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Get your flatmate to cook on Valentine’s Day

For Valentine’s Day last year, I lay on the floor of my room and ate self-bought, discount chocolate. I intend to do the same this year. It is the only time to do so, no questions asked – and those chocolate hearts are divine. But, if you really prefer to spend your Valentine’s with someone special, food should be your love language. With restaurants fully booked you may be tempted to try your hand at cooking themselves – I asked my resident culinary expert, flatmate Jack, what he would prepare for a first date.

Unsurprisingly, he had an answer; pan fried, oven-finished duck, with a red wine reduction, celeriac mousse, fondant potatoes and green beans. With the menu, wine and date all set, he got to work preparing what will probably be the closest I’ll get to a romantic meal this Valentine’s.

I walked into the kitchen and was immediately confronted with my first obstacle to this article. Identifying cuts of meat is not my forte – I am often reminded of the time I was sent to buy bacon and instead purchased pork belly. In my defence, we were in a foreign country (whose language I don’t speak), it looked like a thick cut of bacon, and Jack made it work regardless. After throwing around guesses of wing and breast I hit the jackpot with leg. 

We were eating duck leg. 

These ones were seasoned with salt and black pepper.

Next came the intensive veg prep. The potatoes were shaped into rough cylinders. I was informed that more effort could have been put into the shaping, and even a circular cutter used but the chef was indifferent for this meal. My potatoes were instead an array of irregular polygons, and I was really feeling the love this holiday is all about.

The celeriac (which is the root of celery) was similarly carved to remove the skin and ‘chunked’. It was then blanched to soften, but not fully cooked, ready for its transformation to a mousse. Jack did not manage to procure shallots so onions were substituted and diced. The dicing need not be perfect as they do not constitute part of the final dish, only provide flavouring for the red wine sauce. In moments like this, I am grateful that Jack is a skilled chef. Whether it’s because of the onions or…something else…, I will not be crying on Valentine’s Day.

Butter and double cream were used to finish cooking the celeriac. In a separate pan, the onions and roughly diced garlic were fried off to release flavours, before thyme, rosemary, star anise and bay leaves were added. The wine (Hardy’s, Shiraz, 2022) also went in and was reduced before the chicken stock was added. Jack made a point to clarify that beef stock would be better, but he only had one cube left and wanted to use it for a lasagne. Way to make a girl feel special. All of the stock cubes in his cooking are gelatinous rather than powder; he insists they produce better flavour. At least it had that going for it.

In a third pan, oil was heated to a high temperature, before the duck was patted dry and placed skin side down to sear. Three high heat pans really steamed up the room – not the sort of steamy valentine you might usually picture, but as close as this kitchen was or ever is likely to get. Once seared, the duck was placed on a tray with butter, rosemary and thyme to be infused with flavour.

At this point the celeriac was ready to be removed from the heat and placed in a large bowl for vigorous blending. If there are any lumps, add some cold water to smooth them out. The potatoes were added to a pan to colour the ends of the cylinders, before being basted in stock and infused with that flavour.

The red wine sauce, once reduced, was strained – first through a colander, then in a cafetière. For all the expensive knives, and fancy ingredients, Jack does not own a strainer. He then thickened the sauce with the addition of both stock and butter. The final component of the meal, green beans, were coated in a beurre fondue of butter and water.

When the finished product arrived in front of me it was a sight to behold. Beautifully plated, with splashes of colour from the wine reduction and the paprika, added last minute to the celeriac, I was happy I didn’t have to wait to tuck in. It did not disappoint. The flavours were intense, easily distinguished, but I have to give particular credit to the red wine reduction. It was rich and nicely complemented by the savoury fondant potatoes. The potatoes themselves were a bit underdone, the duck a bit tough (apparently a breast might have proven softer), but it tasted incredible. I would happily take this over any college formal, or restaurant meal. It was certainly cheaper.

A word of warning to anyone considering preparing this dish yourself:

It took over an hour and a half. The clean up was a Herculean task – even between two of us. Though I do think if you want to show your love for someone special in your life, the time and effort you devote to them says more than words ever could. It’s certainly nice to know I have friends willing to painstakingly prepare duck and red wine reductions upon request.

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