Valentine’s, huh? It’s like, expectation central. You might not have trouble creating romance any other day of the year, but for some reason your mind goes blank when V-day approaches. You’re wondering: what should I do? What should I get? Is this too little? Is this too much? Are these heart print boxers a good look? (Hint: they’re not.) Check it out, you don’t have to be Magellan to navigate this thing. Go for the path of least resistance and maximum effect: go for the gut. Cook a meal, melt a heart.
So, what, you made reservations at that new place everybody’s talking about? Great. You’re about to embark on an evening of basic proportions. I’m sure this joint is on point, but there’s always the chance you’ll be sat right next to the couple where things just aren’t going very well. Why take the risk? Take charge of this operation and host dinner at home. Whether you’re brand new to each other, or familiar with every nook and cranny, your date is going to be into it. Just gotta hit a few key points.
Let’s start with the cuisine. I’m thinking Italian. You know, the language of love. Bellissima and all that crap. But more than that, it’s simple and rustic. The ingredients are widely available, and the techniques are impressive but not overly complicated. It looks good, it tastes good, it’s got soul. Just like you, right?
Secondly, put some time and effort into creating an atmosphere. Craft a playlist with a mix of classic and sexy jams (damn, you could serve a braised brogue and still get there with that bassline). Get some high test candles and put flowers on the table. Have things set up when she arrives. Do something unexpected and personal, so she doesn’t think you got all your ideas from an article on the internets. Wait.
The third and most important rule is to involve boo in the cooking process. Doing stuff together is what got you here in the first place, isn’t it? I’ve chosen gnocchi as the star of the show just for this reason: it’s a lot of fun to make together, and lord knows you could use the extra set of hands. And, if you’re going to do multiple courses (which I am diabolically suggesting here), it’s probably the right move to do at least some of the prep before the big night.
In Italian, ‘antipasti’ roughly translates to ‘before the meal’. In other words, something to nibble and sip on while you finish preparing the other courses. For my meal, I went with a few nice salami (this fennel joint I picked up was the highlight), a few cheeses, a mix of olives, cornichons, some roasted vegetables and crusty bread. Simple, right? The only real cooking for this phase involved tossing some heirloom carrots and cremini mushrooms in olive oil, liberally seasoning and throwing them in the oven at 350 degrees. The carrots take about 45 minutes so add the mushrooms about 15 minutes in. Put everything out on a nice wooden cutting board flanked by the appropriate serving tools. For the first pairing, I went with Campari on ice—a classic aperitif to get things rolling. Plus it’s a beautiful red colour. You know, like love and shit.
The second course is traditionally a pasta course, in this case, homemade gnocchi. To be honest, this was my first time actually making pasta from scratch. Anyway. I got the basic technique from the excellent Frankies Spuntino cookbook and paired it with a sage brown butter sauce. You’ll need a stand mixer (or very dextrous hands) and a lot more flour on your prep surface than you think.
Kneading, rolling and cutting the dough is a great time to have your better half pitch in. To make the brown butter sage sauce, melt about a half cup of butter down, add a handful of sage leaves and slowly cook it until it becomes fragrant and starts turning brown in colour. Hit it with a few twists of white pepper. Be patient and let it get really deep and rich, this is why they call it browned butter. When your gnocchi is ready, throw it in the pan with the sauce and toss. Garnish the plate with additional sage and a drizzle of high quality olive oil. Serve with a medium-bodied red wine. Perhaps a Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend? Consult your wine dealer for the right strain.
The third course typically consists of a meat or fish dish. I chose roasted ling cod (which is in season right now) paired with winter greens and a very Miami-looking pink vinaigrette. Season the fish with salt and pepper and simply roast at 350 degrees with olive oil, a pad of butter and a slice of lemon. Takes about 10-12 minutes so have it ready and throw it in by halfway through the second course.
My vinaigrette was made by blending mascarpone, olive oil, pickled beet juice and salt/pepper. Feel free to go with something simpler. When the fish is ready, place in the center of the plate and arrange leaves of Belgian endive, radicchio and frisee around the fish. Unite the whole thing with your vinaigrette and a drizzle of good olive oil. I went with a cheerful Spanish cava for this course. You can’t go wrong with bubbly and fish.
Dessert is a non-negotiable here, guys. I’m not much of a pastry chef so I kept it pretty simple with a sweet play on caprese salad. The mozzarella is replaced by a scoop of fine vanilla gelato, tomatoes with pomegranate seeds and dark chocolate shavings standing in for the balsamic reduction. Basil is still basil here, and I drizzled some lemon-infused olive oil over the top. To make that, slowly heat a few tablespoons of olive oil with a bunch of lemon zest for 30-45 minutes. This one is a killer. I rounded things out with another traditional pairing, the digestif. I chose limoncello to compliment the lemon notes in the dessert.
And that’s a wrap. Or hopefully it’s not. The fifth course is up to you. Even if the meal goes down in flames, you’ve still separated yourselves from the sheep by doing this thing. Plus, there’s always the heartfelt card that you sat down and wrote several days beforehand. Right? Right?
Thank You for Eating by Drew Dunford is a series of edutaining features on creating simple, considered meals for serving to and enjoying with good company. Drew loves cooking, playing drums and has made pasta from scratch precisely once.
Special thanks to Maya Sciarretta who saved Drew from disaster in the kitchen and graciously hosted the meal at her charming Italian cafe and eatery, Pazzo Chow.