So you’ve got a date for Valentine’s Day. Lucky you! Now what? There’s a truckload of pressure to nail this holiday, especially with someone new. The evening needs to be romantic, memorable, original, authentic–I could go on, but I’m starting to give myself a panic attack.
Let’s face it, Valentine’s day can be a minefield. Everything from the cheesy bouquets to the reservation scrum to the underwhelming prix fix meal. Don’t get me wrong–you should do the work to honor the woman you love. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of societal expectations, and wind up spending a lot of time and money to have someone else’s idea of a romantic night.
Fear not–that won’t be your situation this year. The best table in town on Valentine’s Day will be at your apartment. It’ll be memorable, unique, authentic, etc. plus no fighting for a parking space, battling the cold, dealing with slow service, or shelling out a fortune. I promise.
Here’s the plan:
You will cook a meal. THE meal.
Don’t cook? Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.
Remember, cooking a meal from scratch for somebody you care about, regardless of how it comes out, is a genuine expression of the heart. It’s a romantic gesture wrapped up in every possible fuzzy teddy bear. The true spirit of Valentine’s Day.
Just follow the well-tested cheat sheet and recipes below, and I promise you’ll be a hero (for at least one night).
Step 1. Plan Ahead.
Even though you are clever and will be avoiding the crowds at restaurants and bars, sadly you are not the only person planning to eat on Thursday. By Monday, plan out your strategy for shopping, prepping, and eating. Getting a little Type A will only help you here–pick a specific time you want the food to be on the table, and work backwards.
Step 2. Check Your Kitchen.
Here is a list of the desert-island necessities that will enable you to cook and serve any meal. If you are not in possession of any of these, buy them.
1) 1 large pot, and 1 large pan.
2) A large knife
3) 2 sets of knife, fork, spoon.
4) 2 glasses, can be any shape, but make it glass.
5) 2 plates.
6) 2 cloth napkins (trust me). Placemats are a bonus–cloth napkins are a minimum.
7) Block of real Reggiano cheese (if you screw something up, chop this up and dump it on top–it saves everything).
8) Olive oil (cheap stuff works, expensive is better).
9) A pepper grinder filled with actual peppercorns.
10) Fresh flowers in a vase that would break if you dropped it (aka not a plastic jug).
In Case of Emergency Always Have: red wine, tequila, and dark chocolate.
Step 3. Pick That Dish: What Are We Going to Eat?
We’re keeping it really simple. Your main goal is to provide something tasty. If it looks good, well, bravo.
A note on dessert: Any other day of the year I let my date bring dessert. It gives her a stake in the meal and allows for creative expression. But this is Valentine’s Day, and you are taking care of dessert. If she insists, let her bring wine instead.
Here is your dessert, an incredibly easy and decadent chocolate creation, provided by Montreal pastry chef Joanna Notkin.
Step 4. A Meal Is a Story. Shopping is Chapter One.
First of all, buy any non-perishable ingredients at least the day before. You want to be able to check out your provisions, and in some cases you can prep the night before. Obviously, be careful with the fresh stuff–if you can buy scallops the day of, do so.
Hate shopping? Recast it as a key component of your V-Day experience. Food shopping can be irritating, but it can also be hilarous. Products and the places that sell them are as much about people as they are about the sale. Buy one item from an unsual place–an old world Italian butcher, a remote farmers market, or even a bodega known for its terrifying one-eyed cat. Learn something about where that fennel came from or meet the grandmother who hand-kneaded your mozzarella. Stuck with a big grocery store? That’s fine. Take in the scene. Was there a fight between soccer moms at the checkout line? Find your story, find your characters. You can use them to warm up conversation later, so your date will be laughing over that first glass of wine.
Step 5. Clean House, Set the Stage.
I don’t keep an immaculate house. I’m not at Hoarders levels of slobbery or anything, but my place is your standard “needs a cleaning” scenario. So here’s my secret: throw all your crap in a closet, clean the surfaces in your bathroom and kitchen, and scrub the area where you will actually be consuming food. And clear enough surface space for your plates, a few candles, and that damn vase of flowers.
Step 6. Game Day: Getting This Thing Done.
Here’s a quick run down of prepping, cooking, and presenting.
1) 2 Hours Prior: Set the table, including flowers. Select music, hide anything embarrassing. Clean any part of bathroom that missed the first pass.
2) 90 Minutes Prior: Clean and cut veggies and marinate meats. Place everything in separate bowls or plates. Store in fridge.
3) 60 Minutes Prior: All dishes that require time to cook should be in the oven, or simmering on the stove. Open wine. Organize your cheese and fruit plate (oh, did I mention it’s a good idea to have a cheese and fruit plate? Well you should) in a way that looks like you’ve done it before.
4) 30 Minutes Prior: Saute your onions, garlic and any other veggies. A secret weapon when she arrives is the disarming and seductive smell of something delicious cooking.
5) 15 Minutes Prior: Have a beer or glass of wine. Relax. Lower the heat on any open burners. Change your shirt.
6) Buzzer rings! She’s here and she’s all smiles and raven-red lipstick. She’s gorgeous! Let her get settled and then open the sparkling wine. Down the hatch!
7) Close Out the Cooking: The goal is to get the heavy work done prior to her arrival, but save a little of the dynamic cooking for when she’s there (and can witness your heroism). Plus you can let her help if she wants, by stirring a sauce or dressing a salad. If she wants to get more involved, let her. Enjoy the scene you made. Tell her about all the crazy people you met/witnessed along your food journey.
8) Food’s Ready: It’s fun to take a steak right off the grill and throw it on a plate. Fish too. But most food should stay warm and rest before being devoured. Eat your soup and salad. Then serve and present. Start to enjoy this–the hard part is over.
9) Eat, Drink, Be Merry: You can figure out the rest from here. Don’t rush dessert, have more wine, show her your stamp collection, see where it goes. Definitely don’t rush into cleaning anything. Even if she offers to clear the table, nothing says “I hate romance” like scrubbing dishes.
10) Next time, her house. She’ll host next time, because tonight you were a bona fide romantic hero.