America, it seems, loves its Hallmark Holidays. We may not have given birth to them – after all, even Hallmark Cards, Inc. felt it necessary to issue an official denial of that notion (“we wish it were so easy that we could dream up products and people would flock to our stores to buy them…but we have to respond to what people want – not the other way around”) – but we have certainly adopted them as our own.
Mother’s Day is, of course, the classic example of the Hallmark Holiday (I have already described our family’s approach to that affair: http://sdfoodtravel.com/mother’s-day-chawan-mushi-and-sushi/). It has all of the, pardon the pun, “hallmarks” of the genre: the fact that it appears to exist primarily for commercial purposes, the identifiable business beneficiary, the indisputable virtue of that which is supposedly being celebrated, and the not-so-subtle use of guilt as the enforcing mechanism. But we have taken the Hallmark Holiday to some rather spectacular extremes: Secretary’s Day, Boss’ Day, Friendship Day and Christmas-in-July. Yes, really: Christmas in July (http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas_in_july/index.htm).
Then there is Valentine’s Day. While some consider it the ultimate Hallmark Holiday others find something more there. Perhaps it is because the holiday began its life as “St. Valentine’s Day” which was a fixture on the General Roman Calendar and remained so until the 1969 revision. Nonetheless, the Vatican’s imprimatur would appear to have given Valentine’s Day an air of authenticity missing from its fellow Hallmark Holidays. But who was Saint Valentine? And, for that matter, what does he have to do with the Holiday to which he left his name?
The answer to the first question is another question: which one? There appear to have been three (and possibly as many as seven) Saint Valentines: Valentine of Rome (martyred c. AD 269), Valentine of Termi (martyred c. AD 197) and a third Saint Valentine who was martyred somewhere in Africa. Relatively little is known of any of them and – to answer to the second question – it is far from clear that any of them had much to do with the notions of romance and love for which their name is celebrated in the modern world.
One story – for which there does not appear much, if any, evidence – casts Valentine as a priest who served during the third century in Rome when the Emperor, Claudius II, decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. As a result, Claudius outlawed marriage for young men. Supposedly, Valentine realized the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. It would be pretty, if true, and might even have preserved Valentine’s status on the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints. He might also have some awesome residuals from Hallmark TV ads.
Another, totally different, Valentine myth – for which there is no more evidence than the first but which is based on a work called Passio Marii et Marthae — casts Valentine as a Priest and scholar to whom a local jailer brought his blind daughter to be healed. The Priest’s spiritual ministrations supposedly caught the attentions of the Roman administrators resulting in his imprisonment and a resulting death sentence. With his demise imminent, this Valentine supposedly wrote his Julia a last note, which he signed “From Your Valentine” and within which he supposedly enclosed a brilliant yellow crocus flower. When her father brought this note back to his daughter after his prisoner’s death she opened it and, presented with the brilliant yellow of the crocus flower, saw for the first time.
While all of these Valentines were supposedly martyred on February 14, a more cynical view of Valentine’s Day has it making the General Roman Calendar to co-opt the pagan Lupercalia festival. Lucerpalia began as a festival in which the Roman Priests would gather in the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification), would cut the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets where they would gently slap women with the goat hide strips. Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because they thought it would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn from which the city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These pairings usually ended in marriage.
Rather than trying to get their stories on this straight – or somehow embrace them all – in 1969 the Church punted, removing Saint Valentine’s Day from its General Roman Calendar and exiling it, instead, to the Land of Hallmark Holidays; the place where Saints’ immortality goes to die.
Yet in a household where a football game can yield a themed meal and the Louisiana Primary demands an excellent Jambalaya surely Valentine’s Day – and, more importantly, the love of my life deserves a special meal. My Valentine, strange as it may sound, adores Steak Tartare. It is one of her favorite meals. While it might not, at first blush, seem like an obviously romantic dish, interpreted in seafood form and with an elegant poached quail egg and that ultimately sexy ingredient, uni, it certainly seemed a promising and tasty offering. It sure beat a Hallmark card.
Tuna Tartare with Poached Quail Egg, Uni and Tomato, Lemon and Soy Broth
Makes 4 Servings
For the Tuna Tartare:
- 1 ½ pounds sushi-grade ahi tuna, diced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained
For the Tomato, Lemon and Soy Broth:
- 2 tomatoes, finely chopped
- ½ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- ½ cup vegetable (or chicken or shrimp) stock
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
For the Garnishes:
- 5 quail eggs
- 16-20 “tongues” of sea urchin roe (uni)
- 8 fresh mint leaves
- Mint (or other herb) oil
- Prepare the Tuna Tartare. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice and Worcestershire sauce. Add the remaining ingredients and gently toss to combine.
- Make the Tomato, Lemon and Soy Broth. Combine the chopped tomato and ¼ cup of the lemon juice in a sauce pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the flame and simmer for five minutes. Add the other ¼ cup of lemon juice, the stock and soy sauce to the pan and simmer for three minutes.
- Poach the Quail Eggs. Set your Sous Vide water bath to 63° Celsius (about 145.5° Fahrenheit). When the water bath comes to temperature gently place the eggs in the water bath using a ladle or slotted spoon. Cook the eggs until the whites are mostly set but the yolk is still runny, about 20 to 30 minutes. The best way to tell is to crack one open and check. I have called for one more quail egg than you will need for the presentation to allow for this. Note: you can, of course, poach your quail eggs by conventional means (in a pan of boiling water), but it is more difficult to get the perfect texture that way. To do this fill a medium-sized frying pan with water to a depth of approximately 1 ½ inches, then heat it to a temperature just sufficient to keep the water at the slightest simmer. Break the eggs into the simmering water and let them cook, uncovered, for two minutes. When finished, lift the eggs from the water and transfer them to a bowl of cold water.
- Plate the Dish. Spoon the Tuna Tartare into a ring mold on the plate. Using a wine glass, spoon or spatula compress the tartare just enough to make sure it stays in place. Carefully place a quail egg on top of each tartare and top each quail egg with four tongues of uni in a radial (or other attractive pattern). Top each mound with two leaves of mint. Spoon the sauce around the plate and drizzle with the herb oil.