The only thing a chef kisses the second week of February is their social life goodbye.
Chefs, servers, dishwashers, onion peelers, foragers, sommeliers and anyone remotely associated with the restaurant, is working. Simply put, Hallmark’s big day is the restaurant world’s big day — its busy!
So, why take advice from a chef who never actually celebrates Valentine’s Day? It’s simple, I’ve seen it all, and tried along the way to make the best of Feb. 14 for as many hopeless fools as I could. Learning a thing or two along the way, I’m obligated to share as much as I can.
Insist on going out? Let’s make you the best dinner possible, not for me, not for your server or anyone at the restaurant other that you and your date. It’s not an easy day to execute for restaurants, overwhelmed with bookings packed with expectation, so if you can help by being a great customer, your experience will be that much better.
Want a 7 p.m. reso by the fireplace? Book early, there’s only a few of those gems and everybody wants one, so set a calendar reminder and call in early January. If you didn’t do that four weeks ago … there’s always 2020 or a 4:30 dinner reservation at the bar.
My advice, and this is debated by my peers, is to book somewhere running a set Valentine’s prix fixe menu. Sure, it’s a bit restricting and might not feature your usual order, but I guarantee this menu will be fresh, interesting and well executed because that’s what the veteran restaurant crew intended. This also leaves less time perusing a big menu and more time meaningfully connecting like soulmates.
Want to really impress me? Dine on Feb. 13 or 15, usually the same menus can be found without the crowds.
I hope that’s helpful, but what I’d really like you to do is take it to the next level and DIY it this Valentine’s day. No, that’s not a cheap joke — it’s my best advice.
To me it’s the only way; my job counts on patrons coming out to restaurants, but my heart wants to see more people cooking real food at home.
Even if you hate cooking, learn a couple recipes and perfect one this Feb. 14. That mixed with an Al Green-centric playlist, a clean home, some candles and bottle of wine you can speak to without sounding like an ass, and you’re set.
Seafood is the way for your menu, super tasty, super sensual, shows a mature even sophisticated palate and screams “kitchen confidence!” It also cooks quick and eats light leaving lots of time and energy for whatever the night brings.
Ninja level advice: nothing says “I care for things and take my time with it” like making bread, when someone who has a modest attraction for you sees you using your hands and working a bread dough it’s almost a guaranteed instant bump in primal attraction. Play it easy with dessert and get some fine chocolates from local maker Ambrosia Corner Bakery and look out chef — you made it work.
Good luck lovers, I mean it. There’s too much pressure these days to stress about romance. And if you need the extra help, check out my recipes on the website for your perfect Valentine’s Day menu!
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.
1. Raw oysters with fresh horseradish
2. Scallops, mussels and shrimp in a spicy bacon tomato broth with fresh grilled flatbread
3. Ambrosia chocolate tasting
12-24, oysters depending on your appetite
A quick note on oysters: they are amazing, the coolest food on earth, and once you get comfortable shucking them, they are pretty easy to prepare. A good oyster shucker is important, especially in the early days when you need to build that confidence up. An accidental gash from an oyster knife can be ugly, real ugly, carefully planned night vibe killing ugly. Go to your favorite oyster retailer, T&J Seafood at 26 Elm St. in Kitchener is my recommendation, and get one there and ask for a little demo. Ask for Jeff — he’s a pro.
Grate horseradish on the fine side of a cheese grater. Set aside. Shuck oysters and eat them as you go, adding horseradish and lemon as you like. One pro-tip, be careful not to discard the liquid or the liquor that resides inside the shell, it’s fragile but delicious and tastes of the briny sea of which it was born!
Scallops, Mussels and Shrimp in a Spicy Bacon Tomato Broth
6 x u10 sea scallops (u10 is the size, nice and big)
1 lb fresh mussels
½ lb shrimp (ask for 16-20 easy peel, frozen)
¼ lb slab bacon or pancetta chopped
1 spanish onion chopped
3 cloves garlic smashed
Herbs any, torn
Hefty splash extra virgin olive oil
Splash liquid, preferably from your cup, so beer or white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
Start by prepping your mussels. Wash them good under constantly running cold water, pull off the beard (the bit that hangs off the seam of the shell and looks like it was freshly yanked from an east facing sea boulder! My instinct tells me you could google this and watch a YouTube how-to video).
For the scallops, thaw them (frozen is often best given our geographical location) and set on paper towels to thoroughly dry, this helps when applying a good sear. Some of them will have what looks like a small bandage on the outer edge, that’s not tasty nor tender, pull it off, and unless you also make fish sauce as a hobby, discard it.
For the shrimp, leave them as is, the shell adds to the flavor-factor big time, and as an added bonus, watching each other peel hot shrimp is one hell of an ice breaker. Do rip off the little dangly legs that hang off the underside; those are not for eating.
This is a “one pot shot” recipe, so get something pretty big and pretty heavy duty — a large cast iron pan is ideal, but plenty of pans will suffice.
Heat it up as hot as your stove allows, add the olive oil and wait for it to simmer and smoke. Season the scallops with salt and pepper and carefully place flat side down in the pan. Let these sit for a couple seconds and really look to get a good sear on this first side.
Next, add the shrimp. Season them first, also and let the first side stay put for the bulk of the cook time. It’s always good to get one side really nice and browned with the fishies. Flip all the seafoods, and almost immediately after that, remove them from the pan to a plate nearby. Add your bacon, onions and garlic and sweat it out till everything begins to brown, take this step further that you think.
Toss in the mussels — cook these out in the rendered fat for a minute or two before adding the remaining liquids, this step really bumps the “briny” flavour, as the mussel shells get a chance to roast.
Next, dump in the alcohol splash from your cup and the tomatoes, and cover loosely with another pan. As the mussels begin to open, it’s almost ready. Add the shrimp and scallops back in, as well as the lemon and chopped herbs, stir to combine. In that short time, the cooking process is done and it’s ready to eat.
¾ teaspoon dry active Yeast
1 teaspoon honey
⅔ cups warm water
2 cups Flour
1 tablespoon Salt
2 tablespoons Olive oil
Coarse sea salt for garnish
In a mixing bowl, combine yeast, honey and lukewarm water. Allow this to sit until the water gets bubbles and shows signs that the yeast is good.
Add 1.5 cups of the flour, the salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Using your hand, work the mixture until it comes together into a dough. Toss a little flour on a clean surface and work the dough using the heel of your hand for 5-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and has a firm texture.
Lightly flour a bowl and place dough inside covering with a towel or cling film. Set aside at room temperature for one hour. Now that the dough has doubled in size, knock it back down! Flour your hand and punch the dough down. Remove from the bowl and knead for a minute to ensure all the gas bubbles are evenly redistributed. Portion the dough into several smaller pieces and allow to sit for 15 minutes on the counter covered with a towel.
Have your barbeque preheated to medium high — a cast iron pan would work too if you don’t have a grill. Using a rolling pin or a cleaned wine bottle, roll the dough balls out on a lightly floured surface. Roll to about ¼ inch thickness, and to what hopefully looks snowshoe shaped. Lightly oil the rolled out dough and grill them one at a time.
At first, it will be tricky to flip so don’t. Let it cook a bit, and as it does, it will get way easier to handle. Flip it and cook evenly on both sides. Should only take 3-4 minutes to cook, start to finish. It will make a hollow sound if you tap it with your finger when done. Now salt bae that baby with some sea salt and eat it hot.
Ambrosia Chocolate Tasting
This is easy, tasty and will make you look brilliant. Go to Ambrosia Corner Bakery at 324 Frederick St. in Kitchener, tell Aura I sent you, get a few of her amazing bean to bar chocolates, selecting from different origins and flavors — and you’re done. Put a few washed berries and sliced fruit along side, nibble away and discuss the beauty that is perfectly prepared chocolate. Serve it alongside a nice sipping tequila — an aged Anejo would be perfect — and boom, sophisticated and fun.