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  • Writer's pictureMegan Jarrett

A Virtual Valentine's Day

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

The fridge was stocked, the dishes washed, and I'd planned out each step of the recipes to make sure time wasn't wasted. I got my laptop connected to the MiFi that was on loan until I could setup my internet, joined the Teams meeting, and took a sip of my wine. Now, it was time for date night.


Valentine's Day looked a little bit different this year, with me finally arriving in Bristol (that's a whole different story) and Jordan back in Madison. We were lucky that it fell on a Sunday this year, because the weekends are the only days where it's very practical for us to do more than text. A six hour time difference is tricky. It's too much to have overlapping evening hours but not enough for one person's morning to overlap with the other person's evening. Your options are a bit limited. That leaves the weekends, where my evening overlaps with Jordan's early afternoon. So, we're working with what we have.

 

Before I left, we scheduled (yes, there was actually a calendar hold) our first virtual date, which happened to fall on Valentine's Day. Jordan had the idea to continue our Sunday Dinner routine, but with a twist. We'd play a menu roulette, where one person would pick a county and the other would plan the menu featuring that culture's cuisines. We'd take turns picking the country or the dishes.


For our first dinner, Jordan chose Turkey, which meant I was in charge of the menu. I wanted to choose something traditional and flavorful but also needed to make sure the ingredients were simple enough that I could order them online to be delivered to my flat in the UK the weekend I arrived. I wouldn't be able to actually go grocery shopping, because I have to quarantine for 10 days after arriving.


After a lot of researching and Pinterest browsing, I decided on two traditional Turkish dishes: saksuka and manti. Saksuka is made of fried eggplant and zucchini and sautéed vegetables in a garlic tomato sauce. It's traditionally served as a meze, the Turkish term for an appetizer, or can be served as a side. I figured we could snack on it while we made the main course and then have as a side with our meal. Manti is basically Turkish dumplings. The recipe we used was made with beef but you could use lamb or veal, too.


Since I was responsible for the menu planning, I was also responsible for directing us in the kitchen. To prepare, I made a Google doc combining all the steps for both recipes, timing out what we should start when so that we didn't waste too much time. It may not have been necessary, but it saved me from having to flip between browser tabs while also trying to cook — that was enough in itself.


For some context, up until about two hours before we started, I didn't have pans, mixing bowls, or even plates yet. My delivery got delayed and I spent my day mentally preparing to try to pull off this whole meal with just a grill pan and an old takeout container that I'd been using as a "mixing bowl" for two days. Needless to say, I wanted to at least have a solid plan of what we needed to do in the kitchen.

 

First we needed to get the eggplant diced and salted so it could begin dehydrating, which would help it crisp up a bit when we fried it later. Fun fact: eggplant is called aubergine in the UK, which is especially confusing when you're trying to shop online for groceries. Another fun fact: people used to salt eggplant to cut the vegetable's bitterness. Skillful breeding has eliminated the bitterness and rendered that unnecessary, but it is still a useful trick when you need to reduce the water content.


While the aubergine rested, we started on the dough for the dumplings. The recipe called for just a bit of water to mix with the flour and egg, but I used probably 8 or 10 times that, and my dough was still pretty tough. Maybe I messed up elsewhere, but it was a workout getting that dough kneaded. The dough needed to sit so then we moved onto our vegetable prep.


I took the approach of cleaning out the vegetable drawer for my saksuka. I had zucchini (known as courgette in the UK), red and orange bell peppers, red onion, fresh tomatoes, green beans, leeks, green onion, and potatoes that I threw into mine. We were working from a couple of recipes and they seemed to suggest you could use just about anything in the dish. Jordan used a similar mix of zucchini, bell peppers and red and green onion. I also had to mince fresh garlic by hand. I haven't been able to find pre-minced garlic here.



Between vegetable chops we were able to catch up on our weeks, each other's families, and embrace the silence of just doing something we enjoy — together.


I'll admit, I underestimated the amount of time it would take to chop all those veggies when I timed out the menu. Sure, we had plenty of time; we started at noon Jordan's time and six p.m. my time and I didn't have to work the next day. But, I would have eaten lunch if I'd realized how labor intensive these two dishes were.


Anyway. Once all the veggies were ready to go, we rinsed the salt off the eggplant (aubergine) and threw it and the zucchini (courgette) into some hot oil in a skillet to fry it up a bit. The goal was to get it a bit crispy on the outside so it would add a texture to the otherwise soft dish. I didn't quite achieve a crisp.

Once the eggplant and zucchini (aubergine and courgette) were done, we sautéed the rest of our medley of vegetables with some garlic. Then, we added in the tomatoes, some sugar, salt, and pepper and let it simmer. Jordan used fresh tomatoes and some tomato paste and I used canned tomatoes. There is not a right or wrong approach it seems, but I will say I wished I'd had more tomatoes. I had a second can but I quite literally just couldn't fit it in my pan.


After simmering to thicken up a bit, we tossed the zucchini and eggplant back in and gave it a few stirs and it was ready to eat. You can eat it hot or cold and plain or with some crusty bread or crackers. We tried a few bites and it was delicious, but we decided to save it to eat with our main course.


Somehow, we'd done the easy dish and we were already exhausted. I believe it was at this point when Jordan tentatively asked how often we'd agreed to do this, because it was quite the commitment. I reminded him it was monthly, which put him back at ease.


Now it was time to mix up the filling for the dumplings. I knew it called for onions and ground beef, but imagine my surprise when I realized it called for grated onions. I quite literally was about to start crying. Whoever thought grating onions was a reasonable thing to ask people to do in a recipe was just inhumane. We spent the next 15 minutes laughing and crying our way through grating onions, trying to keep our eyes closed as much as possible without shaving off our fingertips. Once the onions were grated, they needed squeezed dry and mixed into the ground beef (mince beef here) with some salt and pepper.


Onto the dumpling making. Unfortunately, neither of us had a rolling pin, which is a pretty important tool for dumpling making. I ended up using a wine bottle. Not exactly the ideal tool, but it had been a weekend of leaning into just making it work. Did I mention my old takeout container "mixing bowl"?


Again, I underestimated the time. Hand making dumplings is incredibly labor intensive; and I wasn't even doing it well! Mine were too thick or overstuffed, had too much edging or were just plain goofy looking. Poor Jordan thought he was going to be stuffing dumplings until Monday. Making dumplings is quite tedious but gave us a great opportunity to talk more about what country I think I might choose next, where we want to travel once we're able to, and what our upcoming weeks looked like.


With our ugly dumplings ready to go, we dropped them in salted boiling water to let them cook. While they cooked for 20-25 minutes, we mixed garlic and Greek yogurt for a sauce and heated olive oil with red pepper flakes for a spicy finish.


Finally, dinner was served, and boy were we hungry. We plated our meals a bit differently. I had thrown some sourdough in the oven to crisp up to eat with the saksuka and then topped the manti with the yogurt sauce and drizzled with the spicy oil.


Though we couldn't taste each other's dishes, I think Jordan probably had the better saksuka and I had the better manti. My vegetable chunks were a bit too big and I needed more tomatoes, and Jordan's dumplings were a bit thick and chewy. Overall, the meal was great, though.


Neither of us did well at scaling back the recipes for one, so we both walked away with a huge container of leftovers. Jordan planned to give his away while I tried to think of creative ways to repurpose the saksuka for more meals this week. With Monday off, I had some time to spend looking for inspiration. I found a recipe for another Turkish dish called menemen, which has a similar base to saksuka but is served with eggs, similar to a North African shakshuka.


In the morning, I pulled out the leftover saksuka, chopped some of the bigger pieces in half

and then threw it in a skillet to heat up. Once warm, I made two pockets and put an egg in each. Covering the skillet and leaving it over low heat for a few minutes, the eggs poached and I had myself a new version of dinner the night before. I topped it with the garlic yogurt and red pepper oil that I'd put on the manti the night before and it was incredible. I think I liked it even better than the first time I'd eaten it. I've never been good at using leftovers, often giving them to my dad when I was younger or to Jordan now, so this was a huge win for me. I've been practicing and it's finally starting to pay off.


 

Valentine's Day looks different when you're nearly 4,000 miles apart, but I am so appreciative that we were still able to find a way to share something we love over a Teams call. Normally my Teams calls are far less eventful, and they never end in good food.


For much of the pandemic, we could rely on the quantity of time we had to spend together to make it meaningful. We had the convenience of seeing each other a lot and that in itself meant something. But now, we're forced to focus on the quality of time. And I think that can be much more meaningful if you're willing to be a little bit creative and finds ways to use technology to close the distance.

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