The first thing I ever cooked for the man who was to become my husband was frites. I thought it unexpected, and quirkily romantic. As my father might say, “Any girl can make a bowl of fettuccine the first time she cooks for a guy. It takes a special one to serve him homemade French fries!”
With a loving nod to my dear papa, these weren’t French fries; those come with ketchup. These were frites: crisp and salty, twice-fried in peanut oil, and presented in the true Belgian spirit in a couple of small galvanized-tin buckets I’d lined with parchment in a makeshift spin on paper cones.
Feeling very ooh la la, I served up my frites with a swoon-worthy dipping sauce. Romance was in the air, and remoulade was on the table.
In fairness, my offering was only part seduction technique. I’d recently left a career in the music business, and had decided that my next venture would be a tiny frites bar (think “coffee bar,” not “saloon”). I’d begun developing a business plan, researched commercial fryers, surveyed locations, and finessed the remoulade. But I eventually abandoned the idea. Among other reasons, I had by that time fallen in love with Jon, and thought he deserved better than a greasy girl at the end of the day.
But the remoulade had legs. Another dinner early in our romance found us sitting at the counter in my kitchen with a platter of steamed artichokes. At their side was a ramekin of melted butter, and another with the dreamy remoulade. If there is anything sexier than dipping artichoke petals in something lush with the man you love, I’ve yet to find it. And remoulade? Just saying the word makes you want to dim the lights.
According to Larousse Gastronomique, a classic remoulade involves mayonnaise, mustard, capers, cornichons, herbs, and anchovies. I love anchovies (bring on the bagna cauda!), and add pickles to my tartar sauce with abandon, but I like my remoulade more refined — almost more a piquant tarragon mayonnaise than a true remoulade.
Although a remoulade sauce is ridiculously simple to prepare, with ingredients always on hand (who’d think a jar of Hellmann’s and a bottle of vinegar could be so transporting?), it nonetheless has “special” written all over it. We would no sooner slather it on a roast-chicken sandwich on a given Tuesday than we would toss buttery toasted hazelnuts with rosemary at any time other than in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, we could. We so easily could! But we don’t.
Valentine’s Day is about as special as it gets in our house. Along with its sweet conventions, the day brings both my birthday and the anniversary of Jon’s marriage proposal, a dozen years ago this year. But even with our triple celebration, the saccharine pandemic that sweeps through the day makes it the last we’d choose for a special dinner at a favorite restaurant. So home we are. Me, my beloved, and the makings of the remoulade.
The luxurious sauce and its sweet reminders of our beginning have made remoulade the natural departure point for our Valentine’s Day menus. What accompanies it changes every year, but the remoulade is constant. We’ve paired it with roasted shrimp and crab cakes, seared salmon and baby lobster tails; we’ve used it as a dunk for chilled asparagus, dolloped it on cold fillet of beef, and more.
It has been a Valentine’s Day staple every year of our marriage except two. The first was the year Jon had our local pizza guy fashion a heart-shaped pie for me. He arrived home with a big, square white box on which he’d designed a “Sweet Angel Pizza” logo, and an incomparable surprise under the lid. Who needs diamonds? I melted. The second was the Valentine’s Day that found me in the maternity ward, three days after giving birth to the child we’d yearned for. Liberated from IV fluids, I was presented with a tray: hospital fish cakes, canned beets, and instant mashed potatoes. It was shockingly delicious. The remoulade would have been lovely, we laughed.
We are a trio now on Valentine’s Day, our 7-year-old son the point at the bottom of the heart we two have made. Our menu for this year is planned. There will be no baby lobster tails — not in this economy. And no fillet of beef. We’ll be having fish and chips. The fish will be Alaskan cod, with a salt-and-vinegar potato-chip crust, and the chips will be frites (oven-fried these days). There will be Valentines and a soundtrack of Fred Astaire CDs. And there will be the remoulade.
We will tell our young son the story of the frites, and why they and the dipping sauce that isn’t ketchup are so special to us. Timothy, a child inhabited by a spirit of romance and a passion for good food, will delight in it all. I can just hear him saying the remoulade leaves him with “restaurant lips.” And what could be more romantic than that?
Laraine Perri’s essays have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, and the New York Times. She lives in New York City, where she writes about food and other matters of the heart.
Related recipe: Remoulade
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