With Valentine's Day just around the corner it's time to get busy planning that special dinner. For me, an intimate dinner at home – with candles, wine and a fire glowing in the background – is the formula.
I like to do a meal that's thoughtfully planned, lovingly prepared and served on a picture-perfect table. For me this this is so much more personal and meaningful a celebration than a restaurant meal, especially since so many of us have good restaurant meals on a fairly frequent basis.
Here are my tips for a successful romantic Valentine's Day dinner for two:
1. Do most of the cooking ahead.
Leaving your sweetie sitting alone while the cook prepares a complicated soufflé or risotto is a sure way to break the mood, no matter how smooth the music!
2. Serve several courses – and keep them light.
Lingering over multiple courses makes the evening special. Just be sure to keep the dishes and portions light, for savoring instead of satiation.
3. Keep it simple.
The dishes you choose should be simple presentations of pleasurable foods. Overly complex dishes distract from the unpretentious statement of love your meal should convey.
4. Plan your presentation.
As you plan your menu think about how each course will be presented. Each dish should look as much like a gift as any package done up in foiled paper and red ribbon.
5. Leave the dishes 'til morning.
Nothing kills a mood faster than the clatter of a dishwasher being loaded. Even if it goes against your grain to leave dirty dishes out overnight, just this once: pay attention to your partner instead of the cleanup.
6. It's more than food.
Music, candles, wine, flowers and table setting – all planned and laid out ahead of time – make a wonderful background for your gifts of food and love.
Here are a few suggestions for your Valentine's Day dinner menu...
A pissaladiere is a traditional Provençal tart which gets its name from the anchovie paste, pissala, which is the essential ingredient. Like most traditional recipes, hundreds of variations can be found, and frequently the preparation edges towards a simple pizza: a smear of onions, anchovies and herbs on a flatbread.
This is perfect for Valentine's Day: fast and yummy finger food. It's so simple that it feels like cheating, but the ingredients are all top quality, and they look and taste great. Nothing wrong with that!
This spectacular treatment of diver scallops is an adaptation of a recipe given to me by Lisa Martel of On the Park, a now defunct but fondly-remembered participant in the vibrant and exciting Boston South End restaurant scene in the 90's.
Watermelon radish and persimmon make a nice crunch and sweet/exotic juxtaposition -- not to mention the visual pleasures of the pairing -- especially when combined with the yeilding flesh of a ripe Hass avocado, some crisp sweet Vidalia onions and a dressing of lime, ginger and honey.
Braised fennel makes a luxurious and tasty bed for seared meat. The distinctive liquorish-like flavor is muted but not destroyed by the braising, and, with onions, it has a creamy goodness that begs to be nuanced with an herb or other flavoring, according to the pairing. The seared pork medallions are a perfect pairing.
Where I come from (Maine), fillets of delicate white fish like cod, hake, haddock or flounder are often the freshest of the local catch, so when I'm buying fish I'm drawn to them. But cooking these fish can be a challenge, both because they tend to fall apart and because the flavor of these fish is subtle. Sauces and accompaniments have to tread lightly...
There it sits: a tray of beautiful two-inch-thick prime filet mignon steaks. Twelve bucks a pound at least, and we're looking forward to a perfectly cooked steak. Talk about pressure! There's nothing more disappointing than an overcooked steak, especially when it's a top cut, but with a little care and attention you can come through with the goods every time...
This recipe for pistachio ice cream is one that I've developed by a trial and error process, starting with the proportions of milk, eggs and sugar in Jean-George Vongerichten's ice cream recipes. We like it because it's not too sweet and the almond taste is muted, so the pistachio flavor comes through.
These little guys are sneaky little chocolate bombs. They look innocent enough on the plate, but in your mouth they explode a burst of dark, dangerous flavor that will have you checking your competition and grabbing for more.
[Originally published February 10, 2010.]