Each year, as Valentine’s Day approaches,
I am reminded of a most memorable dinner.
The sizzling of a succulent sauté arrests my senses as I walk into the small apartment. The synergy of fat, heat, spices, and an iron skillet come together in one popping, heady, aromatic burst. I am not allowed to linger long enough to discern these dreamy scents, nor to sneak into the kitchen to catch a peek of what might be in that pan. Pungent and earthy, the aroma wafts through the room and envelopes me.
“Come on in,” my host tells me with a broad smile as he gently takes off my worn parka and bright scarf. “Have a seat.” What had been a drafty, drab living room during my previous visits has morphed into a warm and cozy nest. White linen has been draped over the thrift shop table, which is adorned with a bottle of Merlot and a clear, hour-glass shaped vase bursting with scarlet roses. Latin and Reggae music play softly in the background. I am seated by my host, who then pours us each a full glass of wine. We toast to the occasion. He winks at me and disappears into the kitchen, assuring me he’ll be right back.
A puffy, hand-embroidered cushion has been placed on my little wooden chair, still rickety, but tonight made very comfortable. As I sip my wine, and take some deep breaths, I become aware of a warm light that is bouncing around and off the surrounding walls. A squat, round beeswax candle also adorns the table, its gold color complimenting the red and white of its table companions. These same walls normally have a cooling effect on me. Their gray color is not one that resonates with my need for warm, autumn hues. But tonight, even the walls have been transformed.
I hear a shuffle, and turn to see my host approaching with two plates. When I see what is on them, I wish I had my camera. On each plate rests a plump, succulent piece of seared salmon that has been topped with a roasted red pepper cream sauce. Accompanying that is a neat pile of baby red potatoes, roasted and shiny with an olive oil glaze, skin on, and drizzled with that same fragrant sauce. The third item on this colorful plate is a small mound of sautéed red cabbage. Perky and offering up a tangy bouquet, it looks happy nestled between its dinner companions. All this nutritious, delicious goodness is encircled by a splash of chipotle pepper, which has been gingerly sprinkled around the rim of each plate.
As I take my first bite, I am immediately transported to heaven. I taste the sauce first. Rich and nutty, it hints of garlic, sherry, almonds, paprika, and roasted hazelnuts. Next, the salmon, doused with that creamy sauce. Tender and pink, it melts in my mouth. A baby potato follows. As the skin breaks, I hear a slight pop and the fluffy potato bursts forth, filling my mouth with starchy goodness. I turn next to my cruciferous vegetable. The cabbage is perfectly seared and has turned a luscious purple color. Crispy and light, the crunch of the cabbage is a perfect mate for the tenderness of the potatoes and salmon. The rest of dinner becomes a blur of soft laughter, soft light, soft textures. I combine all the elements of my meal in as many ways as I can: cabbage and potatoes, salmon and cabbage, potatoes and salmon, and sometimes all three in the same bite. Always swished in that succulent sauce, and complimented by a long, slow drink of that robust, full-bodied red wine.
Just when I think it can’t get any better, my host winks at me again. He seems pleased that our plates are empty. Standing up, he whisks them away, and again promises he’ll be right back. As I literally and figuratively try to digest it all, my chef returns. What greets me next takes my breath away. Piled artistically onto a silver, heart-shaped platter are mini red velvet cakes, also heart-shaped, and glazed with circular swirls of white, pink, and red frosting. These are paired with tiny crystal shot glasses filled with Frangelico and cream. As beautiful as the cakes and glasses are, it’s the centerpiece of this arrangement that grabs my attention. Sitting on top of the highest cake, right in the middle of the platter, is a pendant with a tiny diamond in the center. The candlelight causes it to refract its colors and reflect the light back into the room. Tears streaming down my cheeks, we embrace. His freshly-trimmed beard feels soft against my cheek. As our lips touch, I notice a distinct sparkle in his eyes. This thrifty boyfriend of mine has just treated me to a five-star dinner at a five-star restaurant. That evening, cupid’s arrow hit its mark.