Valentines’ Day Food Massacre

As I said in a recent roundup, I’ve set myself a personal challenge of cooking a fun theme menu once a week. This week, it wasn’t difficult to decide what to choose for the theme: l’amour, natch. But I didn’t want to go with the tried-and-trite for my menu: aphrodisiacs, red foods, chocolate…

So I thought about what I wanted to evoke for Valentine’s Day with my partner, and what I came up with was fun and sensuality. I wanted to make interactive food — something spicy, yummy, a little messy. Two courses of Asian-style finger-food favorites seemed to fit the bill. As for dessert, I had a carton of strawberries left over from the previous weekend that I knew had to be consumed somehow. My hubby doesn’t like strawberries, but he had leftover cupcakes, so I didn’t concern myself too much with him.

My Valentine’s Day menu was therefore to be:

  • Mushroom Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce — recipe from Simple to Spectacular, by Mark Bittman and Jean-Georges Vongerichten
  • Chicken Lettuce Wraps — recipe culled from various places and, as it turned out, partially made up as I went along
  • Red Wine-Strawberry Sorbet — okay, I did cave and do something brilliantly, ruthlessly, dynamically red, but it was worth it; recipe also from Simple to Spectacular

The menu sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the results were … ahem … less than spectacular. So this Valentine’s Day was truly meaningful, since I got to watch my husband scarf down everything I made and declare it fabulous even so, because that’s how much he loves me.

Here’s the blow-by-blow:

The Mushroom Spring Rolls were actually pretty good, and the dipping sauce that went with them — made from toasted, chopped peanuts, chiles, coconut milk and soy sauce — was fantastic. My husband even remarked that he had noticed that I was cooking mushrooms much better these days; all I had changed was the cooking time, since I had learned that I needed to cook mushrooms over medium-high heat until the liquid released and then evaporated, and then take them off the heat. This ensures that they are brown and meaty, not too liquidy. I was taking them off too soon before. You don’t always expect the eater in the family to notice these little things, so I was secretly gratified.

The problem with the Spring Rolls was that the recipe called for phyllo dough to evoke the crispiness of a spring roll without the necessity of deep-frying. A good idea in theory, but in practice, it didn’t quite work for me. The phyllo was too light and crispy, and didn’t have enough substance. Besides, it reminded me of a mushroom spanakopita, which didn’t go at all with the Southeast Asian-style dipping sauce. So the recipe wasn’t a keeper for me.

Chicken Lettuce Wraps was the main course, in which I was hoping to re-create one of our favorite Chinese restaurant appetizers. Once I started the base recipe, however, I realized that there were a few things wrong with it. For instance, it tried to combine lemongrass and fish sauce and teriyaki sauce and soy sauce all in one thing — it was kind of a mess. Also, it was too thick and pasty. So I started rapidly adapting, trying instead for a more straightforward black bean sauce lightened with chicken stock. It actually was very tasty — if a bit salty and still a little too thick from too much fermented black bean paste — and it did taste a lot like what we were used to from the restaurant.

The problem was that I had cooked the cabbage in the sauce, and it turned this blue-green-gray color — very unappetizing. It brought home again the lesson that food needs to look good as well as taste good. But I did achieve the goal of making something very messy; I got sauce and chicken all over the place. My husband, who is usually as big a slob as I am, managed somehow to hardly even dirty his plate. I guess he’s more adroit at wrapping things in lettuce leaves than I am.

On to dessert… The sorbet was the winner of the night and of the week. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how selfish you are when it comes to homemade sorbet — I was the only person who ate it. With a little forethought, it is possible to make sorbet on a weeknight, a handy tip to keep in mind. And since the recipe is so simple and so delicious, I will pass it on to you, crediting Simple to Spectacular.

Strawberry-Red Wine Sorbet for Your Valentine


  • 2 cups strawberries, quartered
  • ½ cup good-quality red wine
  • 1 cup sugar
  • the seeds of 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice
  1. Let the mixture sit for about 1 hour
  2. Puree the mixture in a blender
  3. Freeze in an ice cream maker — you do have an ice cream maker, don’t you?
  4. If you have the time, firm up in the freezer for a few hours before serving

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