Valentine's Day {RECIPE}

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Sometimes we finish each other's sandwiches. (That's a Frozen quote.) Sentences, sandwiches, and strawberries. We have a lot of things that we share, romantic and ordinary.

When Valentine's Day comes, we plan to make it a day without expectations. Such consumerist obligatory gifts like roses, chocolates, and jewelry--- those are not required. (He does this anyway, and in his words, the man is supposed to give the woman gifts.) However, he's given me pearls, jewels, books, chocolates, a love song dedication on the radio, and many romantic dinners out in the finest restaurants. One year he actually handmade chocolates which I secreted away in the freezer. Every once in awhile when I needed a taste, I knew they were there: dark pieces of decadent, frozen chocolate handmade by my love.

There was the Valentine's Day two years ago when we went on a picnic. The weather that day was beautiful as we snuck into a botanical garden with our straw basket full of sandwiches, sliced cucumbers, chips, hummus, crackers, and a split bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

I didn't know how much I needed this, he sighed in deep relaxation. Staring up into the sky, I saw his face soften, as he watched the clouds drift in cottony shapes along the blue expanse, billowing clouds like a Maxfield Parrish painting. We gazed at the sky and into each other's eyes. I drank most of our split bottle, as I'd encouraged him to drink less--- he was quite a lush before we met and I wasn't having it--- somehow that gave me the satisfaction of knowing he was happier. If he just needed the fresh air, the blue sky, and a picnic blanket (and me, of course) then it was the best gift. After our romantic picnic, we went for noodles and tea. He dedicated a love song to me and it played on the radio as we drove home in the moonlight. He gave me a long strand of the palest pink pearls once we arrived home.

This Valentine's weekend he had to work in Chinatown during the Chinese New Year celebration as the Master of Ceremonies for the culinary stage, while I wandered around with my youngest daughter, taking photographs and videos of anything that particularly caught my eye. Admiring the nuances of Los Angeles' Chinatown steeped in history, observing the passage of time, including personal histories: the place where I'd shop for tea when I lived in a downtown loft before anyone decided it was hip to live in a concrete and brick warehouse without air conditioning or heating. My former loft was conveniently located to Chinatown, so certain places remind me of how we were before we knew each other.

There was the time I went to Yang Chow by myself on Valentine's Day. It was raining. I slurped up a bowl of sesame noodles and drank down a glass of plum wine. I was exhausted from a long day of work and craved noodles. The plum wine wasn't very good, too syrupy sweet, but during that time in my life, I didn't know much about wine, and it sounded like a good idea. I was alone that year, it wasn't as memorable, except the desire for noodles and the cloyingly sweet wine. (The noodles on the other hand, were marvelous.)

When I was ten, I insisted on buying fuchsia pink "kung fu" slippers with an embroidered satin Chinese jacket to match. Chinatown was fairly close to the neighborhood where I grew up, in the hills of Los Feliz. I loved that jacket and those slippers, the bright pink fuchsia color, and the feeling of being a part of Chinatown.

My youngest daughter and I walked by Castellar Elementary School, and she commented about the playground. That was the playground where my love went to school when he first moved to Los Angeles from Taiwan. I tried to imagine him playing on the yard as a young boy, shaking the hair out of his eyes from his bowl-shaped haircut. His lanky arms, toothy smile, self-conscious of being Chinese. I was an exceptionally shy girl, taller than most anyone at school (I suspect I was the tallest kid, and if I wasn't, I certainly felt it, as I was long-limbed, awkward, glasses perched upon my nose--- always absorbed in a book, and books way beyond my elementary school reading level. D.H. Lawrence novels, for example). Chinatown was something fascinating and curious to me then, and still is. I wanted to become part of that world somehow, not knowing how, but in some way, a part of it.

So memories like this--- of passing moments in Chinatown, shopping for kung fu slippers and satiny jackets in the shops full of buddhas, jade bracelets, and that pungent musty herbal odor from the Chinese medicinal herb shops, they meld together and intersect with his memories, wandering into Peking Poultry as a boy with his younger brother and mom, choosing which chicken they wanted for dinner, waiting for the butcher to prepare it, his fascination and disgust, repulsion and revelation. We drove by his family's first apartment dwelling near the poultry shop. Steamed bao, dim sum and other things could be had just steps away.

My best girlfriend from childhood told of her parents' wedding day: they got married at City Hall and afterwards they went to Chinatown for tea cakes. She had a scar on the dip of her upper lip from a China bowl that she fell upon as a young girl, running, eating from the bowl, falling down. My associations with Chinatown, Chinese food and miscellaneous memories are part of what brings it into the present. I have a hot pot of memory, seasoned by time and decades. And I wished for a wedding like that: City Hall then tea cakes in Chinatown. It sounded so romantic and genuine.

He was too tired after the festival, becoming weak from a chest cold. We walked briskly to the car, passing the flickering neon sign of the West Gate Chinatown and past Castellar, to the parking lot. I managed to get green tea parfait all over my hands because I was eating while walking. No napkin. My high heels were squeezing into my feet, aching with each step. I licked my hands clean and felt chilled while holding the custard cup. Though my ability to stay strong and healthy sustains, he was otherwise sinking into fatigue and worsening illness, so I took the car key, insisting on noodle soup somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley.

The next day was Valentine's Day.

I had errands to run, the kids, an endless to-do list. He stayed in bed, tissues everywhere, propped up on pillows. I'll make breakfast for you when I come back, I said to him softly, leaving the bedroom with a quick swing of my handbag, as the kids scuffled toward the front door in a clamor.

After the errands, the farmers' market shopping, I returned to make him a hefty sausage, kale and cheese frittata with hopes to improve his cold. My daughter and I brought two trays into the bedroom, one with flowers and brownies, and the other with tea, frittata, a side of buttered sourdough toast. He inhaled the entire plate of food and sank back under the covers. He roused enough to give me a beautiful box of chocolates, a book, and a gleaming spatula, the kind you see in the expensive cookware shops but never think to buy for yourself.

I made sandwiches. We (my daughters and I) ate grilled cheese, arugula, avocado sandwiches and strawberries. He (poor dear) was too weak and slept through lunch, so I ate his sandwich, while my two daughters ate their own. I bought a whole fish at the market, and that would be his dinner. Along with the fish--- a small branzino--- I'd make roasted curried cauliflower with kale, roasted carrots in homemade teriyaki sauce, brown jasmine rice and red quinoa. Green garlic is already here in our farmers' markets, so I lustily sliced up one of the green bulbs and savored the scent while readying the sauté pan for the fish.

As a vegetarian cook, I am pleasantly perplexed by my gift for cooking fish, as I've never been taught by anyone. It's by instinct to know how long, what temperature, and even when I graze through recipes, it's only for quick reference. I just understand how to cook fish. Handling it, another thing. It's slippery, and the whole fish intact, gutted by the fish monger, fortunately.

Valentines-Day-Branzino

Roasted Whole Branzino with green garlic and lemons

I'm sure there are many ways with this simple recipe, so please feel like you can add or change ingredients to your liking. It's a simple thing to roast this sort of fish and what happens is the fish comes out moist and flavorful, enhanced by the seasonings rather than overwhelmed by them. Lemons, green garlic, butter, sea salt--- it's not complicated. Just imagine the happiest moments together as you make this, and the fish becomes an offering of love. Of course, you could make two branzino fish to feed two, just double your recipe. Serve with rice and vegetable sides. Bon Appetit!

Ingredients

  • 1 whole branzino or other white-fleshed fish, descaled and cleaned

  • sea salt & pepper

  • 1 bulb green garlic, chopped diagonally

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 lemons, silced in half circles

  • 4 tablespoons butter

  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

  • 3 sprigs thyme, carrot tops or other mixed herbs

Directions

Preheat an oven to 425°F. Dry the fish inside and out with paper towels, then season liberally with salt and pepper. Slice half the lemon into thin slices and put them inside the fish with carrot tops, thyme and other herbs.

Heat the oil in a large oven-proof skillet (large enough to hold the fish) over medium heat. Add the green garlic and sauté, about 2 minutes. Make sure that the surface of the skillet is well coated in oil to avoid the skin sticking. Place the fish carefully into the skillet and cook for about a minute. Spoon some of the oil over to top of the fish to coat. Transfer the pan to the oven.

Roast the fish for about ten minutes until just cooked through. Finish under the broiler to crisp the top of the skin. Remove from the oven and add the butter and herbs to the pan. Spoon the butter and sautéed green garlic over the fish. Add parsley and continue to allow the fish to cook when removed from heat. Squeeze lemon all over the fish.

Serve the fish on a beautiful platter, along with a side of lemons. The carrot tops also make a pretty garnish. (Perhaps a carrot top chimichurri sauce might be a good recipe addition?)