I know that Valentine’s Day has come and gone already this year, but I thought I might share a little story about the first (and last) time I went out to a swanky restaurant for a Valentine’s Day date night.
This was before I met Russell, so it must have been about 7 or 8 years ago now. It was one of the first times that I actually had a boyfriend on Valentine’s day so I tried to make a sort of big deal about it. I booked a table at some fancy place in Williamsburg, not really realizing that every other young couple in Brooklyn would be celebrating at the very same restaurant .
We arrived a bit early and were greeted at the front door by a harried hostess who looked like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. One look over her shoulder revealed the reason she was looking so frazzled. I’d been to this restaurant before, but on this night it appeared that they’d done some redecorating. All of the large tables for six or eight had been broken up into “romantic” tables for two, and all the couples at these tables were practically sitting in the laps of the couples next to them.
I couldn’t believe it was even possible to pack that many couples into one tiny dining room, and had no clue where they thought they were going to squeeze my fat ass into all this madness.
That was when the hostess said we could follow her “out back”.
I knew the restaurant had a back patio that they used in the summer, but to the best of my knowledge it was closed during New York’s chilly winter months, you know, like the month of February. We walked through the door and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The entire patio had been covered with a temporary fabric “ceiling” and filled with large propane patio heaters. The intimate space had been completely transformed into a mess hall, with rows and rows of “cute” little tables for two, all with about 4 centimeters of space between them. There had to have been at least 30 other couples sitting out there.
Of course, with the restaurant filled to capacity (or more likely over capacity), and with every table choosing a three course prix fix menu, the kitchen was completely swamped. Luckily the couple sitting next to us (our thighs were practically touching) was having a fascinating (and very loud) conversation, so there was no lack of atmosphere or entertainment for me and my date while we waited.
The food, when it came, was mediocre at best. This restaurant was usually very good, but in anticipation of the romantic stampede many of the evening’s dishes had been (at least partially) prepared and plated ahead. Even with the ready made meals, we still ended up waiting forever for our food and subsequently drank way too much to fill the time. I think we were hoping the hooch would help us forget what a crappy time we were having. It didn’t really occur to us how quickly all those cocktails and glasses of wine could add up, at least not until the bill came.
Then the headaches set in. I’m not sure if it was the propane heaters, or the crumby food, or the din of 30+ couples talking all at once in a small enclosed patio, or maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with all the drinks. (It was definitely all the drinks.)
Either way, we went home grumpy and broke, both of us with headaches, and neither of us feeling even remotely romantic.
When I started dating Russell I made it a point to make staying in on Valentine’s day a new romantic tradition. Every year we spend quality time at home alone with a fancy home-cooked meal and an even fancier home-cooked dessert. I usually make chocolate mousse. Russell LOVES chocolate mousse.
Most years I make a nice roast chicken or some kind of elegant wine braised something or other, but this year I wanted to do something different. We’ve been trying to be better about knowing where our meat comes from lately, and just eating a bit less meat in general, so I thought I’d make a romantical vegetarian pasta dinner with all sorts of good stuff swimming in it. When I noticed some beautiful butternut squash at the store I knew I had to use it. I don’t really think of butternut squash as a vegetable that goes with pasta, but I figured there was no time like the present to give it a shot.
To make sure the squash didn’t get too soft and turn to mush in the pan, I decided to chop it up and roast it in the oven so it would get tender inside but maintain it’s shape. I figured since the oven was on already I may as well roast my mushrooms too to save an extra step on the stovetop.
While the squash and mushrooms were getting all roasty and toasty, I set to work on some onions. Caramelizing onions, when done right, takes FOREVER. It just does. If you’re patient though, and avoid turning the heat up, they brown suuuper slowly and get so soft they’re practically creamy. I didn’t take them to french onion soup level caramelization, just a light golden brown that took about 45 minutes but offered a rich and subtly sweet punch of flavor. Building flavors is important in vegetarian cooking, so after the onions were ready I added some garlic and reduced some wine and stock down to almost nothing to concentrate their flavors too.
I thought broccoli rabe would be just the ticket to counter the sweetness of the onions and squash. If you’ve never had it, broccoli rabe has small florets similar to broccoli, but it’s mostly made up of thick leaves that wilt like chard when cooked. It has a deeply green bitter flavor that can sometimes even border on horseradish. It could not have been a better compliment to the sweeter elements in this dish. I tossed it all with al dente farfalle (bow ties – so much fun) and some fresh parsley and grated parmesan cheese.
All together this seems like a lot of steps to make some pasta, but it doesn’t take too too long if you time everything right and work efficiently. In the end all the extra work to build flavor really paid off and this was the perfect date night dinner, with plenty of leftovers.
Farfalle with Broccoli Rabe, Roasted Mushrooms & Butternut Squash
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
2 to 3 large onions, thinly sliced into strips (about 4 cups sliced)
1 small to medium butternut squash
2 pints cremini mushrooms
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup low sodium stock (chicken or vegetable), divided
3 to 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or crushed.
1 large bunch broccoli rabe
1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425. .
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add thinly sliced onions and season with salt and pepper. Once the onions begin to soften turn the heat down to medium low and let them caramelize slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 3o to 45 minutes. This takes a long while but you want the onions to brown very slowly to bring out their sugars and intensify their flavor.
Use this time to prepare the rest of your vegetables. Peel and seed the butternut squash, and cut into small (about 1/2″ to 1″) cubes. Slice the mushrooms. Cut the dry ends off of the broccoli rabe and discard. Roughly chop the broccoli rabe, and try to slice the thicker stems smaller than the leafy tops (this way they’ll all cook through at the same time).
Toss the cubed squash in 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer over a parchment lined baking sheet and roast until cooked through, and browned on the bottom side, about 30 minutes. For more even browning you could toss the squash halfway through, but I didn’t find this step necessary.
Toss sliced mushrooms in remaining tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange in a thin even layer over another parchment lined baking sheet and roast in the same oven as the squash. The mushrooms should only take about 20 to 25 minutes to cook through, so either put them in after the squash, or start checking on them first.
Once the onions are super soft and begin to take on a light golden color, add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the white wine, turn heat up to high, and reduce to almost dry. Add the stock and repeat, reducing by at least half or a little more.
Cook pasta to al dente according to package instructions. Just before draining, transfer about 1/3 cup of the starchy pasta water to the pan with the caramelized onions and reduced wine and stock. Drain pasta and set aside. Bring pasta water to a boil and add broccoli rabe. Cook for about 5 minutes or until deep green and wilted.
Transfer everything, including parsley and parmesan, to the pasta pot and toss toss toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately with a few shavings of extra parmesan cheese.