The Way to Your Honey's Heart Is Through the Kitchen
They say a way to a man's heart is through the stomach, but on Valentine's Day, our men take no pains to take that very route to their ladies' hearts as well: call every restaurant in town for a last minute reservation. Finally have the host at Chez Exorbitante tell you the only table they have is at 5:30 pm, but you'll love sitting next to Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Atric -- they have great stories to tell. Pay an appalling markup on a bottle of bubbly (had you only consulted the lists earlier). Suffer through a meal at a restaurant where every single customer expects personalized special-occasion service, from a waitstaff made of mere human beings. Avoid the risk of driving home full of boozy bubbles, by shelling out more cash to take a cab home (in rush hour traffic no less). Isn't it romantic?
Why put yourselves through this? Why not forgo the drama and make a simple, impressive meal at home? She'll love that you did the work and created such a charming spread, and when she lavishly showers you with appreciative affection, you'll be beaming for more reasons that one -- after all, you were able to steer clear of the theatrics, the traffic, and the hefty check. Here are some tips and instructions to prepare a sophisticated meal from fresh ingredients (plus a few secret shortcuts), without breaking the bank. And I've posted all the recipes for the ideas below right here, at my food blog, All Kinds of Yum.
First, some general tips: Avail yourself of Trader Joe's! it's the number one not-so-secret weapon for faking fancy. Great wines, decent cheeses, olive oil, all can be found here. Improvise based on what you and your date like -- you can never get that sort of personalized menu at a restaurant. Substitute favorite vegetables, fruits, herbs and seasonings, to suit your fancy. Go seasonal! These recipes have very few ingredients, so quality is key. Produce is always at its tastiest when it's in season, and has the added advantage of saving you cash. Google can help you find out what's in season in your part of the world now, or just visit your local farmer's market. Now then, onto the meal:
The room: If it's dark enough, even the bacheloriest bachelor pad can be evocative and romantic. Buy some flowers (wisely), both for your girl and for the room, and get yourself some candles. You can find a huge selection of candles at Target -- go with a single color (i like white, but all different pinks or reds could be very pretty too), and be cautious of too much scent. Don't be too concerned about the lushest amenities -- a kitchen table works fine, as does floor pillows around a coffee table. Even a picnic laid out on the bed can be unexpected and romantic.
The Bubbly: Abandon Champagne and visit the neighbors. You can still get champagne's European ooh-la-la appeal from Prosecco or Cava, Italy and Spain's sparkling wines, respectively, but at a significantly lower price. Don't expect them to be exactly like champagne -- the distinct geology and climate of each region leads to unique flavors. But both are festive and delicious, and will introduce you to a little corner of the wine world a bit more esoteric than the old French standby.
The Appetizer: French Kisses are a three-ingredient recipe with massive appeal. These bite-sized nuggets of puff pastry with a melty brie center, each kissed with a single saucy cranberry, are irresistible. But if you don't feel like baking, serve cheese.
The Cheese: Traditionally, cheese is served as a dessert course, but it's not unheard of to have it before the meal. There's no need to go crazy: there are only two of you, and no one wants a belly full of cheese on the canoodliest night of the year. So, pick a couple favorites, or even just one. Then, accessorize. Alas, figs are out of season -- their, ahem, feminine appearance, makes them a Valentine's day natural. But what is in season, at least here on the west coast, is Asian pears. As is honey, which happens to be a folk aphrodisiac. Pair them with blue cheese or another strong-flavored cheese of your choice, and try this pretty presentation: Place the cheese on a small wood cutting board, or even a pretty, or simple, plate. Slice the pear into rounds, discarding the core, and fan out the slices beside the cheese. Serve honey alongside in a small, pretty dish (a teacup or small bowl would work great here) with a teaspoon, or just drizzle it right on the cheese.
The Main: A simple broiled fish recipe is light and delicious, and you can prepare it with whatever fish is on sale at the market. Fresh herbs and lemon juice perk it up. Choose your favorite herb, and you can use it for both the fish and the vegetable (and if you choose mint, you can use it to garnish your dessert as well).
The Veg: You can certainly quickly boil your favorite cruciferous vegetable (any of the broccoli family, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.), then top with some butter, salt, and pepper. But I think roasted cherry tomatoes are perfect for Valentine's Day -- bright red and blistered from the heat of the oven, they really look, and taste, flirty.
The Starch: Crusty bread is effortless, but pasta is pretty easy too, and can be made ahead.
Dessert: I believe there are 2 keys to Valentine's Day dessert: chocolate, and raspberries. You don't have to use both, but it is a stellar combination. You can achieve either one with an extremely-easy-to-make, fancy-French-name-having, lusciously delicious sauce: chocolate ganache or raspberry coulis (rhymes with 'Julie'). Pour some in a plate, then place a slice of store-bought poundcake or semi-homemade dark chocolate fudge cake over top, and garnish with a couple stray raspberries. Or, try a fun idea with a different berry: get some pre-made chocolate cookie dough, a heart-shaped cookie cutter, and some strawberry ice-cream, and make heart-shaped ice cream sandwiches (Tip: Build the sandwiches in the cookie cutter to maintain the heart shape, and re-freeze before serving). Or for the ultimate in free and easy dessert, do as the Surreal Gourmet suggests, and have sex instead.