The Science of the Perfect Valentine's Dinner

01 February, 2021
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That’s great for dessert, but is there a way to pair those items into something else?

I like thinking about things like chocolate and berries, and how those aromas work, but also how you can flip them into something that’s savory. One of my favorite things to do is to use cocoa powder as a savory seasoning. Particularly with meats. I think the bitterness of the cocoa powder really enhances the roasted flavor in the meats and can help you build some chars and smokiness in the meat as well.

You have to be careful with it though, because it can burn pretty easily. I like to mix it in with some other seasonings, create a dry brine, where you mix a little bit of salt and sugar and pepper and anything else you may want to throw in there, rub it on the meat and let it sit for a couple hours and then kind of wipe it off and pat down the outside so that it doesn't burn.

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Fennel salad, photo by Andrew Purcell

You mentioned aphrodisiacs. What else falls under that category and what are some pairings that go well together?

Um, let's see. Oysters like we mentioned. But actually, chilies and hot peppers. Spicy foods are typically in the aphrodisiac category. Something with spicy chili peppers could be good for a Valentine's Day appetizer.

If we jump back into Flavor for All, the Sicilian-style fennel salad that we do with sliced peaches has fresh chilies in it as well. That's something that's bright and crisp and sweet and spicy and textural. It's a great opener for the night. 

Figs can also be an aphrodisiac, so from The Flavor Matrix, there’s the sesame seed and avocado salad with fig vinegar, which also has cocoa in there and a chili rub. That pretty much ticks all the boxes for pairings and more.

For Valentine’s Day, people are trying to up their game, maybe buy more expensive items and going all out. What comes to mind for that?

In Flavor for All there’s the Chianti-braised short ribs with grits or polenta that would be great. I think that is a decadent, warming, comforting, and not too rich dish that won’t totally fill you up and keep you in the mood for later on. With that you’re tying in the red wine with a luxury beef cut. Really, it’s a dish made with love because you’re crafting it and slow simmering it and developing the sauce and all that.

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Short ribs, photo by Andrew Purcell

What other tips can you offer people who want to make the perfect meal for the day?

The big thing is to absolutely prepare in advance. Get it done. You don't want to be stressed and running around the kitchen trying to pull everything together at the last minute. You want to focus on things that you can ahead of time. Everything from getting the table set, to pulling out the nice silverware and glasses, and just doing things properly.

Ultimately, you want to prepare a menu that’s going to be easy enough to execute, but still be really special. A good braised dish does that and it’s not that difficult or messy to eat. If you’re going to do it at home, you’re going to want to dress nice and make it feel like you’re out at a restaurant. But the biggest thing to make this successful is to simply plan it out. Those short ribs can be made a full day in advance, so the kitchen can be completely cleaned. Not only that, if you braise them, and you strain the sauce and finish it and let the meat sit in the sauce overnight, it’s actually going to get even better. And that’s perfect for Valentine’s Day.

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