How to Create a Meaningful Valentine's Day You'll Actually Want to Celebrate (No Cheesiness Allowed)
"See I'm all crooked feet, Saint Valentine" – Gregory Alan Isakov
Valentine's Day sometimes feels like a conspiracy. It's a holidays front loaded with expectations that are onerous, distracting and just waiting to be disappointed. And all the while — with you and your partner/spouse/significant other/whomever are running around trying to meet these expectations by spending money and time and creative thinking — it is supposed to be a chance to pause and really appreciate the most important person in your life. If that isn't a setup for a cruel joke, I don't know what is.
In a world of clichés, Valentine's Day is supposed to involve some number of the following items: flowers that arrive as a surprise, chocolate of an especially fine variety that arrives in a box, thoughtfully written and even more thoughtfully delivered love letters, tickets to a show/event/gallery opening/concert/museum show that are very hard to get, or similarly difficult to achieve dinner reservations at a restaurant that you would not otherwise choose to go to. Then, add some going out clothes (not work clothes) along with special and probably uncomfortable underthings, and some kind of rich, two person dessert to be shared alongside deep looks of longing that express your deepest heart's affection. Despite your long days and busy weeks, you are also supposed to organize this on a random Wednesday. (Head's up. It's on a Wednesday this year.)
But the idea is still good, right? The notion of a holiday that allows you and the person you love to take time to acknowledge the romance and amorousness and affection that binds you is a terrific idea. But there has got to be a way to pull off a special evening that allows the main focus to be the two of you, done in a way that is profound and authentic and uncluttered with externals. So, if you'd like to craft an evening that is thoughtful and intimate, with nothing left to the last minute, here's a way to have a Valentine's Day that gets to be about you and the one you love.
Here's our take–a schedule of sorts–on how to set up a great Valentine's.
7 Days Ahead
Have the realization that it is February and that an important thing going on this month is Valentine's Day. By means of willful optimism, you take this as a positive thing and a chance to reconnect with your partner. So, that evening you set aside a time and open a document on your computer, a note on your phone, or get out plain sheet of paper and title it, "Why ______ is Awesome." Start listing, and don't allow yourself to stop until you get to 40 items. This is a time to really remind yourself and think about who this person is you've been spending your life with and why that has been a good investment. Maybe start looking into flower delivery services if you've never ordered flowers. If you have, look and see if you have a coupon somewhere in your email history.
5 Days Ahead
Plan your meal and prepare your living space for the day. For the meal, we've got with covered with a menu that includes a sous-vide flank steak (doable even if you don't have a sous-vide immersion circulator), cheesy, bacon-y twice-baked potatoes, roasted asparagus with balsamic onions, and a kale Caesar salad, with a rich chocolate mousse for dessert. What is great about this meal is that nearly everything can be made ahead of time––you can prep everything on days 4 and 3 whenever you have time. Today is also a day to clean your house/apartment, pull out a table and chairs so that you are ready to dine with your partner, make sure you have a playlist ready for the night, wash your tablecloth and/or prep your table settings, and pick out your outfit to make sure it is ready to go in time if you need to dry clean, hand wash, or iron anything beforehand. Today is the day to order flowers and begin to write your heartfelt letter.*
3-4 Days Ahead
Hit the grocery on the way home from work to shop and begin preparing food. Presuming you have the basic pantry essentials on hand, here's what you should grab:
- A flank steak (14-18 oz. by weight)
- Small bottle of apple juice
- 1/2 pound of asparagus (I know its February, but splurge! If you don't like asparagus, replace with Brussels sprouts, broccoli or another green vegetable that roasts well)
- Two large baking potatoes (Russets)
- Bunch of chives
- Small container of sour cream
- Head of garlic
- 8 oz. block of cheddar cheese
- 1/2 pound of bacon
- 1 bunch of kale
- Package of croutons (unless you want to cube and toast your own)
- A bottle of high quality Caesar dressing (or ingredients to make the same, if you are a from-scratch kind of person)
- Parmesan cheese
- Package of dark chocolate chips (the higher the quality, the better)
- Small carton of whipping cream
Over the next two days, when it is convenient, prep your potatoes and your dessert. When you are ready, stab the potatoes with a fork, wrap them in foil, and put your Russets in to bake at 400 degrees for at least an hour. You are trying to steam the inside as much as possible while leaving a crisp skin. While they roast, grate some cheese and cook your bacon. Once your potatoes are cooked and cooled, cut them in half and scoop out most of the potato into a separate bowl, saving the potato skins. (You'll have four.) In the bowl combine 8 oz. of sour cream, the bacon (chopped, of course), 8 oz. (or so) of grated cheddar and a heap of chopped chives. Spoon this mixture back into the best two potato skins of the four you saved. Sprinkle more cheese, bacon and chives on the potatoes and store in the fridge under plastic wrap. Next, turn to your dessert, which is basically a chocolate mousse made from ONLY dark chocolate that has been melted and thinned into a whip-able liquid. You're going to use the method laid out here, but feel free to use a hand or stand mixer, if you have one. I've made this a bunch of times, and I can tell you that they can sit in your fridge for weeks without loss of quality. So by getting these things done, your dinner is halfway finished!
1-2 Days Ahead
This is your chance to make sure your home is clean, your set up for dinner and time with your partner is in order, and that all of your personal stuff is ready to go. Hopefully you've gotten everything in order already, so this should just be a matter of checking, but this is a time to attend to details that you might otherwise forego. Change the sheets on your bed, clean your bathroom, and otherwise make sure that your space is inviting to all of those who are going to be enjoying it. If you are out and about, these are good days to get flowers for your home/dinner table so they will be fragrant and blooming for the night of.
You can also make your final dinner preparations. In the last 24 hours, you are going to get things marinating and otherwise prepped so that you have to do as little as possible on Valentine's proper. So, on the day before, you want to marinate your steak by putting it in a high quality Ziploc bag with 3-4 crushed garlic cloves, a few cracks of pepper, a couple of rosemary and thyme sprigs if you have them, a cup of apple juice and 3 tbsps. of soy sauce. This will be marinating AND cooking medium, because you are going to cook the steak in its bag on Valentine's Day. Also, trim your asparagus and add it to its own Ziploc with a heavy dose of olive oil, salt and pepper. Store all of this in your fridge. Make sure that you have a bottle of champagne chilled and whatever other drinks you and your partner might enjoy ready to open or put together.
Make sure your letter is done, sealed and ready to deliver.
The Day Of: February 14th
On the morning of, you should have everything ready to go. Before you leave for work, you are going to start the sous vide process but submerging your flank steak in its bag in a clean container (like a small cooler, large mixing bowl, etc) in your sink that allows the bag to remain submerged. This is a process that David Chang has termed "ghetto sous vide"––you can read ALL the details of the process in the Momofuku cookbook. What you are going to do is turn your faucet all the way hot and fill your clean container with the hot water into which you will submerge the bag with the steak. Most household water heaters are set to put out water between 120-130 degrees F. It turns out this is PERFECT for cooking a steak medium rare, so you are basically going to slow cook your steak in 120-ish degree water all day. To make this work, make sure as much air is out of the flank steak bag as possible and add a filled jar or container of water to keep the bag under water. Use a plate to weigh it down if you need to. Once you have your bag submerged in a container filled with the hottest water you can get out of your faucet, you are going to leave a slow stream of hot water to ensure that they container of water doesn't lose its heat over time. While you go off to work or whatever your day entails, your steak will be at home getting awesome.
Yes, we realize this sounds crazy, but it totally works.
At the same time, prepare the kale for your Caesar salad by tearing the leaves from the stems, and pulling them into bite sized pieces. Your going to want to sprinkle the leaves with olive oil and kosher salt––perhaps a tbsp. for two servings. Really massage the oil and salt into the leaves. Put the massaged kale into the fridge in a covered container––when you come back to it after your day, the kale will be pleasantly wilted and chewable.
An hour before you are ready to eat, you only have to do the final preparations. Set your oven to 400 degrees F and put in your potatoes for 30-40 minutes until they are bubbling and gorgeous. Toss your asparagus from their bag onto a baking sheet covered in foil and roast for 40-45 minutes alongside the potatoes. At 30 mins., toss 2 tbsps. of balsamic vinegar with the asparagus and adjust seasoning. While this is happening you can dress your kale Caesar salad with plenty of croutons and Parmesan cheese and keep the salad in the fridge, so that it remains cold. (Toss your salad bowls in there too for a restaurant touch.)
Once these items have been cooked and everything is ready to go, pop the champagne and enjoy a toast with your partner, after which you can give them your letter while you get plates ready in the kitchen. The very final thing will be searing the flank steak. The steak is cooked, but since it has been in liquid it doesn't look very appetizing. So, remove the bag from the water and remove the steak to some paper towels to get the surface dry. Drop the steak into a screaming hot pan (cast iron is good for this) for just 20-30 seconds per side. The steak is already hot, so it doesn't need a long sear like a raw cut would. After pulling the steak from the pan, slice it against the grain and arrange it on a plate neatly (alongside some chimmichuri, if you like!) with the potato and asparagus. Bring the plates into your partner who, hopefully, has been deeply touched by your letter. Having only spent an hour getting the final details together, enjoy your dinner without being harried and exhausted, and instead enjoy your partner and the time you've set apart to be together. And be excited to know that after the meal ends, you have absurdly rich chocolate mousse in the fridge just waiting for you to dollop some freshly whipped cream on top of.
The other details of your evening are entirely up to you and your partner. But whatever it is, you can be sure that it will not be stifled by a crowd of people, the inability to get tickets, or expectations that you cannot possibly hope to control. Instead, this year, you and your partner will meet one another and spend time with one another for the sake of one another. And for most of us, that is a rare enough event to truly warrant a holiday.
Happy Valentine's Day.
*A quick note about flowers and a heartfelt letter. Flowers are a cliche, but they are a natural symbol of love and a still meaningful part of the holiday. No matter if your partner is a male or female, it is very nice to receive flowers because it constitutes a public display of your thoughtfulness–especially if your partner works in a crowded workplace. (Imagine how it would feel not to receive them while many of your partner's co-workers are.) But the crucial thing is not to let the flowers stand alone. You've taken some time to think about why your partner is special to you–now is your chance to clinch the "why" in a letter written to get out what you actually feel. Valentine's Day is a unique opportunity for real communication in a relationship––get up your Johnny (or June Carter) Cash magic, and say what you feel!