How does the old adage go? “The fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” True? I believe so, but if it’s not that, it’s definitely through the VIP line at an NFL game. Nonetheless, cooking for your significant other is a sure-fire way to win him over or at least to show him your romantic and culinary prowess. I know what you’re thinking: “What do I cook? I can’t cook.” Fear not, dear friend; this is a dinner not the BAR exam. With a few tips, you’ll be a smooth, suave, chef extraordinaire in no time.
First of all, cooking for your sweetheart is such a grand gesture even if it’s a mega-casual night at home in sweats or if it’s a fancy you-pulled-out-all-the-stops evening. Either way, the expression that you went to the trouble to make dinner for someone is always appreciated. Even if you burn the bread, spill some wine, or forget dessert, you’re making a sweet statement, which your partner will tremendously welcome.
I recommend keeping it pretty casual; it seems more fun that way. Do plan ahead, and do have a shopping list. This isn’t really the time to wing it unless you’re an avid cook already, and this ain’t your first rodeo. In which case, go for it! If you’re no culinary genius, then plan on a couple different things, like two courses and dessert. Get a bottle of wine, and make sure you have at least a couple matching plates, glasses, and so on.
Now, for the food, what will make the biggest impact without requiring slave-like preparation and purchasing equipment you’ve never heard of? Keep it fairly simple but impressive by using high-quality meat and produce and bright, flavorful ingredients.
For the first course
This doesn’t have to be crazy. It could be as simple as a charcuterie board. Serve mixed olives, gherkins or capers, torn bakery bread, a rich balsamic vinegar on the side, and perhaps some soft butter and roasted nuts. Add a little block of aged cheese, like pecorino or an aged Gruyere, and some blackberry jam. For the meat, get a link of a high quality coppa sausage or cured chorizo from your nearest butcher. A charcuterie platter is impressive because it’s trendy and not something many people eat at home. Serve it all on a big cutting board for a swanky, rustic presentation.
For the main course
Since you saved time on not cooking anything in the first course, you can spend a little more time on this dish. I think spaghetti is boring and outplayed for date-nights, plus the extra carbs will make you tired. Instead, I always make a protein with some sort of seasonal produce.
Try fish; it’s surprisingly easy to cook at home. Get something that won’t overcook easily, like escolar or halibut—they’re both fattier and richer. Dust them with a nice seasoning, salt, pepper, and maybe some ground fennel seeds, and then pan-fry. Serve with a relish made of fresh mixed herbs, all pureed together in a food processor with lemon zest and extra virgin olive oil. Trout is also a delicious fish, which is often overlooked. If you dip it in beaten egg, season with breadcrumbs, and then pan-fry, it’s outstanding.
As for a side dish, get whatever is in season. Right now, I would definitely go with a sturdy green and perhaps a squash. Black kale is wonderful; to prepare, lightly sauté it in a very hot pan with a little oil, garlic, chili flakes, and a teaspoon of capers. It takes only minutes to cook, and it’s seasonal and delicious.
Try kombucha or acorn squash instead of the more common butternut. Simple cut it in half, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake in a 350 F oven for 40 minutes or until very tender. Remove to cool, then scoop out the squash, discarding the tough outer skin. Serve with an extra drizzle of a high-quality fruity olive oil and a touch of sherry vinegar.
For the dessert
Don’t get intimidated. You do not have to make a cake or some ridiculous grandiose confection. Keep it simple and beautiful. Use some fresh fruit like apples. Peel and slice four to five apples. Then sauté them with a knob of butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and ½ cup brown sugar for 20 minutes or until very soft and caramelized. Then hit it with a splash of bourbon or brandy, and flambé.
Or, if you don’t want to risk arson, just cook the liquor down until it evaporates, then set aside to cool. Serve the caramel apples with a nice store-bought vanilla bean ice cream or gelato. Garnish with store-bought Madeline’s or fancy little tuille cookies.
Cooking date night is fun. Plus, what’s the worst-case scenario? You burn the fish, and forget the ice cream. Oh well, that means you have to go out instead, and you have a charming memory and funny story for future cooking date nights, where perhaps the tables will be turned.