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Eat your heart out: No-fuss Valentine munchies with Chef Spencer Johnston

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For anyone who’s tried to cook the perfect romantic Valentine’s Day dinner—and dealt with the stress and anxiety that inevitably follows—Danior Kitchen Catering owner/chef Spencer Johnston has a word of advice. 

Just stop it. 

Slowly put down the oysters (you’re shucking them wrong anyway) and forget that perfectly caramelized crème brulee recipe.

Remember: Trying too hard has never, ever been sexy. Trying too little? Also a bad idea. Comfort in a relationship (sweat pants, Netflix binges, inside jokes) is a great thing. However, it should not be confused with “intimacy,” which is basically all of the fuzzy, warm (and sultry) feelings you get from being near your partner minus all the unsavory bodily functions. 

FEED YOUR LOVE:  Danior Kitchen owner/chef Spencer Johnston has come a long way since starting out at Paso Robles’ Bistro Laurent some 18 years ago. Today, the creative, ultra-seasonal chef crafts incredible menus for some of the region’s top winemakers and foodie friends. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FEED YOUR LOVE: Danior Kitchen owner/chef Spencer Johnston has come a long way since starting out at Paso Robles’ Bistro Laurent some 18 years ago. Today, the creative, ultra-seasonal chef crafts incredible menus for some of the region’s top winemakers and foodie friends.

Valentine’s Day is about romance, after all. So, how do you strive for pleasure while keeping things casual?

“A romantic, intimate meal might not be eaten at the table. Maybe it’s on the couch under some cozy comforters with some mulled wine,” Johnston said. “You can add presentation and structure—and show off the sexiness of the dish and the colors of the season—while still creating a warm and comforting treat for your partner.”

You may even want to bundle up with a small plate and feed your sweetheart like a pony at the petting zoo. When’s the last time you actually did that?

“Sit on the couch and feed each other. It’s really fun,” the chef said. “You can do that with a really nice bottle of champagne and have a ball. There are so many great small bites you can find at the market right now.”

For example, the chef is obsessing over beautiful hot pink, ruby red, and snow white beets. These longtime symbols of the heart are appearing across farmers’ market stands, as are juicy citrus fruit of all shapes and sizes. 

Top this simple sweet-tart finger food with dried nuts and shaved cheeses, and bam! Instant hubba hubba minus the bloat.

“You want to make it playful; the beets offer an earthy contrast to the acidic and sweet citrus, and you’ve got some crunch from a beautifully toasted walnut or almond,” the chef said, adding that flaky salt, local olive oil, and cinnamon (a natural aphrodisiac) are fabulous when layered atop any sexy snack.

Another mantra that will save you from unnecessary hand wringing? Remember and repeat: It’s just food. Food should be fun!

FLAVOR OF LOVE:  Danior Kitchen Catering and Events is based out of San Luis Obispo, but chef Spencer Johnston will travel across the county to feed hungry bellies, craft thoughtful food and wine pairings, and give sage consulting advice to select restaurant clients. Go to Danior Kitchen Catering and Events on Facebook for more information or email spencer@daniorkitchen.com.
  • FLAVOR OF LOVE: Danior Kitchen Catering and Events is based out of San Luis Obispo, but chef Spencer Johnston will travel across the county to feed hungry bellies, craft thoughtful food and wine pairings, and give sage consulting advice to select restaurant clients. Go to Danior Kitchen Catering and Events on Facebook for more information or email spencer@daniorkitchen.com.

“Don’t stress over it. Whether a meal be something that takes you three hours or 20 minutes, your partner will love anything you make for them,” Johnston said.

We’ve all had the experience of entering a dinner party only to feel a wave of anxiety, not welcome greet us at the door. Our host is sweaty and stressed out, grabbing our coats before frantically dashing back to the kitchen to make us that “perfect meal.”

Not fun. Instead, aim to scrub fewer pots and massage more muscles.

Perfection and romance may be inextricably linked thanks to so many horrible rom-coms, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, kick back, and give the gift of authenticity.

“Perfection” in my book is all about a paper Jocko’s placemat, country music on the jukebox, and a relish tray filled with peppers and onions (onion breath is also an aphrodisiac in the Cain household). Your idea of perfection may include silky mashed avocado on toast at 2 a.m. or an Old Fashioned cocktail crafted only the way your lover can. 

Whatever you do this Valentine’s season, take a tip from Johnston. Remember the moment you met your mate. Do the same at the farmers’ market—see what ingredients inspire your blood to pump faster.

“Seek out flavors that are at the height of the season and you can’t go wrong,” Johnston said. “Don’t overthink it.”

Sexy, Simple Farmers' Market Nibble Platter for Two

ADAPTED BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN

Ingredients:

  • 3 beautiful citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines, or grapefruit (try to get a selection of colors from pink to yellow to orange)
  • 3 beets, red, white, and pink, shaved thin on a mandolin (saves time) or roasted and chopped
  • 1 bag of local almonds, pistachios, or walnuts, toasted
  • 1 drizzle of local extra virgin olive oil (Pasolivo is a good choice)
  • A hunk of aged cheese to your liking, shaved (try a few at Fromagerie Sophie in downtown SLO and see what strikes your fancy)
  • 1 bottle of bubbly, any kind will do!

 

To Assemble: Shave raw or chop and cook the beets, then draw a heart with the juices on your cutting board (or put some on your lips and ask if your sweetie notices something different about you). Segment the citrus and be sure to feed some fruit to your partner, juices be damned. Tickle each other while the scent of toasted nuts fills your love nest with deliciousness. Toss the cheese, fruit, and nuts with a squeeze of citrus juice and EVOO and dive into bliss.

Hayley Thomas Cain is in love with her husband’s pancakes. She can be reached at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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