Valentine’s Day has always been one of my least favorite holidays, even though I’ve been with the same wonderful man for nearly five years. (Read: This isn’t about not being able to find a date.) To me, the Hallmark holiday has always reeked of artificial affection, overcrowded restaurants and cheap candy. Never mind that I’m missing something nearly everyone else on the planet seems to have, an attribute all but required to enjoy this sugar-laden jubilee: a sweet tooth. Chocolate cake? Never gonna happen.
But I’m not trying to convince anyone of the foolishness and futility behind this celebration. Rather, I want to get in on the fun this year, to try to let go of an admittedly bitter outlook and embrace the holiday. And then it hit me. What’s just as present as love on Valentine’s Day? Bitterness, of course: romance’s ugly twin. It was perfect. Not only are the disgruntled lovers and sullen singles carousing in opposition this time of year, but bitter flavors abound in the kale, escarole, citrus and cranberries in season right now. Plus, bitter is one of the tastes humans are most sensitive to, and maybe a little more sensitivity is just what I needed.
And so it was decided: I would have a celebration of love and devotion with my guy in the form of bitters. But where to begin? Kimchi, the Korean staple of fermented cabbage, sprang to mind, but it seemed too funky for the occasion. Bitter melons, frequently found in Asian, African and Caribbean markets, seemed less like an aphrodisiac and more like something we should ingest to cure a bad stomachache. But Italian cuisine hit the mark on all counts. Bitter ingredients are ubiquitous; my cocktail of choice is a classic bitter Italian aperitif, the Negroni; and there’s no culture more romantic, no place dearer to my heart ever since I studied in Verona in college.
I knew that chef Michael Friedman, formerly of Proof, could help. The man spent a year traveling through Italy, recently returned a beaming newlywed from his subsequent Italian honeymoon and is opening an Italian-inspired restaurant, the Red Hen, next month in Bloomingdale. Oh, and did I mention he catered Salma Hayek’s wedding in Italy?
I called him. “What do you think about doing a bitter menu for Valentine’s Day?” I asked.
“It’s perfect. There are two sides of love: bitter and sweet,” said Friedman, without missing a beat. “You’re lucky if you have more of one than the other, but one can’t exist without the other, either. Plus, they’re better together.” Bingo!
Friedman got to work, helping me create a menu, stressing that when you’re cooking with bitter foods, balance is paramount. “Whenever a dish has a contrast in texture, temperature and flavors, that’s what excites the taste buds,” he told me as we went over a salad recipe for bitter greens with oranges, almonds and anchovy vinaigrette. The radicchio, endive and escarole held up their bitter end, but they’re balanced with nuttiness from cheese and almonds, sweetness from oranges, and saltiness from anchovies and capers.
Similarly, the entree Friedman developed was, while brazenly bitter, perfectly symmetrical. Short ribs, slow-cooked in a tangy tomato sauce, are served over creamy polenta with garlicky escarole and freshly shaved horseradish. Done and done.
The grand finale? Chocolate budino (that’s Italian for pudding) with grapefruit cream and espresso crumbs. Given my missing sweet tooth, I was nervous. But Friedman assured me I would love it. Grapefruit zest added a tropical note that cut the richness of the chocolate, and the textures of espresso crumbs, pudding and cream made for a flawless dish even a salty gal like myself could appreciate.
All that was left was the cocktail. If you’re going to make a negroni, you’d be a fool to go anywhere besides directly to Jeff Faile, bar manager at Fiola and king of the negroni; he’s got half a dozen varieties on his menu, after all. And for the bitter occasion, he has created a special Valentine’s Day concoction, the Negroni d’Amore. For those unfamiliar with negronis, the drink, which was contrived in Florence, is an aperitif made with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and — you guessed it — bitters, usually Campari.
But Faile likes to mix things up (pun intended) and decided to use Cocchi Barolo Chinato, a bitter digestivo from Piemonte steeped with herbs and spices, in place of the vermouth, and Kina L’Avion D’Or, a wine-based spirit with notes of quinine and quince, instead of Campari. His choice of gin: Ransom Old Tom, a heavy brown gin aged in pinot noir barrels.
“The Barolo has nice chocolate notes and needed something heavy to pull out the flavors and maintain the body,” he explained. “A lighter gin would’ve gotten lost.” Fortunately, Faile assured me we could drink this throughout our meal, not just as an aperitif. I’ll drink to that.
And I knew that my boyfriend — the sweet to my bitter — could, too.
Parham is a food and travel writer based in Washington. She can be reached through her Web site, www.kateparham.com.
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