Long Reads

I Don't Celebrate Valentine’s Day, but This Lamb Dish Warms My Cynical Heart

Columnist Caitlin Raux Gunther on the time she destroyed dinner and fell in love with it all the same.

February 11, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth.

My daughter Mimi was about 6 months old when I bought her an Adidas tracksuit. People gushed every time she wore it, a doll-sized magenta number with the classic three stripes down the pant and sleeve sides. I knew it was a cheap ploy, but I also felt it was my rite of passage as a new parent.

Mimi often wore her tracksuit to daycare, the same one my husband Guillaume went to in Paris' 9th arrondissement. The walls are lined with cribs, bunked one on top of the other. The floor is covered with thick, primary-colored gym mats, and a smattering of simple toys and teething rings that pass from one baby’s mouth to the next. A big glass window lets parents gaze into the petri dish that holds their babies for six to eight hours each day.

Mimi absolutely loves daycare. In her mind, each one of those germ-laced toys was placed there just for her amusement. The people who work there are called auxiliaires, and they are as nurturing as they are professional. Each day they provide me a report of how long Mimi has napped, to the minute, what she's eaten, and a summary of the contents of her diaper. I appreciate their attention to detail.

I also appreciate the opportunity to practice my French, though our quick chats remind me that casual small talk still escapes me, particularly when I attempt humor.

Once, when Mimi was sporting her tracksuit, one of the auxiliaires commented, “I love Mimi’s outfit!” Had I replied, nonchalantly, “She chose it,” it would have been funny. Maybe not laugh-out-loud, but at least respectable. Instead, after a considerable pause, I stuttered, “Well, it is of her choice.” The auxiliaire smiled politely and returned to the other babies.

My French is stronger in familiar places, usually transactional in nature, where I know the script and any improvisation is appreciated but not expected. Like in food shops and grocery stores.

Recently, I had a hankering for dainty, bone-in lamb chops, the kind my mom would call “lollipops.” The kind I wouldn’t dream of eating any other way but with my hands.

I stopped by my regular butcher shop, helmed by a rosy-faced man who wears a long white coat and makes friendly faces at Mimi. He works alongside a couple of younger guys with the air of dutiful, polite teenagers who would prefer to be elsewhere smoking cigarettes with their friends.

“Madame,” one of the teens addressed me. “What would you like today?”

“Côte d'agneau,” I told him, mildly confident that I knew the correct term for lamb chops.

From the other side of the glass case, I watched the teen butcher heave a hulking loin of meat, trussed with shiny white fat, onto the butcher's block.

“How many people?” he asked, a cleaver hovering above the meat.

“Two,” I replied, “but one which eats like two” (referring to my husband, Guillaume).

He stood blinking, then moved the cleaver to his right.

“A little more,” I directed. And then, “A little less.”

I had no qualms about splitting hairs over the size, but I was too bashful to ask: What is that and where are my dainty bone-in lollipops?

I later researched and discovered that the diminutive version of the word, cotelette, was the proper term. But thankfully, lamb is endlessly forgiving. You can be careless with the heat, the cooking time, or even the cut, and it will more often than not come out tender and delicious.

Years earlier, I nearly destroyed some beautiful lamb chops that I was preparing for Valentine’s Day. I never cared much for the holiday—it seemed designed to make couples uncharacteristically romantic and singles feel the lonely sting of their singledom. And there’s nothing, I thought, sadder than a bunch of ladies licking their salted thumbs and throwing back tequila shots for Galentine’s Day.

And yet, when Valentine’s Day rolled around, I found myself compelled to participate—to do something special with someone I cared about, even a gal friend.

We were in grad school in Ithaca, New York, a vast tundra when it comes to winter or romance. Upon arriving, I briefly dated a guy whom I met at sleepaway tennis camp when I was 12. He was a lefty and a very good player. I remember him explaining to me with a slight lisp how lefties have a natural tendency to swing over the ball when they therve, resulting in a dangerous kick-spin. On the day his parents came for him, we shared a quick tongue kiss near the courts.

When I realized we ended up in the same grad school, I felt fate had brought us back together. When I realized we had nothing else in common, I accepted that we were perhaps a better match for courtside makeouts.

When you go to law school on a secluded campus, you have two choices: date in stealth mode or have a public relationship that ends in an engagement once you secure an associate position in a big law firm and a marriage announcement in The New York Times. For most of law school, after the failure to rekindle with my tennis partner, I was stealthily dating or single. On this particular Feb. 14, so was my new friend Ava.

Ava is the friend that every girl deserves. She has a strong voice and an arsenal of witty replies or 30 Rock references, depending on her audience. Her mother is from Appalachian Tennessee, which I imagined instilled in her a sense of Southern hospitality that compels her to add levity to any situation. Ava is always invited to stuffy client dinners. She has been a bridesmaid no fewer than 15 times.

Ava is also up for anything, be it a late-night burger (always bleeding rare) or an impromptu trip to Mexico City. I was yet to discover most of these things, but I knew I wanted to solidify our friendship. So I invited Ava to dinner on Valentine’s Day, and she quickly replied, “What kind of wine should I bring?”

The night began auspiciously with a trip to Wegmans, a sprawling supermarket with fresh produce and an expansive cheese section. Wegmans is one the highlights of living in Ithaca, loved by students and locals alike—except for one Google reviewer, who added to his one-star rating: “Why do they not have the car parts I wanted!”

I lived on the top floor of an old house, on a steep slope between downtown Ithaca and College Town, where Cornell’s campus is located. Inside my small, canary-yellow kitchen, I began frying a half dozen tiny lamb chops in a heavy, cast-iron pan. Ava and I clinked glasses of red wine and started chatting while I prepared a simple green salad. Maybe this Galentine’s Day wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

My housemate Amanda, a sweet but strong-willed vegetarian from Portland with plum-red hair and Riot grrrl bangs, was not home and I was glad for it. She had politely requested that I not use her cookware for preparing meat and I was respectfully observant. Though she never judged my carnivorism, just as I didn’t judge the alien-like kombucha mom floating in a Mason jar in our fridge, I generally avoided cooking meat in her presence.

Per Amanda’s advice, I also avoided washing my cast-iron pan. “It ruins the seasoning,” she explained to me one night over a steaming pile of kale. In retrospect, I took her words too close to heart and could have given the ole iron gal a rinse now and again.

Pretty soon, smoke was billowing up from the skillet, where crusty residue had combusted under the heat of olive oil and lamb fat. For the first time, I heard the subdued male voice of my alarm system begin chanting, “Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire.” With its monotone, muted sense of urgency, it seemed more appropriate for a data storage warning than a home on the verge of destruction.

I turned off the gas stove and flung the door open. In whooshed a gust of air, chilled ice-cold by the Finger Lakes. Meanwhile, Ava grabbed a dish towel, ran to the living room and swatted upward at the robot fireman. “Fire. Fire,” he taunted us. I grabbed a towel and dashed to help her.

When we finally, breathlessly, sat down to dinner, the lamb’s outer crust was charred black, fused with mummified bits of garlic. The inside wasn’t rare, as Ava preferred it, but it was surprisingly tender and still delicious. We spooned over some romesco sauce that I had prepared earlier, and its garlicky nuttiness masked any hint of our near disaster.

The house, however, was still smoky. I apologized to my roommate when she got home later that evening.

Ava and her husband live in Manhattan now. I live in one of the most romantic cities in the world, where every day I learn the language of love by discussing the contents of my baby’s diapers and trying to make a teenage butcher smile. If you asked me to describe my most memorable Valentine’s Day, ours would be the only one I could even recall.

I’m still not into the holiday, but every once in a while, when I talk to Ava, she’ll chant to me in a robot voice: “Fire, fire, fire.” And it immediately warms my cynical heart.

Back in Paris, I pan-fried my large, un-dainty lamb steaks, and thought about that dinner with Ava. I turned off our small European stove, fished some leftover romesco out of the refrigerator, and called Guillaume.

“It’s ready!”

Instead of picking up the chops and eating with our fingers, we used steak knives to slice the tender meat. Then, we dragged it through a pool of sauce and sprinkled over crunchy salt. Mimi sat perched next to us in her highchair, using two newly acquired, nubby teeth to chew through bits of roasted broccoli. It wasn’t what I had planned to make, but it turned out to be everything I could have wanted.

Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth.

Pan-Fried Lamp Chops With Romesco Sauce

Serves: 2

Olive oil
4 lamb chops
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Romesco sauce, for serving

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add oil and fry chops, 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until nicely charred on the outside and just cooked through on the inside (120°F for rare and closer to 145°F for well-done; add an extra minute per side if you prefer the latter).

Serve with the romesco sauce and a side of broccoli, if you'd like.

How do you celebrate Valentine's Day? Or do you? Let us know in the comments below.
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  • Aspenglow
  • Caitlin Gunther
    Caitlin Gunther
Caitlin is a Paris-based writer. She wrote about food and wine while living in Madrid after college, and had a brief career as a lawyer before moving back to Spain to work in restaurants and attend culinary courses at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian. She has worked or staged at Mina, Nerua and Septime. Caitlin is currently working on her first memoir about working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Bilbao. Follow her on Insta at @caitlinrauxgunther


Aspenglow February 17, 2020
I made this for Valentine's dinner, as written. It was a hit and there was plenty of Romesco left over for a cazuela the next day! The sauce has beautiful depth of flavor.
Caitlin G. February 18, 2020
The romesco is even better the next day! thanks for sharing