If you’re thinking of making dinner for that special someone for Valentine’s Day this year instead of eating out, you’ll want to be sure the meal is restaurant quality. Because it’s a splurging occasion, I’ve included three special protein choices — duck, pork and beef — of varying price ranges. All three are simple to cook by searing over high heat as long as you watch them carefully (they’ll be ruined if overcooked), and all three have an extra sexy component: fat that is actually good for you.
At $12 to $14 per eight-ounce serving, duck is my choice for a moderately priced splurge this Valentine’s Day. Mostly dark meat, it can be cooked medium rare and has a texture and taste more similar to beef than chicken.
There are also health benefits: Duck fat, like olive oil, is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Studies have shown that Mediterranean-style diets high in these fats reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Duck fat also contains a high amount of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that fights cancer, prevents atherosclerosis, boosts calcium absorption, and aids kidney function.
You can find duck at Nijiya Market in Japantown, Marina Meats on Chestnut Street, and at better markets like Whole Foods and Bryan’s. As always, make sure you buy organic, humanely raised duck. I like buying from Whole Foods because of their 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards — they know everything about where their meat comes from and how it’s raised, and so should you.
How to cook: With a very sharp paring knife, score the fat on each breast in a crosshatch pattern, taking care not to cut into the meat. Season all sides with salt and pepper. Heat a cast-iron or other heavy pan over medium-high heat (a drop of water in the pan should madly sizzle). Reduce heat to medium, place duck breasts skin side down in pan and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (the skin should be golden brown and extremely crisp). Remove duck to a plate and pour off almost all the pan fat (save it for a side dish of sautéed potatoes). Return the breasts to the pan, meat side down, and cook 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove duck to a clean plate or cutting board and cover loosely with foil. Resting the meat for at least 5 minutes is very important so that the juices absorb back into the meat. Serve over duck fat-sautéed potatoes or saffron rice with peas and steamed haricot vert (petite, tender green beans)finished with olive oil and a pinch of coarse sea salt.
JAPANESE KOBE BEEF/AMERICAN WAGYU BEEF
Most people know Japanese A5 Wagyu as Kobe beef; but while all Kobe beef is Wagyu, not all Wagyu is Kobe. Like French wine, Japan produces beef by region, or prefecture. Kobe was known as Tajima in ancient times (connoisseurs still refer to the meat as Tajima beef) and the cattle are descendants of kuoge Waygu, or black-haired Japanese cattle. Even today, true A5 Kobe beef is a rarity, raised on less than 300 small farms that pasture fewer than 5 cows (the largest has between 10 and 15 at any given time). You can purchase Japanese A5 online at high-end butcher shops like Debragga (www.debragga.com), but the pricetag ($100 for a 12-ounce ribeye not including overnight shipping) takes it out of the mid-priced splurge range.
The other choice is American Wagyu — a cross between Wagyu and Angus. You can purchase sustainable, humanely raised Snake River Farms American Wagyu (found in many restaurants) at Nijiya Market and occasionally at upscale markets for around $25 per pound. (On the last Friday of each month, Nijiya has a 20 percent off meat sale.) You can also order online (www.snakeriverfarms.com), where two eight-ounce ribeyes will set you back $70 not including shipping. Again, this starts to creep out of our mid-priced splurge range).
The fat of Wagyu is more healthful than other beef. It’s still a caloric disaster, mind you, but Wagyu contains 30 percent more monounsaturated fatty acids than American Angus. It is also higher in Omega 3 fats (most commonly associated with wild salmon), known for heart-healthy benefits such as raising good and lowering bad cholesterols. It’s not fair to compare it to other steak because it’s more like beef foie gras — meltingly tender with a velvety texture and intense, rich flavor.
How to cook: Season all sides with salt and pepper. Heat a cast-iron or other heavy pan over medium- high heat (again, a drop of water in the pan should madly sizzle). Reduce heat to medium and place steaks in pan. The rule with beef is to cook it five minutes per inch, but the high marbling in Wagyu melts quickly and if cooked too long turns shoe-leather tough. To achieve medium-rare succulence, I suggest searing both sides until you get a nice, brown crust (a minute or so on each side) and then resting for a few minutes under foil. Serve with my Best Mashed Potatoes Ever (find the recipe at www.marinatimes.com) and spinach or baby kale sautéed in garlic and olive oil.
SECRETO IBÉRICO DE BELLOTA PORK STEAK
My big splurge is also the hardest to come by: You won’t find it in the United States, so you have to order it from Spain (www.tienda.com). The cost isn’t prohibitive ($40 for two half-pound steaks), but the second-day air shipping can be as much or more than the steaks. Still, if you’ve ever had this cut at Coqueta on the Embarcadero, you will likely agree that it’s worth it for a very special occasion.
The secreto (“butcher’s secret”) is a small, thin cut that is hard to locate on the pigs, thus the name. Ibérico de Bellota pork is renowned for its beautiful marbling, especially the secreto. Indigenous black Ibérico pigs wander freely through the dehesa forests of southwest Spain munching on herbs, grasses and most important, acorns, which create its distinctive flavor (a cross between bacon and beef steak). This acorn-and-herb-flavored pork is high in monounsaturated fats so it’s more healthful than the fat from normal pork. Because of the humane way they’re raised and their special diet, Ibérico can also be eaten rare to medium rare, just like good beef.
How to cook: Secreto Ibérico is a thin cut (similar to skirt steak) that is highly marbled so it should be dealt with the same as Wagyu beef — sear quickly on both sides in a very hot pan to form a nice, brown crust, then rest for a few minutes under foil. Serve with saffron rice with peas and a simple salad of arugula with homemade lemon vinaigrette.