What makes Champagne so romantic? It may simply be that the form of intoxication associated with bubbles is uniquely titillating. Giddiness rather than wooziness. Champagne, the region, is at the 49th parallel, the same latitude as Vancouver’s, the northernmost extent of wine production. It may be that there is some sympathy between the grapes and us, owing to their endurance of the chilly and damp climate of northeast France and our own resolve to face down the February gloom with at least one evening of candle-lighted intimacy.
You could easily choose a Mediterranean wine for Valentine’s Day and fantasize an escape to the Riviera. But I for one prefer fireplace coziness while the wind blusters (and it just so happens that I have a half a case of bubbly left over from New Year’s Eve). We all know that going out on Valentine's Day is a prix fixe nightmare, so here's a delicious, fun, romantic, easy weeknight Valentine’s meal that you can make at home—with champagne as a main ingredient.
CHAMPAGNE VS. OTHER SPARKLING WINES
Cava and Prosecco are great replacements for Champagne as a festive aperitif, but they are not interchangeable with Champagne, especially in cooking, even though some Cavas and Proseccos are made in a way that intentionally duplicates Champagne. By contrast with the Spanish and Italian options, a great many of our domestic sparklers are made in the Champagne style and with the same varietals. As many of you know from experience (regret), the least expensive of these wines can tend toward the very sweet (and hangover-inducing), so that’s the thing to watch out for—make sure you get something that is dry and expresses the vinicultural and oenological values desired. I like Gruet from Albequerque, even though this completely sinks my Champagne-is-romantically-gloomy narrative. This wine is very authentic in its expression of Champagne wine making. It is produced by a Champenoise family with many generations of experience, and the New Mexico climate—cool but arid and thus discouraging rot—in some ways allows Gruet to reflect the Champagne character in an almost Platonic form. Drink enough of it and perhaps you could mistake the Rio Grande for the Marne.
You go to my head
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning 'round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne
The Gruet Brut NV is in my opinion (among others) a go-to wine both for drinking and cooking. The bottle costs $15, and it has exactly the characteristics you want. It's dry without being chalky, fruity but not sour, and sufficiently yeasty to serve for breakfast as suitably as a brioche.
There's an enormous amount to know about Champagne and its impersonators, but the one thing I want to radically oversimplify for you here is the style classification you’re most likely to see on the label: Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, or Sec/Demi-Sec. Champagne is traditionally (by European law, in fact) made from some combination of Pinot noir, Pinot meunier, and Chardonnay. “Brut” means generally that the wine is dry and that the Pinot noir and Chardonnay are present in almost equal amounts, with the Pinot meunier playing a supporting role. “Blanc de Blancs” means the wine is entirely or almost entirely Chardonnay. And “Blanc de Noirs” means the wine is entirely or almost entirely Pinot noir. “Sec” or “Demi-Sec” means the wine is sweet—fine for dessert or in cocktails. (FYI, Demi-Sec is sweeter than Sec, even though sec is French for dry. The word dry appears on many cheap wine labels meaning, oddly, oh so very sweet.) For cooking, I recommend using a Brut, which best encapsulates what the imagination might file under the category “Champagne.”
You may want to use the Gruet Brut NV for cooking, but choose a more special Champagne to drink. The big producers like Moët and Veuve may delight your palate and carry fond associations. However, a certain kind of snob (me) might point out that these productions aim for highly standardized products and maximum margins, so they are not necessarily great values. For less corporate consolidation and more idiosyncratic character, you can look for an unfamiliar label with the letters RM printed very finely on it, standing for récoltant-manipulant, meaning the wine is estate bottled—and then ask your wine merchant for specific pairing advice.
LOVE ALONE CAN'T MAKE TUESDAY INTO SATURDAY
A Valentine’s Day supper faces many constraints and challenges, particularly if it is to be a surprise. This year, we are looking at a Tuesday night, so preparation time should be kept low, and the amount of time left for, ahem, other pursuits should be maximized. The meal should be flavorful and satisfying but must not cause sleepiness, indigestion, gas, bloat or bad breath. It should be sensual, even carnal, but not carnivorous—you don’t want lamb sinew stuck between your teeth. Finally, you want to dirty the minimum amount of kitchenware so you don’t waste precious sexytimes cleaning the dishes.
Champagne pairs with a wonderfully wide range of ingredients. It's discreet but also effectively scrubs the palate and tames stronger flavors. It's terrific with smoky, unctuous, creamy and spicy food. It cuts through the oil of fried food, though you probably don’t want to do a lot of frying in Valentine’s Day.
I think a living-room “picnic” dinner for two at the coffee table, seated on pillows amid the glow of votives is suitably charming if corny. Play it up with an enormous bunch of pink carnations. The perfect menu should have a few small dishes that can be eaten with little silverware or risk of mess.
POP CORK, POP CORN
While you cook, have your sweetheart put on some music. Maybe you have a few prepared playlists ready to choose from? That was so thoughtful of you.
Pour a flute of Champagne for your companion to sip while snacking on a bowl of buttered popcorn with Parmesan grated over it. Popcorn made the traditional way on the stovetop (instructions will be found on the container) gives your home a very appetizing smell. I also read somewhere that microwave popcorn contains hideous chemicals, and even if that’s not true, it still produces an atrocious odor and a lot of unnecessary garbage. Making classic popcorn in the pan involves hot oil and steam—this is the mood we want.
A SILKY SAUCE FOR A SUGGESTIVE SHELLFISH
Oysters are justifiably associated with romantic meals. Eating a few can be filling without overstuffing. Eating them raw can cause certain scandalous sounds. They are bivalves, and this fact is somehow somewhat pornographic—go with it, just for tonight. A traditional condiment for raw oysters is mignonette, which consists of minced shallot (not enough to endanger your breath), coarsely ground white pepper, and Champagne vinegar or Champagne dosed with white wine vinegar or reduced Champagne (i.e., a cup simmered over medium heat until reduced by half.)
For a more sensual, less bitter, and showier alternative to mignonette, you could make a very simple Champagne sabayon. A sabayon is a simple custard. To dress up to a dozen oysters, use two egg yolks and two ounces of Champagne. Combine everything in a glass bowl with a hefty pinch of sea salt, and arrange this in a double boiler. Keep the water at a simmer, and stir the mixture determinedly for 15 minutes. You want it to get foamy and hot. Mmhmm, I went there. Serve this over raw oysters with a little caviar. (Whatever you can afford—I like flying fish.) Omitting the caviar, you could use this sabayon over raw, grilled, or roasted oysters topped with crispy lardons and tarragon leaves. (Vegetarian? Replace the oysters with roasted shiitake mushrooms.)
If you decide to make the Champagne sabayon, consider doubling the batch and reserving the egg whites. Once it's cooked, remove half the finished sabayon for the oysters. Sweeten the remaining half with 1/4 cup of sugar or honey, and continue cooking over a simmer until everything is dissolved together. Remove that from the heat and set aside. Whip the egg whites with another 1/4 cup of sugar to soft peaks (or make a Swiss meringue or whip two cups of heavy cream with two tablespoons of sugar). Combine the sweet sabayon with the egg whites or whipped cream, and you have a mousse! You can perfect this dessert by garnishing with some dark chocolate shavings.
BREAKFAST SERVED 24 HOURS
If oysters aren’t your “thing” (and I don’t want to hear your reasons because the word texture is a language peeve of mine), then how about serving “breakfast before bed?” The very height of romance! Champagne is a delicious companion to omelets, and you can make a fairly easy herbed Champagne cream sauce to pour over them. The sauce is a basic béchamel (remember how we do that?) that you flavor with an essence made by adding four tablespoons of chopped tarragon to a cup of Champagne and then reducing that mixture by 3/4 over medium heat. (Strain the cooked herbs from the liquid before adding it to the béchamel, then add an extra pinch of minced fresh herbs for color.) You can fill your omelets with something like asparagus, any shellfish (langoustine seems appropriately fancy), or duxelles (minced mushroom and shallot softened in butter).
Have we discussed omelets before? Everybody has a method, and I don’t want to discourage you from using your signature technique. If you want some advice, though, here’s how I do it:
• Pre-cook all fillings. An omelet takes a minute to cook, but asparagus needs five minutes. You can’t cook anything once it’s inside an omelet.
• Beat two eggs in a mixing bowl with a whisk. (For Valentine’s Day, you can simplify your work by making a four-egg omelet and sharing it—how cute is that?!) I don’t use any milk or cream.
• On a high flame, heat a small, lightweight frying pan and add a big spoonful of butter. Melt, foam, subside . . . you know the drill.
• Pour the eggs into the pan and lower the burner to medium. Let the eggs stand for 20 seconds or so while they begin to set up. Add salt and pepper.
• If you know how to flip an omelet, now is the time. Use two hands and be confident! If you don’t want to flip it, use a spatula to let the uncooked egg run around and underneath the already-cooked part. The main thing is to keep it moving, so that the results is delicate and yellow, not browned and chewy.
• Before it becomes overcooked—even while you’re still not sure the omelet is finished—remove it from the heat. Fill it along the center line, then fold the omelet over the filling. Put a lid on the pan, and let it rest for a minute or two to finish cooking the egg (and warming the filling) with just the heat from the pan.
Sticking with my too-clever “breakfast before bed” menu, how about doing French toast for dessert? It certainly works deliciously with Champagne, and you may already know how to make it: simply slice a baguette thick and on the bias; soak in a mixture of four eggs, a cup of cream, and two tablespoons sugar for about a minute, and then fry in a hot buttered pan. For a Champagne sauce, you could make a Crème Anglaise, which is relatively easy considering the delicious result, though you need an electric mixer. I use a simple, flawless Julia Child recipe:
• Put 1-3/4 cup of whole milk in a glass measurer or bowl into the microwave. It will need to come to a boil, which generally takes around four minutes on full power.
• Put four egg yolks in the mixing bowl with 1/2 cup of sugar. Beat it on high speed until it is very thick—almost like warm taffy—and nearly white.
• Reduce the speed to low, and add the boiling milk very, very slowly. If the eggs get cooked too fast they will not form a nice sauce.
• Transfer the mixing bowl to a sauce pan and heat it over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. You can definitely do this while skilletting the French toast simultaneously. The sauce will get a bit thicker but not very thick—expect the consistency of cream. It’s cooked when it coats the spoon.
• Remove the sauce from the heat and give it a good beating with a wire whisk for two minutes while it cools. As you do so, add one teaspoon of vanilla and—for Valentine’s Day—a tablespoon of Champagne. I also tested this over the weekend with an inch of fresh ginger grated finely and added to the sauce, then I placed a slice of caramelized pineapple on top.
FOR THOSE NOT YET SATISFIED
If you want a meatier course, you could make miniature chicken or tuna “satays.” Do this by marinating strips of meat with ground cumin in peanut oil—place them in the refrigerator before leaving for work in the morning. Cook them by grilling or sautéing, and spear them on toothpicks. Make a sauce by using about a dozen dried apricots finely chopped, add a shot of Goldschlager (or a tablespoon of ground cinnamon), and cover them in a saucepan with Champagne. Simmer for at least 10 minutes until the apricots are nice and soft.
I did have one more outlandish idea over last weekend, and you’re welcome to try it if your disdain for “modernist cooking” is, like mine, masking a real envy. I made a blood orange mimosa jelly (1/3 cup Champagne; 2/3 cup blood orange juice, boiled; one packet of Knox unflavored gelatin; follow instructions on the package) and cut it into nigiri-sized rectangles upon which I placed slices of smoked salmon, then garnished with crème fraiche. Aside from preparing the jelly, which you’ll have to do in advance, this is a great surprise-dinner recipe because it depends not on technique but on gourmet groceries, including citrus at the peak of its season. The flavors balance very nicely, boosting and highlighting the Champagne’s latent tartness. Eating it with your fingers also feels rather naughty.
An appropriate Valentine’s Day gift might be a new pair of sunglasses to help your lover look intriguing and rakish rather than merely hung-over on Wednesday morning!
Previously: Cooking With Rum, Cooking With Tequila and Cooking With Bourbon
Related: How to Cook The Ideal Fourth Date Meal
K. Emerson Beyer, environmentalist and gadabout, lives in Durham, N.C. and tweets as @patebrisee. Photos by the author and Martin Solem.