The way to anyone’s heart on Valentine’s Day is through their stomach. That means seafood in our neck of the woods.
The recreational season for rockfish is closed, but the commercial season is in full swing. Caught in the cold winter waters of the Chesapeake, these stripers will be extra fresh and tasty. Purchase one generous fillet for each guest. The flesh should be firm, never slimy, and have a pleasing smell with a slight sweet edge.
My favorite appetizers are oysters, well chilled and on the half-shell. A dozen oysters will do for two people.
Rinse the oysters well and scrub them with a stiff brush; otherwise some of the grit may get transferred onto the meat. Opening an oyster is easier than it looks, and you don’t need specialized equipment. I often use just a flathead screwdriver and a stout glove for my left hand as I am a righty. With a gloved hand, hold the oyster firmly against a wooden or similar non-slip surface with the domed side down and insert the screwdriver or oyster-shucking knife. Dig it into the hinge and give it a good firm twist until the muscles that hold it closed are separated.
Next insert a slim, sharp blade or the oyster knife between the two shells. First, angle the blade up against the flatter side of the oyster to cut through the muscle holding the meat to that part of the shell. Then remove the top shell and do the same to the lower half. Be careful not to spill any of the oyster liquor. Carefully place the half-shell on a plate covered in crushed ice.
Inspect the oyster for bits of shell or debris and carefully pick out any you find. Never rinse an opened oyster, as this washes away the flavor. Put a half-dozen on a plate and cover with plastic wrap if you’re not serving them immediately. Lemon and Tabasco are my favorite condiments, though many like a simple horseradish or cocktail sauce.
Rockfish can be quickly and reliably rendered with a type of pan broil. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Slather the fish in olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and ground pepper. Place the fillets in a hot, heavy skillet — cast iron is ideal — and quickly brown on one side. Then turn, adding more oil if necessary. After about a minute transfer the pan to the oven for about 15 minutes. The fillets are done when they flake firmly.
Just before serving, anoint the fillets with melted lemon butter; then dust with paprika and chopped fresh dill. Large steamed carrots served in four to five inch sections are especially good this time of year. Cooking them in large pieces preserves just an extra bit of the sweet, earthy flavor.
Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes diced, steamed until they’ve just become tender (about 10 minutes) and sprinkled with parsley are also an excellent side dish, as is steamed, fresh spinach, drained well and anointed with a bit of mustard vinaigrette.
For desert, try my quick Cherries Jubilee recipe that has pleased friends and family over the years. Place shallow bowls with generous ice cream servings in the freezer before dinner to make things quicker. After everyone has eaten and the plates have been cleared, open a can of cherry pie filling. You may want to conceal the can to maintain a bit of mystery.
In a shallow saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter; add most of the pie filling. Gently stir until combined, then add in the contents of a mini bottle of cognac or brandy (one and a half ounces) and mix again. Serve the bowls of ice cream, then pour more of the liquor over the cherries and carefully light on fire. Pause for effect before ladling out the still burning mixture over each ice cream. Bon appetite!