Main dish: a sexting emoji
As aubergine has become an alternative sexting emoji, the ingredient, known for its bitterness, has become much more popular among lovers, hence why it deserves a place on a special Valentine's menu. Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong has increasingly focused on vegetables in his menu at his eponymous restaurant A.Wong in London, displaying a fascinating Chinese cuisine that is far from stereotypical.
Wong's Sichuanese aubergine has been a hit since he opened the place back in 2012. “Never in a million years would I imagine that this would be our most popular dish. We must have sold several thousand portions of it and I am sure it has something to do with the fact that it is a dish without pretense,” he explains.
The dish is sweet, sour and spicy in equal parts. The fermented chilli bean paste creates an umami-rich taste that he even describes as “meaty” because of its unique velvety texture. “The heat of the chilli bean paste is beautifully intense and the vibrant, glowing red colour makes it very appealing for a romantic date”, he adds.
Brazilian chef Manu Buffara, from Manu, also suggests aubergine for a romantic Valentine’s Day meal. Her take is a Thai-influenced curry with coconut and peanuts in which the aubergine is the main star, creating a balanced flavour with the sweetness from the tamarind paste and the coconut milk.
“It's a recipe that I prepare a lot at home, for friends or especially for my husband,” she says. Because of her Lebanese heritage, the chef says she often serves it with pita chips (baked pita bread seasoned with olive oil and herbs), creating an extra layer of texture.
“But I also recommend serving it with jasmine rice, which I cook with a little coconut milk and finish with lemon zest and fresh coriander. It tastes great and is very hearty,” Buffara says. “A good way to express affection through food,” she concludes.
Dessert: the taste of papaya
The inspiration for this unusual dessert, which features papaya, came when pastry legend Will Goldfarb, from the acclaimed restaurant Room4Dessert, in Bali, visited Maison Troisgros in France.
The Troigros brothers' iconic salmon with sorrel dish blew his mind: a groundbreaking dish for Nouvelle Cuisine that “marked a clear and present danger to the established norms of heavy sauces, long cooking, and rigid plating,” Goldfarb explains.
He has tried to evoke this “new vision of clarity and refinement” with a simple papaya dish, using the natural harvest schedule of Room4Dessert's garden. “This dish encapsulates our vision of botanical modernism, and we think it’s delicious!” he says.
The former elBulli pastry chef also honored the traditional wisdom of the Balinese by including papaya leaf, used locally as an antidote to Dengue fever, among other ailments, as “a nod to our commitment to healing through food.” A belief that he thinks is crucial to bring to the table on such a romantic date.
Although it has many steps, he assures us that the edited dessert is easy to prepare at home — especially if one counts with a little help from his/her lover. “But feel free to adapt in any way that you see fit,” he advises. “Any firm to medium firm fruit will work great on the grill — pineapple and mango spring to mind immediately,” he advises.
It is also possible to substitute coconut yogurt or other plant based milk for the sauce. If the idea is to get to the dessert as quickly as possible, he recommends cutting back on a few steps. “Perhaps skip the brine and just grill. Since the papaya leaf oil takes some time to prepare, just use extra virgin olive oil you have in your pantry,” he concludes. Either way, you can get all the satisfaction.