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Courses in Love

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By CJ Juntereal

Next week is Valentine’s Day. And if it’s something you usually celebrate, you’re either feeling smug because all your plans and reservations have been made, or starting to panic because it slipped your mind.

DINNER AT HOME IS NOT A COPOUT

I prefer to stay home, because crowds and traffic cause feelings of frustration—not romance. A Valentine’s dinner at home isn’t a copout for lazy people because it’s something you plan. And here’s how you do it. First, set the stage. Use your good plates, utensils, cloth napkins, and set the table properly. You don’t need an elaborate tablescape— pick some flowers from the garden and either put them in a small glass or scatter them randomly on the table. No flowers? Candles, glitter, or interesting knick knacks will do just as well. It’s the effort that counts.

Blackmore, a full-bodied Wagyubeef from Australia

       Blackmore, a full-bodied Wagyubeef from Australia 

First, set the stage. Use your good plates, utensils, cloth napkins, and set the table properly. You don’t need an elaborate tablescape— pick some flowers from the garden and either put them in a small glass or scatter them randomly on the table. No flowers? Candles, glitter, or interesting knick knacks will do just as well. It’s the effort that counts.

Next, the menu. Keep it simple—an appetizer, a main course, and dessert. The best is a combination of dishes you make at home and purchase. The secret is in the selection you make. The appetizer is easy. Go to the best gourmet deli you can afford. My favorites are Santi’s or Terry Selection. Pick up some smoked salmon, capers, and some nice salad greens. Arrange nicely on a plate, and serve with wedges of lemon and a homemade dressing. The dressing is simply a mixture of bottled mayonnaise or Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise if you have it, a little mustard, chopped garlic (a little or a lot depending on taste preferences), a squeeze of lemon for some acid, and a few drops of honey if you like things a little sweet. A second option is thin slices of Spanish Jamon Serrano or Italian Parma Ham wrapped around slices of cantaloupe. And your first course is done.

Chorizo, Lomo, y Jamon.

                                            Chorizo, Lomo, y Jamon.

I think that steak is the easiest main course to prepare. I like the decadence of fat, so I always buy ribeye. Canadian or US beef is always my top choice because they are so nicely marbled. If you like your steaks a little leaner, choose Australian, Brazilian, or Argentinian beef. I sometimes use local beef as well. If there’s a good Monterey butcher shop near you, ask them for their good quality rib-eye, and select a piece with enough marbling and a rim of fat. The fat, which you really don’t need to eat if you don’t want to, provides taste and keeps the meat moist.

Honey Cake from Wildflour

                               Honey Cake from Wildflour

IT’S  A VALENTINE’S DINNER, NOT EAT ALL YOU CAN

But how much steak should I buy, you might ask. It’s Valentine’s Day, not an eat-allyou-can feast, so 250 grams per person is quite generous. If you have a good relationship with your deli, butcher, or supermarket meat counter, ask them to cut you a two-three inch slab— something approximately 500 grams in weight. A single thick cut to be shared is always more impressive looking than several thin steaks. And now a foolproof way to cook that steak: Make sure your steak is properly defrosted (slowly in your refrigerator) and just slightly cool to the touch. Philippine room temperature is just a little too warm to follow the rule of room temperature steaks. Next, choose a large frying pan or grill with a thick bottom. Cast iron is best. Heat your pan over a high flame. Don’t rush. It takes at least 10 minutes to get your pan hot enough for a good sear. I usually start heating my pan 20 minutes before I start cooking. If you have an exhaust fan, turn it on. If not, open the windows.

While your pan is heating, pat your steak dry and salt it generously. My rule of thumb is one tablespoon of coarse kitchen salt (a measuring tablespoon, not an eating tablespoon) per kilo of beef or pork. If you’re using fine table salt, use just a bit more than a teaspoon. So half a kilo of beef would need about half a tablespoon, sprinkled evenly on all sides. Pat it into the steak so it adheres well. When your pan is so hot that it is smoking copiously, put in your steak. Don’t touch it. If your pan is hot enough, your steak won’t stick. If your steak is two inches thick, flip it after five minutes. Try to flip it to another part of the pan, which should be hotter. If you have an instant read thermometer, stick it into the thickest part of the steak after two minutes. For a rare steak, remove it from the heat at about 120F, remove it at 125-130F for medium-rare, and 135F for medium. The temperature will rise about five degrees while it rests. After flipping, the two minute mark, you can also add a few tablespoons of butter and some fresh rosemary if you have some. Use a large spoon to baste the steak with butter.

If you don’t have a thermometer, plan on a total of four to five minutes on each side for rare, and five to six minutes on each side for medium rare. After removing from the pan, place it on a nice looking chopping board, sprinkle with ground black pepper, add a generous pat of butter, cover with foil, and allow your steak to rest at least 10 minutes to allow the juices to move back into the meat for better flavor and juiciness.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SIDES

I’m a steak and rice kind of girl. Instead of serving plain steamed rice, let’s up the ante a little bit. Sauté some chopped onion in a pan with butter, and a little bit of chopped bacon (the bacon is optional). If you have turmeric powder at home, add a generous pinch. Add a cup of good quality uncooked rice, and sauté the rice until the grains are coated in the butter and turmeric mixture. Transfer everything to your rice cooker. Instead of the prescribed amount of water that your rice cooker needs for a cup of rice, use light chicken stock (water with a bit of chicken powder or chicken cube is okay). Turn on your rice cooker and trust in its magic. You can make the rice up to an hour ahead of time. Just unplug your rice cooker when the warm light goes on.

For your vegetables, buy a bundle of fresh asparagus. Lightly grill the asparagus with a little salt and pepper in the same pan you used to cook your steak. It will only take two or three minutes in a hot pan. To serve, after you’re done with your appetizer, slice the steak into one inch strips on the chopping board. Arrange the asparagus spears around the steak. Fluff up the rice into a bowl. Bring everything to the table and indulge. Choose a red wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon to pour.

Oh! Dessert. Serve strawberries and cream (use European cream like Elle et Vire or President), or a really good local artisan chocolate like Theo and Philo, Risa Chocolates, or Treena Tecson’s True Chocolate. Or, buy your favorite luxe dessert. My current favorites are the Burnt Basque Cheesecake and the 17 Layer Chocolate Cake of Chef Miko Aspiras’ Worshop Bespoke Bakery.

And voila! A delicious and peaceful Valentine’s Day for two that will not feel like you planned everything at the last minute. Wink, wink.

Email me at cbj2005@gmail.com or follow me on Instagram: @eatgirlmanila.

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