Once I've documented Steve's efforts, it's generally time to banish him to the office while I make my presentation for him. I started the tradition of baking something special for breakfast back in 2008. That year, it was a complete surprise for him when he got up in the morning and found a scone with a Post-It saying "Eat Me." Since then, he obviously knows there will be something, but I usually manage to keep whatever it is a secret until that morning. This year, I made Honey Tea Cakes from the Miette Cookbook.
Fun fact: Steve and I managed to get each other matching Valentine's Day cards this year. They weren't exactly the same, but they were both from Night Owl Paper Goods and printed on wood.
Enough about breakfast; on to dinner! Like the breakfast tradition, this started in 2008. The previous three years we had gone to restaurants for Valentine's Day: Zuni Cafe, Foreign Cinema, then Fresca. 2008 was when we decided that it was better to cook something special at home and save restaurant meals for other nights, when the quality would probably be better there anyway.
Since then, these dinners have gotten more and more ambitious. That first year, Steve made Oysters & Pearls from The French Laundry Cookbook and a fancy dessert from Elizabeth Falkner's Demolition Desserts. For our main course, he played it pretty safe with a cowboy steak, potatoes, and some green beans. (The processing on those photos makes me cringe now.) 2009's meal also had the Oysters & Pearls, continued with a fish dish from The French Laundry Cookbook, and then finished with a fancy dessert from the Cannelle et Vanille food blog. Then I got obsessed with lobster, prompting a French Laundry lobster main course in 2010, a different one in 2011, as well as a lobstery starter that year. It may have been a bit much. Dessert in 2010 was another Cannelle et Vanille recipe, but it was back to Demolition Desserts last year for some "tiramisushi."
This year, things got even crazier. Having exhausted all of the lobster recipes in the The French Laundry Cookbook, I bought Steve a new fancy cookbook for Christmas: Eleven Madison Park, from the restaurant of the same name in NYC. We didn't know about it in time to try to eat there during our New York trip in 2010, but since then it's risen to the top of my wishlist for if we make it back someday. The book is just gorgeous, but the recipes are even more involved than the French Laundry ones. I went through it ahead of Valentine's Day, marking several recipes from each season that looked both appealing and doable. From there, I left it up to Steve to decide which dishes (and how many) to make. I figured he would choose maybe one or two and then make something easier for the rest of our meal. However, he decided to tackle all three from that book.
It required quite a lot advanced planning, as well as a little specialty shopping to find things like glucose syrup. Steve actually started cooking on Sunday, finishing the first 10 components—things from all three dishes that could be done ahead. A few other parts were prepared on Monday night, and then Steve worked from home in the morning on Valentine's Day so he could cook more in the afternoon. He had some issues with some of the cooking times in the book, but it all came out fine eventually. The first course was even ready around the completely reasonable dinnertime of 7:30pm.
|beet salad with chevre frais and caraway|
The beet salad that served as our first course had a few kinds of roasted beets, some caraway tuiles, rye crumble, beet vinaigrette, and goat cheese mousse that was dispensed from one of those whipped cream siphons. The caraway tuiles and rye crumble were the most surprising component: interestingly sweet and cookie-like, but kind of wheaty and savory too. But of course, the goat cheese mousse was my favorite part. We each had an extra squirt of it at the end to mop up the last of the beet vinaigrette from our plates.
|lamb - glazed rib eye with puntarella, apples, and vadouvan|
The main course was lamb loin with "blackened" apples, roasted garlic, puntarella (the greens) prepared three ways, a crumble of dehyrdated apples and rendered lamb fat, and a couple sauces. It sounded like a really interesting dish when I saw it in the book, and definitely lived up to that. The lamb, cooked sous vide, was done perfectly. Then there was the sweetness of the apple, the bitterness of the greens, and a subtle Indian flavor of the vadouvan in the crumble. The garlic was also nice for variety. And despite Steve's cheats in making the (not) veal stock, the sauces were amazing.
|chocolate, fleur de sel and caramel|
For dessert, we had chocolate and caramel in various incarnations. There was a foamy caramel gel on the bottom, salted caramel ice cream, chocolate sorbet, cocoa nib tuiles, chocolate ganache circles, sucree (cookie) tubes, and a crumble of the same cookies to hold the ice creams in place. This was the dish that had the most leftovers after that night, and it grew on me each time we had some. We ditched the chocolate ganache circles after that first time, though, since they were really difficult cut out and transfer. Luckily, I didn't miss them. The salted caramel ice cream and the cocoa nib tuiles were my favorite components anyway, although the intensely chocolatey sorbet and the slightly orangey cookies provided a good contrast. It was a nice rich ending for our Valentine's meal.
But wait, there's more! We had leftovers two nights later, and Steve also made another fancy salad from Eleven Madison Park. He had gotten the ingredients for both that and the beet salad, just in case, but I had discouraged him from trying to make the extra course for Valentine's Day. It worked out much better for him to make the second salad on Thursday to supplement our meal of leftovers.
|radicchio salad with mozzarella, mango, and basil|
This tasted a little like a caprese salad, probably because of the basil and mozzarella. The role of the tomato was played by mango, however, which countered the bitterness of the radicchio quite well. Technically, this wasn't the kind of radicchio that was called for in the recipe, and we probably should have placed individual leaves on the plate instead of little blossoms/wedges. The overall effect is much less dainty than in the cookbook picture. But I was also having issues with the basil oil running on the plate, so I wasn't going to perfectly reproduce the cookbook picture anyway.
Which brings me to the picture-taking aspect of all this. The last 3 years, I've taken pictures of our Valentine's dinners on our coffee table in the living room, using my tripod and a floor lamp (or just the overhead light) to illuminate the food. That has been, shall we say, less than optimal. But now I have the tabletop light that I got for Christmas! Two of them would probably be better than one, but it's a big improvement over undiffused and ambient lights. No more sparkly meat!
I set up my station on the dining room table this time and did all the things that I should really be doing every time I take food pictures... I ironed the white sheet that I used as a backdrop on the table, and I took the time to set up my tripod. I even took test shots with an apple on a plate and reviewed them in Lightroom before shooting the real food. That let me check for exposure compensation so that the whites would actually be bright enough, and I was able to evaluate how the light was hitting the apple. From there, I decided to drape an extra piece of aluminum foil across the front of my set-up, below the camera, to bounce the light back onto the food from that direction as well. I had basically made my own light box with the tabletop light on the right side, a white reflector across from that on the left (with a piece of foil hung down the middle for extra reflecting strength), and a small piece of white poster board (also with foil) across the top between the two. Then, I shot down into the box from above with my camera mounted on the tripod, making sure that the poster board on top was far enough back to be out of the frame.
I used my remote to trigger the shutter and enabled mirror lockup to minimize camera shake. And this time, I played with the live view function on my camera, since the camera started so high up that I had trouble reaching the viewfinder with my eye, even while standing on a chair. With live view, I could actually zoom in and move a little box around the frame to pick my focal point and then watch it focus right before each shot was taken.
My main issue with taking these pictures was actually just controlling the food. I mentioned the basil oil in the picture of the radicchio salad, but the sauce under the beet salad also wanted to run a little too much. We tried having Steve apply the liquid components at the last minute, when the plate was in place for the photo. That helped a lot, especially with the beet salad and the main course, but it didn't fix the problem for the radicchio salad. I think we would have had to thicken the basil oil with something to reproduce those perfect green dots in the cookbook.
The other troublemaker was the salted caramel ice cream in the dessert. It melted so quickly at the edges that there were little pools starting to form under the carefully shaped scoop by the time I even started shooting.
Despite the challenges, I think the pictures turned out better than in previous years. Chances are, next year's dinner will not be as fancy as this one, but hopefully my pictures will continue to improve. Someone has to show off Steve's hard work, after all, and this dinner certainly involved a lot of it.