Food Be the Food of Love, Actually

A big dang plate of mashed potatoes that took way, way longer than youd expect, but worth every minute.
A big dang plate of mashed potatoes that took way, way longer than you’d expect, but worth every minute.

The last time I showed up around these parts to talk about food, because I have a gift for staking out popular positions that will be shared by absolutely everyone in time, I chose to talk about how cooking during lockdown taught me the value of not wasting anything in your kitchen. I stand by that, to be clear, especially as every grocery store chain openly gouges us, gives us some sorry excuse we believe because we don’t have much of a choice, and then brags about their record profits on their shareholder calls.

Sorry, what was I talking about? Ah, yes. Food. For most of us, I would imagine, our relationship with food is among our most fraught. There’s already the nonstop bombardment of contradictory messages from restaurants, advocacy groups, sports teams, celebrities, family members, friends—here’s this big plate of extremely caloric food you should want, but if you eat it and gain weight, that’s on you—but even if we downscale it to the utterly personal, food hooks into our memories like few other things in our lives. You may not remember what you wore to your last Thanksgiving dinner, or who was playing the Cowboys on the TV, but you probably remember what you ate.

That ability to run rampant around our limbic systems is what makes food, especially homemade food, such an excellent vector for affection, as every culture has discovered at some point throughout its long history. (Seriously. My people also show love with food. We all do. It’s possibly the most human response of all time.) Since this is coming up on Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d share some thoughts on why cooking is such a wonderful gesture for the people we love.

I’m keeping these tips general; they’re less about specific recipes or foods and more about process and thought, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re the next Sohla El-Waylly—although that would probably be pretty helpful.


Cooking in Four Dimensions

You see those mashed potatoes up there? You know how long they took? An hour. I’m not including peeling and chopping. I mean they literally took an hour to get fork tender, because I was simmering them, rather than boiling them—every time it started to bubble, I’d run over and turn the heat down. Why would I do something like that? Because that tender, slow heat, as I learned from this Adam Ragusea video, results in such egregiously smooth mashed potatoes that you’ll wonder if they still qualify as solid. Simmer some garlic cloves in there, add a little seasoning, throw in some fresh herbs while the potatoes are still hot, and you’ve got yourself an incredible steakhouse side.


Seared scallops in a scallion brown butter, roasted broccoli, herb risotto.


The point: A good meal takes time to plan and prepare. It may not take time to cook, exactly—searing, flash-cooking and blanching are all storied methods, after all—but that’s only part of the process, and in the meantime, you need to make sure everything else is the right temperature and ready to go. If your scallops are perfectly seared, but everything else got cold in the meantime, you’re not going to enjoy your meal much.

And speaking of scallops . . .


Selection Is the Better Part of Valor

Did you know that there’s no legal requirement to label scallops as containing sodium tripolyphosphate (STP)? That’s a chemical used to bathe many commercial scallops, including most of the ones you can get in the supermarket—which is a problem if you want to sear them, like that picture above, because STP causes scallops to retain their moisture so fantastically well that they’ll simply exude all of it as you cook them into tiny, vaguely lobster-flavored rubber pucks.

You have to look for “dry-packed” scallops (like Palmer’s, to stay local, advertises) to avoid this problem, and plenty of companies will happily tell you that their scallops have never been treated with chemicals, so that you feel better paying the premium. I think I made clear already that I don’t like being sticker-shocked for a basic human need like food, but when you’re trying to make a really nice meal as a gesture, go for the dry scallops. You’ll thank yourself later.


Birria tacos: chuck roast and oxtails roasted to full tenderness in a chili and tomato paste, shoved in a corn tortilla with some Oaxaca cheese, cooked in the drippings, and served with jalapeño slices, cilantro, avocado and scallions.

This applies to way more than just seafood, though. Whether it’s that, or meat, or cheese, or vegetables, it’s worth taking the extra time to research what you want to make. It’s not like you have to spend up for everything, either. Usually, one (or two) secret weapons are all you really need. No, I’m not telling you any of mine. Not for free, anyway.

The point: Good food begins with the right ingredients. There is a place for everything, and far be it from me to tell you not to go for comfort food, but we’re talking about showing off here. Be penny- and pound-wise: find the one or two things that have outsized oomph in the dish you want to make, and don’t be afraid to spend up for a little bit of them.


Treat Yourself

What if you’re by yourself this Valentine’s Day?

Well, then it’s time to ask yourself: what would you really like to have? Note the phrasing of the question there. It wasn’t “what would it be worth to make?” or “what do you have time to make?” Start from what you actually want, or you’ll negotiate yourself down to the stereotypical sad meal we’ve all had on a holiday we spent in less company than we would like.


Chicharrones (crisped skin from a pork roast), black olives, roasted corn, scallions, queso fresco, shortly before getting mixed into a warm salad.

(If I’m being honest, I ate that salad while sitting with the rest of my household, but I was also the only person remotely interested in that mix of ingredients, so I feel like it counts. Oh, and it was delicious.)

It’s understandable that you don’t want to go all out, and perhaps you’re too busy on the actual day of February 14th, but that’s no reason to deprive yourself of looking forward to something a little nicer later on in the week. Pick something out that you want and haven’t gotten to have in a while, either because you were waiting to make it for someone else, or you thought it would take too long, or you haven’t made that recipe in a while and you’re worried you’re out of practice, and then gird on your tongs, put on your oven mitts, and remind yourself that you, too, deserve to have something nice.

The point: You’re worth a good meal. Just because you’re eating for one doesn’t mean you have to eat something meh.

I hope I’ve been able to give you one of two things: either an awful desire to go home and impress those close to you with a meal so good they won’t know what hit them, or at least a little less fear of the usual demons that afflict us all in the kitchen.

Good luck. Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and I hope you get to enjoy it with those you love and who love you, ideally over a plate of something really wonderful.

Leave a Comment

Comments (0)

All The Shield Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *