THE QUESTION: "My significant other and I agreed to have a quiet night in, NOT an expensive night out for Valentine’s Day. I’m responsible for the planning and cooking of food, which I was excited about at first, but now the day is approaching fast and I’m suffering from food block (if that’s a thing). Can you help brainstorm cooking a romantic dinner at home? I’m confident-ish in the kitchen, meaning I have successfully followed complicated recipes in the past, but am still nervous about anything coming out correctly until the first bite has been taken.”
The Answer: I think my meta advice would be to take a deep breath and focus on ingredients you are familiar with. The act of cooking with love is all that is needed to show emotion through food. But I do have some ideas, and things to think about to help spark your imagination for a great meal.
Personally I think key to elevating your dinner from everyday to romantic is accounting for all of the senses. Before going any further I must make very clear that for the love of all things edible, DO NOT use scented candles. In fact go ahead and completely forget I even mentioned them, that is how far away they should be from your dinner.
So what do I mean by accounting for all the senses you ask? Let me illustrate the concept with chicken skin. The aroma of a roasting bird is one of the most comforting smells imaginable. The burnished golds and browns on the skin of a well roasted chicken are like abstract art. And if you can tell that it is puffed, oh so slightly away from the meat underneath, you can anticipate the flood of juices and fat the first bite will bring. And even if you insist on being more civilized than I prefer and utilize knife and fork, you will hear a tender cracking, giving you an imagined sense of feel.
It is not easy to start your planning thinking about the senses. But as you go forward with your planning try to remember to take into account the colors, sounds, smells and textures involved as well as the interplay between them for a great experiential meal.
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Going beyond the senses, consider the season. Winter produce often has a saturated red or orange color and sweet taste that goes along with Valentine's Day thematically: carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, blood oranges, etc. There is a popular, highly pin-able, idea that floats around the internet this time of the year (and apple harvest season): apple roses. Place slices of apple inside a strip of puff pastry, roll it up and bake in a muffin tin, then voila: individual roses of apple pie. I would suggest using this technique with one of the richly colored seasonal root vegetables sliced similarly to the apples and serving it with whipped goat cheese. A perfect, and perfectly cute appetizer.
And then of course, there are the innumerable aphrodisiacs. Mostly, I’d say don’t bother trying to plan around them since pretty much every food item has been considered amorous/potent at one point in time or another. Listen to this podcast on the history and science of aphrodisiacs to learn all about it (not safe for work). If you and your partner like a good tongue-in-cheek reference with your food, you’ll get a ton of ideas. Also, thanks to the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, oysters are always a local and seasonal option.
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If none of these paths have inspired you, then go all out with a romantic idyll. Imagine what the perfect trip would be for the two of you and recreate a meal that could occur in that location. If you imagine a trip to rolling vineyards in Italy, then you need a great bottle of Nebbiolo to drink with polenta and a rich lamb ragu, then something with lots of hazelnuts for dessert. If you see a sleepy beach-side town in Mexico then you need to be sipping a smoky mezcal margarita with broiled fish and tamales. If the location doesn't matter as long as you’re together, then put together a B&B-esque breakfast-for-dinner spread: fried chicken and waffles with spicy honey, chocolate dipped fruit and mimosas sounds pretty good to me.
Hope these ideas have cured your food block (which is totally a thing), and given everyone some great ideas. Remember, February 14th is not the only day of the year a loveingly home-cooked meal is appreciated.