained
Juice of 4 lemons
2 tsp dijon mustard
2-3 large handfuls arugula (about 1/4 lb)
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil and drain fettucine as per usual. While pasta is cooking, saute shallots over medium heat until translucent. Lightly crush capers with the back of a spoon, then add to the shallots. Add lemon juice, dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Toss with the drained pasta.
Meanwhile, season tuna with salt and pepper. Warm olive oil in a heavy skillet over high heat. Sear tuna on all four sides, about 1 minute per side, until the fish is lightly browned but still bright pink in the middle. Remove from heat and let sit for about a minute, then slice.
To serve, toss arugula with warm pasta, letting it wilt just slightly. Divide pasta among four plates and lay tuna slices on top. Serve warm.
Bread Pudding (serves 4-6)
2 cups milk
1/4 cup butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp dark rum (I also added 1 tsp vanilla brandy)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups stale French bread, cut or torn into pieces
Preheat oven to 350ºF. In medium saucepan, over medium heat, heat milk just until it starts to steam. Turn off the heat and add butter, stirring until melted. Let cool.
Combine sugar, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, rum, and vanilla in a large bowl. Beat with a hand mixer on low to medium speed for about 1 minute, until thoroughly combined. Slowly stream in milk mixture, beating until everything is evenly combined.
Place bread in a lightly greased 8×8 baking dish. Pour custard mixture over the bread and toss lightly, making sure everything is combined. (If your bread is extremely stale, like mine was, let it sit for 15-20 minutes to soak up as much liquid as possible.) Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the pudding has swelled up and lightly browned on top. Let cool 5 minutes and serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.