Updated: Mar 23
I can't remember the last time we went out for a meal on Valentine's Day. In fact I'm not sure if we ever have! I know it's kind of the thing now to be all "you should tell your partner you love them every day not just on Valentine's, boo for Valentine's Day and its consumerist crap" etcetc. And of course it's hard to disagree with that sentiment. Yes, of course you shouldn't be nob every other day of the year and think that one mushy card can fix it, duh! But, also it's ok to take an extra opportunity to feel thankful for the ones that you love whilst avoiding the need to buy a teddybear holding heart.
There's nothing I love more than cooking a meal for the people I love and so, for me, Valentine's Day is the perfect excuse to do that.
Last year, I was working on Valentine's weekend so we hadn't made any plans. I came home from work on the Wednesday night to find that our dining room table was set for dinner and my heart just melted. My partner had made my favourite - fish pie- using my mum's recipe. He'd made a little vegetable and goats cheese tart as a starter, and a vanilla pannacotta for dessert. I found the whole thing utterly romantic and wonderful; a perfect gesture of love.
I firmly believe that there is no better way to tell someone that you love them than to put a little bit of time and effort into cooking something lovely for them. Here's what I'll be cooking my Valentine this year.
Valentine's Day Menu
Soused Mackerel with Orange and Celeriac Salad
Rack of Lamb with Cannellini Beans and Gremolata
Gooey Chocolate Puddings
A note on the menu: this menu requires a little bit of time and preparation.You will need to begin prep at least 2 hours before you intend to serve the first course in order to allow the mackerel time to brine. The ingredients are also a little more costly than you might usually go for, but it is a special occasion after all...
1x very fresh mackerel, filleted and pin boned
Oranges (blood oranges are lovely if you can get them)
1x bag of rocket
1x net of red onions
1x pack dill
1x crusty loaf or rye bread
1x pack creme fraiche
1x whole rack of lamb, bones trimmed
1x tin of cannellini beans
1x tin anchovy fillets in olive oil
1x bag kale or cavelo nero
1x pack parsley and mint, and coriander too if you fancy
1x bag of carrots
1x 125g pack 70% dark chocolate
1x pack unsalted butter
1x box free range eggs
1x pot of cream
Check your store cupboard for:
White wine vinegar
Peppercorns - I used pink and black but black are essential
Quality flaky sea salt
Fennel seeds, coriander seeds and bay leaves
1) Begin by making the brine for the mackerel. Pour 200ml white wine vinegar and 200ml water into a small saucepan. Add 4 tbsp caster sugar, a pinch of salt, 1 tsp pink peppercorns, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, coriander seeds and 2 bay leaves. Remove the rind of one of the oranges, carefully removing as much pitch as possible using a small sharp knife. Place on a medium high heat and bring to the boil, allowing it to boil for a minute or so. Remove from the heat and set aside.
2) Peel 1 red onion, halve it and thinly slice into half moons. Pick the dill, removing the big chunky stems.
3) Place the mackerel in a high sided baking dish or Tupperware which fits the mackerel comfortably (not too snug because the brine needs to surround each fillet but not too roomy either otherwise the brine won't cover the fish), sprinkle over the slices of red onion and dill.
4) When the brine has cooled to the point where you can comfortably hold your finger in it and it just feels warm, pour the brine all over the fish. Cover with clingfilm and place it in the fridge for at least 2 hours to allow the brine to penetrate the fish.
Clean down and being to prepare the pudding. You will need 6 ceramic ramekins or oven proof teacups for this dessert. This recipe is from Nigella's How to Eat and is a firm family classic and one of my special occasion go-to recipes! This is my method:
5) Begin by weighing out 125g dark chocolate, broken into pieces, and 125g unsalted butter. Place them in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and allow them to melt slowly.
6) As you wait for the chocolate to melt, take a small piece of butter on a piece of kitchen roll and smear it lightly all over the ramekins. Then place a generous tbsp plain flour inside one ramekin, shaking it around so that it lightly coats all sides of the dish. Pat the excess out into the next ramekin and repeat the process. Place the buttered and floured ramekins on a baking tray and set aside.
7) Take another large, clean bowl. Weigh out 150g caster sugar, 35g plain flour and add 3 eggs. Whisk lightly to combine. By now the chocolate should be melted - stir it thoroughly to combine it with the butter. Slowly pour the warm chocolate mixture into the eggy-sugary mixture, whisking constantly. It's important that you do it in a slow gradual trickle otherwise the warmth of the chocolate will start to cook your eggs. By the time you've scraped every last drop of chocolate into the bowl, you should be left with a thick, rich chocolate batter.
8) Divide the chocolate mixture between the prepared ramekins. Leave the 2 you will cook tonight at room temperature, and place the remaining ones in the fridge. The batter can be kept raw for up to 2 days in the fridge and cooked at a later date (just add a couple of minutes to the cooking time).
Clean down and take the lamb out of the fridge and remove its packaging. Dry it off if it looks a bit bloody and place it to one side so that it comes up to room-temperature ready for cooking. Now is probably a good time to set the table and spruce yourself up ready for dinner. I chose to style my table with some simple pink tulips, some tall taper candles and some linen napkins. Wine at the ready too!
9) Now turn your attention to the salad you will serve with the starter. Begin by segmenting your orange (here's a little video from an slightly robotic lady showing you how). Place the segments in a medium sized bowl and reserve the juice and the excess juice you squeeze from the waste separately to use for the dressing. Next, take of a chunk of the celeriac - probably about a quarter and remove the skin. Use a vegetable peeler to make rough ribbons of celeriac. Celeriac browns quite easily when exposed to the air, so get it in the bowl with your orange to help minimise this.
10) For the dressing, combine with orange juice with a splash of white wine vinegar, a pinch of salt and 1/4 tsp dijon mustard. add about 3tbsp olive oil and whisk with a fork to create your dressing. Taste and add more salt/vinegar/ mustard to you taste. Dress the celeriac and orange and leave at room temperature until you're ready to serve.
12) Make your herby gremolata by picking down a portion of parsley ( you need a pile that generously fills the palm of your hand) and mint (about half the amount of parsley) and coriander if using. Place it in a mini food processor with a small peeled clove of garlic (if you both have stinky breath - you won't notice!! ha!!) and blitz, adding approx. 4tbsp oil and a pinch of salt. Add the zest of one lemon and the juice of half a lemon, mix and check it's zingy enough for your liking. Add more lemon juice or salt, according to your taste. Set aside.
11) You can also get ahead here by prepping and blanching your kale, peeling and chopping about 3/4 carrots into nice chunks before placing them in a roasting tray, and by roughly chopping 3 anchovies (drained of their oil) and one large clove of garlic. The leftover anchovies keep really well in the fridge in a small tupperware, covered with their own oil.
You're now ready to go - the rest of the cooking needs to be done last minute - so it's time to get the evening started aka time to crack open the fizz. Take the mackerel out of the fridge so it's not too cold when you want to eat it.
12) Preheat your oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6. Drizzle the carrots with olive oil, a good smattering of salt and fennel seeds, and place them in your eye line so you don't forget to put them in the oven before you sit down to eat!
13) Take your mackerel out of the brine and place it on a large chopping board. Slice it into an appropriate portion depending on your fish (leftovers go straight in the fridge for a killer lunch tomorrow). I decided to cut the tail end of each fillet to serve as I thought it looked pretty. Take a few of the red onion slices out of the brine and add them to your orange and celeriac salad. Pick a few fresh fronds of dill and take a handful or rocket and combine it all together.
14) On your plate, put a spoonful of creme fraiche and swirl it around the plate - the cream brings a rich fatness to the dish. Place a handful of the dressed salad on top and then add the fish, spooning over a little extra dressing to garnish.
15) Pop the carrots into your now pre-heated oven and serve your starter. Bask in the glory of its deliciousness.
16) Time to cook the lamb - there will be a delay of roughly 30 mins between starter and main as you need time to cook and properly rest the lamb so pour another glass of wine and invite your partner into the kitchen whilst you get it ready. Don't worry about the timings- this isn't a restaurant after all, and if it's true love, they may even do the dishwasher for you whilst you rustle up the next course... Season the lamb all over with salt and put a large oven proof frying pan on a high heat. Add a slick of olive oil to the pan before putting your meat in, fat side down. Leave the meat fat side down to get a really golden brown crust and rendered the fat - this will take at least 5-8 minutes - then turn the meat to brown it on all sides. Once you're happy with the colour, place the lamb (fat side down still) in the oven, moving the carrots which should now be basically done to the bottom shelf. Set a timer for 15 minutes for pink, 20 for well done.
17) Turn your attention to your dinner guest - or the washing up if they've neglected to help you. Get your plates warming if you can.
18) Take your lamb out of the oven and leave it to rest in the pan for at least 10 minutes. Now turn your attention to the beans. In a medium sized saucepan, heat a drizzle of oil over a medium heat, adding the sliced garlic and anchovies immediately so that they melt into the oil and cook gently. Once you've got a delicious umami oil, add the drained and rinsed beans to the pan along with approx 100ml water. Put a lid on and allow the beans to simmer for about 5 minutes before adding the blanched kale. Return the lid and simmer for a further couple of minutes.
19) Carve your meat and pat yourself on the back as you realise you've cooked it to perfection. Eat any bits that may fall off "accidentally" whilst carving. Pile the beans and kale in the centre of your warmed plates, topping them with your blushing lamb. Drizzle your gremolata inelegantly over everything and tip the carrots into a serving bowl. Leave the oven on. Dig in.
20) Now for dessert - the final course, the one to seal the deal! Pop the ramekins straight into the oven and put your timer on for 12 minutes. When they're done, they should be lightly risen and just starting to crack a little on the top; they should look fully set. Serve straight from the oven (I usually put them on little side plate as the ramekins are scorching) with a jug of double cream.