There's nothing like Valentine's Day to make a nice guy feel like a chump. Overnight, the price of everything from flowers to chocolates to your favorite neighborhood restaurant has nearly doubled. Suddenly, you're expected to perform a romantic miracle, when just last weekend Chinese take-out and a movie rental would do.
Or so my friend Adam J. Schiff was complaining one night a few weeks ago. When I suggested he cook his valentine a homemade meal, Adam politely chuckled, assuming I was making a joke. His girlfriend is a great cook and her mother is a cookbook author. Adam's expertise is frozen pizza.
Yet with some serious arm-twisting I convinced him that a home-cooked meal - even a very basic one - would impress his girlfriend because it came straight from the heart. It would also be cheaper, and he wouldn't have to fight off other hungry lovebirds for a parking spot. Not to mention that the kitchen is far more conveniently located, should the evening take a romantic turn.
"Do you have an apron you can lend me?" he asked.
Step 1: Plan a simple menu
I offered to play culinary cupid and spend an afternoon with Adam showing him how to cook a very simple meal to surprise his girlfriend. I promised to deliver "A Romantic Dinner for Dummies" - a meal that would not require special skills, fancy equipment, or an ungodly number of hours slaving in the kitchen, but still would have plenty of "wow power."
After consulting my recipe files and a few professionals, I e-mailed Adam the following menu: warm dates stuffed with blue cheese, followed by rosemary-mustard lamb chops with Israeli couscous and roasted cherry tomatoes. To top the meal off, he'd prepare individual raspberry-filled chocolate cakes.
His e-mail reply: "You're kidding, right?"
Step 2: Write a grocery list
To get us organized, I created a grocery list of all the ingredients we needed, loosely grouped according to where they are typically found in the grocery store. I handed Adam the list, which he promptly left on the coffee table.
Once the list was retrieved, we sailed through the store in no time, since none of the dishes require many ingredients. We hit only one minor snafu at the butcher counter when Adam - not unlike a culinary foreign-exchange student - entirely lost the ability to speak English when asked what kind of chop he wanted (answer: loin chop).
Step 3: Set the table
Since it's easy to fall behind schedule, I think it's best to set the table early in the day - even before starting to cook. Because Adam is notoriously late, I urged him to set the table, with low candles and even a small bouquet of flowers, before he got busy preparing the meal.
Just in case, I hinted that if he had trouble looking suave while opening a bottle of wine, he should do that in advance, too.
Step 4: Create a plan - and stick to it
By working backward from the time Adam wanted to serve dinner, I made him a schedule so he'd know exactly when to prepare each dish in order to have the meal ready. I suggested posting the schedule where he could easily refer to it while cooking.
Even for a novice cook, this meal should take less than 21/2 hours to make, and all of it can be prepared at least partially ahead of time. So, for our dry run, Adam tied on his apron at 5 p.m. and we started assembling the mini cakes.
These molten chocolate cakes are a decadent cross between a rich chocolate pudding and a traditional chocolate cake. They are addictive, so I advised him to make the full six servings and freeze the others for future romancing.
The only tricky part of the recipe is separating egg yolks from egg whites, which Adam found easiest (albeit slimiest) using his hands. Otherwise, he just whisked together eggs, sugar, melted chocolate and butter, and filled up the ramekins with the mixture, tucking raspberries in the middle as a "surprise." He then popped them in the fridge until we were ready to bake and eat.
Next up were the cherry tomatoes, which required us to do nothing more than toss them with olive oil and generous amounts of kosher salt and pepper, and roast until the tomatoes were soft and the skin blistery. Garnished with chopped basil, this luscious side dish tastes just as good at room temperature, making it an ideal make-ahead recipe.
To prepare the stuffed dates, we simply pitted the dates and filled them with blue cheese. Then, right before serving, we heated them until the cheese was soft, but not gooey, and sprinkled them with a confetti of toasted sliced almonds. The richness of the warm dates, the bold flavor of the blue cheese, and the crunch of the almonds make for an easy and sophisticated hors d'oeuvre.
After that, we turned to my mom's standby lamb chops - a gem of a recipe that's quick enough for a weeknight, but special enough for company. We smeared one side of the chops with a mixture of Dijon mustard, garlic and rosemary, and later broiled them for about four minutes until the meat was medium rare and the outside slightly charred. That's all it takes - although it tastes like a whole lot more effort was required.
Last on our to-do list was the Israeli couscous, a larger grain than the traditional kind that looks like little pearls of pasta. We toasted the couscous to give it a nutty, smoky flavor and then further embellished it with earthy sauteed mushrooms and onions, and toasted pistachios.
By 7 p.m. our prep work was complete - and we even had time to wash the dishes.
Step 5: Don't lose your cool when your date arrives
At showtime, even an experienced cook can easily become unraveled. But with the ultimate safeguard in place - a mostly do-it-ahead menu - I figured Adam should make it to the finish line with minor calamities at most.
With a glass of wine in one hand, stuffed dates in the other, and some heady jazz playing in the background, his girlfriend could hardly mind his slipping away for a few minutes to broil the chops, heat up the couscous, and plate the main course. And before sitting down for dinner, he could preheat the oven, so when the time is right, he's ready to dazzle her with dessert.
By the end of our dry run, Adam was prepared to thrill his valentine with his newfound culinary prowess. And, if all else fails, what girl can resist a dashing man in an apron?
Time Line for V-Day Success
5:00 Prepare chocolate cakes. Refrigerate.
5:30 Make roasted tomatoes. Cool to room temperature
5:45 Stuff dates. Refrigerate.
6:00 Set table, if you haven't already
6:15 Prepare mustard mixture for lamb chops, smear on chops, and set aside.
6:30 Start making couscous.
7:05 Put dates in the oven.
7:10 Open a bottle of wine and light candles
7:15 Serve dates and a glass of wine
7:30 (Or when mood strikes) Place lamb chops under broiler.
7:35 If couscous is cold, reheat over low heat before plating the entrees
7:45 Dinner is served!
8:15 If you haven't already, preheat oven to 450 degrees for dessert
8:30 Place the ramekins in the oven and bake until set on the sides.
9:00 The rest is up to you.
Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
Makes 2 servings
1 pint cherry tomatoes
Good olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
5 fresh basil leaves, chopped
Sea salt or fleur de sel
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Toss the tomatoes lightly with olive oil on a baking sheet. Spread them out in one layer and sprinkle generously with kosher salt and pepper. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft.
3. Transfer the tomatoes to a serving platter and sprinkle with basil leaves and sea salt. Serve hot or at room temperature.
- Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! (Clarkson Potter 2001)
Per serving: 166 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 495 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Israeli Couscous With Mushrooms and Pistachios
Makes 2 servings
1/4 cup pistachios
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
2/3 cup Israeli couscous
1 cup chicken stock
Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Place pistachios in a medium saucepan. Cook at medium heat, shaking pan often, until nuts are lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and set aside.
2. Melt butter in same pan over medium heat. Add onion and mushrooms, and saute until onions are golden, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
3. Add olive oil and couscous and stir over medium heat until couscous is lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
4. Heat the stock to boiling in a microwave or small saucepan. Slowly add stock and salt to the pan with the couscous, and bring to boil.
5. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer until couscous is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 12 minutes.
6. Stir in mushrooms, onions and pistachios, and season with black pepper to taste. Serve warm.
Note: To reheat, place over low heat for about 4 to 5 minutes. If couscous is dry, add ¼ cup of chicken stock to moisten.
Per serving: 434 calories, 11 grams protein, 56 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 17 milligrams cholesterol, 662 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Rosemary-Mustard Lamb Chops
Makes 2 servings
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 sprigs of rosemary, minced with stems removed
2 heaping tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 to 6 lamb loin chops
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, sliced into wedges
1. Whisk garlic, rosemary and mustard in a small bowl to blend.
2. Preheat broiler.
3. Place chops on a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of chops. Smear side facing up with mustard mixture.
4. Broil chops 4 inches from the heat without turning until lamb is cooked to desired doneness, about 5 to 8 minutes for medium rare.
5. Serve immediately with a wedge of lemon.
Per serving: 401 calories, 62 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 14 grams fat, 181 milligrams cholesterol, 614 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Mini Raspberry-Filled Chocolate Cakes
Makes 6 servings
Vegetable spray for greasing the ramekins
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
8 ounces good-quality semisweet or bittersweet (60%) chocolate, chopped
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
1. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. Grease the bottom and sides of six eight-ounce ramekins with the vegetable spray and set aside.
3. In a medium saucepan melt the butter over low heat until sizzling but not turning brown. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate; using a soft spatula, stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
4. Using an electric mixer, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar for about 5 minutes on medium speed, or until light and fluffy. Add the chocolate mixture and mix until just incorporated. Sprinkle in the flour and mix until just blended.
5. Fill each of the ramekins about one-third of the way. Divide the raspberries on top of the chocolate in the middle of the ramekins and spoon the remaining chocolate mixture on top.
6. Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet and bake on the middle shelf for 15 minutes. (If the cakes were refrigerated, bake for 16 to 17 minutes; if they were frozen, bake for 18 to 20 minutes.) The cakes are done when they are set on the sides, but still soft in the center
7. Remove from the oven. You can serve directly from the ramekin (be careful, the sides are hot.) Or, once cooled, you can run a knife around the edge of the cake and turn the ramekin upside down to remove. Dust with confectioners' sugar. When you split open the hot cake, the chocolate and raspberries will ooze out.
Per serving: 535 calories, 8 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 42 grams fat, 273 milligrams cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.