As Valentine’s Day approaches each year many romantics are filled with equal measures of hope and dread. Not me. Mr. B and I decided long ago it was not for us. I think of it as a ‘Hallmark’ occasion.
This year was a bit different, well for me anyway. I had a bride and her sister checking in to our next-door AirBnB house on the 13th. They would spend the night before the wedding there, having a bit of a girls night with the bridesmaids, then prepare themselves and leave for the wedding on Valentine’s day. The newly wed couple would then return for their wedding night. No pressure . . . I just had to make it perfect for the bride. After-all this was going to be part of a big chapter in her life, the stuff of memories. I decided I would festoon the house with flowers. I started planning it in my head weeks before.
As it happens, and it may be a symptom of my over-excited, over-active thyroid state, I was uncharacteristically swept up with the romance of it all. I decided I would put on a surprise romantic meal for two for me and Mr.B, but on the eve of Valentine’s Day, as I needed him to be at work so I could spend the day cooking without interruption.
Just the week before, he had spontaneously bought me 2 cook books that I had admired recently – ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Plenty’ by Yotam Ottolenghi, so I thought I’d prepare a middle eastern style feast for my beloved. A few weeks before, I had also spotted a beautiful beaten metal lamp shade in a local bohemian home wares store, reminiscent of one we had seen in Bali and regretted not buying. I bought it immediately and it became the centrepiece of my plan. I would set up a table and chairs for 2 in our back yard and hang the lamp from the tree above. I planned fairy lights in the jasmine and candle-light clustered amongst the potted palms. I pictured a balmy summer evening. I obviously read too many ‘lifestyle’ magazines.
I’ll start with the lamp. Of course it was not supplied with any kind of electrical fitting. No problem, I’m a handy kind of girl. So early in the week, off I went to our local DIY superstore and perused their lighting department. A kindly staff member tried hard to make head or tail of the issue, was charmed by the back story, and came up with a suggestion. Plan A: I buy a cheap outdoor floodlight and dismantle it, then pass the electrical wire through the top of the lamp shade and wire on a plug – Bob’s your uncle! I got straight to it, no time to waste. Unfortunately once the flood light was out of the packet, I saw the plug was sealed on, and the light itself not as dismantlable as I hoped. I cut through the wire at the light fitting end, and passed it through the narrow tubular opening at the top of the gorgeous lamp shade. It came through, but the rough metal took rather a lot of the plastic off the wire – dodgy. I spliced the wires back together and wrapped them tightly with insulation tape – tah-dah! The flood light globe was too big for the lampshade and hanging at a alarmingly rakish angle. With baited breath and wearing rubber soled shoes, I plugged it in and flicked the switch. The light came on – victory! I stood back and gave it a final appraisal. It was a Frankenstein’s monster of a thing – I could not hang that from our tree. One of us would definitely end up in A&E. I took it apart – it actually fell apart – just as well for the rubber soled shoes. Plan B: The next day I went to our local Swedish home-wares behemoth and bought a cheap little table lamp, thinking that if I couldn’t disconnect it and feed the wire through the lampshade, at least I could use it as a lamp elsewhere. It didn’t work. Plan C: Next day I went over the road to my neighbour to ask for help. His lovely wife generously volunteered his time, and he had a horrified look at what I’d done so far. He looked online and sent me back to the DIY superstore to get an outdoor path light and a plug. The reasoning was that it would be low voltage and for outdoor use, smaller than the previous floodlight set-up, and not as dangerous to work on myself. Off I went again. I found the exact thing, but it looked a bit dubious to me. As I was leaving I saw a super-cheapo plastic garden up-light – only $4, the right shape if turned upside down, and totally made of plastic. I bought it as back-up. Once home I set to again. Time was of the essence and day was approaching fast. I couldn’t make the path light work due to another sealed on plug, and I was not game to disconnect everything again. Plan D: The cheap plastic up-light was my final hope. It had the kind of rudimentary set-up where the electrical wire runs up into the globe connection where 2 metal spikes are driven directly into the wire to complete the circuit. I managed to get the wire through the lamp shade tube, but didn’t seem to be able to drive the spikes deep enough into the wire, so off to my patient neighbour once more. He managed to do it in about 30 seconds flat. Thank goodness for kind and handy neighbours. The lighting part of the plan was accomplished.
Now for the cooking. I had been designing the menu for a few days and settled on the following menu.
Burnt aubergine with garlic, lemon and pomegranate
Bittersweet salad (like love apparently, bitter and sweet)
Pureed beetroot with yoghurt and za’atar
Figs with basil, goat’s curd and pomegranate vinaigrette
Roast chicken with clementines and arak served on a bed of rice
Set yoghurt puddings with poached peaches
Bear in mind I have never cooked from these books or anything middle eastern before. What’s the worst that could happen? I discussed my plans with the ladies from the dog park. “You know you have to be a pretty experienced to cook from Ottolenghi. Have you cooked middle eastern food before?” Ha! Negative to both. My resolve was weakening. My over-active thyroid spurred me on. A frantic, but surprisingly fun, few days saw me driving all over town for exotic and unfamiliar ingredients: Za’atar, orange blossom water, date syrup, pomegranate molasses. I couldn’t source Arak, but Yotam assured me that Ouzo would do the trick. Then onto the fresh ingredients. I was informed by the dog park cooks that Ottolenghi’s recipes are maddening in their disregard for seasonal produce, and so it transpired. Fennel is in season now, but the clementines to accompany it are not – tired-looking mandarins from the USA had to suffice. Pomegranates are abundant, but blood oranges nowhere to be seen. The stand-in was a ruby red grapefruit. I soldiered on being creative and not discouraged.
The actual cooking went pretty much to plan. Dessert was completed the day before and stowed in the fridge next-door. The heady perfume of the peaches poaching in Ouzo was intoxicating. All good so far. Mr B was banned from the house next-door under the pretext that it was cleaned within an inch of it’s life (which it was, simultaneous to the shopping and light connecting) for the bride/guest who would be checking in the next day.
The morning of the 13th dawned and finally panic set in. 8.15am drop girls at school. 8.30am at the market getting chicken and other fresh stuff for the meal and flowers for the AirBnB house bride/guest festooning. No time for breakfast. 10am take Annie to the dog park. 11am marinade chicken etc for main dish – needs a few hours. Beetroot in the oven for roasting. Midday cut branches from magnolia tree in the front yard, olive from the back yard and purple foliage and gum flowers from the trees in the street. Combine with market flowers to fill 4 huge vases and arrange at the house prior to check-in. Guest arrives promptly at 2pm, just as I’m accepting pretty white flowers for the house from my neighbour, who’s gathered them from the street on her walk and is also caught up with the excitement. I greet the guest with dirty hands and face and leaves in my hair. It’s around 30 degrees and I like to think I’m glowing, if somewhat damp. First impressions are so important.
2.10pm back in the kitchen burning aubergines directly over the hob on the stove top. Messy but fun. Always up for something new. 4.30pm girls arrive home from school to find their mother and the kitchen in disarray. I’ve still eaten nothing by this point. They take charge, one organising tea and biscuits, the other extracting pomegranate seeds. 5.30pm Miss S goes to taekwondo – thank goodness I’m not doing the driving run today. The mezze dishes are mostly done or at least ready to assemble. The chicken is ready to pop in the oven. It starts to pour with rain. Torrential rain. Plans A,B,C,D for the bohemian, lamp-lit al fresco feast go out the window. 6pm Plan E takes shape as we spontaneously fling together table cloth and candles to create a ‘romantic restaurant at home’ setting. I put on a pretty frock and try not to look hot and bothered.
6.30pm the doorbell rings, like a scene from ‘My Kitchen Rules’. Mr. B and his bike are dripping and bedraggled. “Why don’t you jump straight in the shower?” I call from the back of the house, desperately trying to buy some time, to no avail. Miss E launches another stalling strategy, throwing his own dirty socks at him as he strips off soaking wet gear. It’s a little ritual they do most nights, but usually his socks aren’t sopping wet. He doesn’t buy it, and miss E gives up. He saunters down the hallway in his bathrobe, dripping unattractively. This is not the breathtaking restaurant reveal I’d imagined. “Surprise!”
“Oh! What’s this? Special Friday 13th dinner?” He got with the programme pretty smartish and went and put on appropriate attire whilst I plated up the first course and got the main in the oven.
It went brilliantly. The feast was sumptuous, if I say so myself, and I was proud I’d accomplished this not insignificant event with a just little help from my friend Yotam, and a lot from my wonderful daughters. Mr B. declared it one of the best meals he’d ever eaten. Every dish was amazing, but my personal favourite was the Bitter Sweet salad. As Yotam said, both bitter and sweet, like love itself. After 28 years with the same person, you’ve got to pull out all the stops in the name of romance just once in a while.
Originally published 23/02/2014