Romantic meal, no pressure
Chefs offer tips to help make your Valentine’s dinner a wonderful experience.
Recreating the romance of a restaurant at home might mean a few candles, a nice bottle of wine, a carefully crafted menu.
But when cooking for a date for the first time, one of the appetizers might be a helping of anxiety.
Maybe it’s the second date, or the first time you’ve extended an invitation to your dining room table. Either way, cooking for a significant other can seem ripe for pitfalls, and doing it on Valentine’s Day might amplify anxiety.
“You don’t want to be panicking in the kitchen, because that’s not romantic,” said English chef and restaurateur Jamie Oliver.
He suggests keeping Valentine’s food simple. “And light, because you don’t want loads of heavy food sitting in your stomach later in the evening,” he added.
Should you choose to proceed, you’ll need a strategy to keep the holiday romantic — in other words, not letting your fear that the spinach salad is wilted interrupt a candlelit conversation.
“It’s a lot of pressure, especially with new relationships,” said Heather Christo, author of “Heather Christo’s Generous Table: Easy & Elegant Recipes through the Seasons.” “There’s nothing sexy about slaving over the stove and being stressed out.”
Christo recalled making dinner for her now-husband for the first time. Homemade pizza, it was an easy affair made simpler by incorporating birthday dinner guests. Channel this simplicity, instead of trying a five-course meal you might regret embarking on five minutes before your date arrives.
After all, cooking can create a crush, or crush the mood.
“Cooking for someone, it’s an intimate sort of act,” said Marni Battista, a Los Angeles-based dating coach
and founder of Dating With Dignity.
Battista, and the chefs, gave us some of their tips.
Don’t aim too high. “The name of the game is simple,” Christo said.
This is a time where it’s OK to stay in your comfort zone.
“You don’t want to be nervous about the date and then be nervous about what you’re cooking,” Battista said.
For example, Christo suggests braising — something that takes a long time, but requires nearly no prep. She also suggested broiled lobster that she promises takes only 30 minutes, including making rice.
“Most of us can make rice,” she added. “You just assemble it and stick it in the oven and take it out, and it’s perfect.”
“And don’t forget dessert,” she advised. “Beautiful berries, melt some chocolate in the microwave. I don’t think people should feel pressure to make flourless cake.”
Prepare in advance. Really. The Seattle-based Christo, who used to host events as a caterer and private chef, said advance work is key.
“Definitely read the recipe ahead of time,” she said. “Make sure you go grocery shopping ahead of time.”
Battista would advise clients, on top of that, to do a practice run in the days before.
“You don’t want to be in the kitchen the whole time totally stressing out about the timing,” she said. “If you do it before, you’re going to end up being more confident.”
And what about the setting? Well, maybe not balloons and roses on every surface. Battista advises, “The little touches make a big difference.”
Throw out some romantic gestures — a flower on the table, good lighting. Buy a few aprons in case your date wants to help but wore a cocktail dress or nice suit.
Include the other person. First, include your date in the preparations — before you buy a car’s worth of ingredients, ask about any allergies or preferences, noted Christo, whose upcoming book is “Pure Delicious: More Than 150 Delectable Allergen-Free Recipes Without Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Soy, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Shellfish, or Cane Sugar.”
Then, consider your own style. Do you prefer to cook alone?
“Some people might say, ‘Go in the other room,’ so they don’t see them freak out,” Battista said.
If you want to incorporate your guest — which Battista recommends — consider something like the lobster taco recipe, which you can assemble together.
Come up with a signature cocktail, or sip some wine while you chop and simmer.
“Ask, ‘What would make you happy, would you like to keep me company, because I’d love that, or would you like to help?’” Battista said.
Added Christo, “You don’t want to be so uptight about what you’re doing that you can’t talk to your date at the same time.”
Be yourself — no matter what. Battista’s 73-year-old father boasts one signature meal: shrimp scampi. “It’s
his thing,” she said. “Own your culinary skills or lack thereof.”
So if you’re cooking the one and only dish you know, and your date asks if you cook every night, be honest.
“Don’t be afraid to really just be yourself,” Battista said. “Being stressed out and trying to be perfect, all of those things are going to undermine the objective of the date, which is to get to know each other.”
And don’t fret if it all falls apart.
“Some of the best memories are from the burnt bread in the oven you forgot because you were in a great conversation,” Battista said. “Sometimes it’s the imperfection that makes the best experience.”
Sizzling Moroccan Shrimp, Fluffy Couscous and Rainbow Salsa
Adapted from British chef and cookbook author Jamie Oliver’s latest book “Everyday Super Food.”
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 4-5 minutes
Makes: 2 servings
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 good pinch of saffron
6 large raw shell-on jumbo shrimp, deveined
1/2 cup whole-wheat couscous
14 ounces colorful mixed seasonal vegetables, such as peas, asparagus, fennel, zucchini, celery, scallions, red or yellow peppers
1 fresh red chili pepper
1/2 bunch of fresh mint (about 1/2 ounce)
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 pomegranate, optional
Strip the rosemary leaves into a mortar and pestle; add the garlic and pound into a paste with a pinch of sea salt. Muddle in 1 tablespoon oil, the paprika, saffron and a swig of boiling water to make a marinade. Cut 1 orange into wedges (leaving the skin on), toss with the shrimp and the marinade; allow to rest, 10 minutes.
Put the couscous into a bowl; add boiling water just until covered. Pop a plate on top and leave to fluff up, about 5 minutes.
Take a bit of pride in finely chopping all your colorful seasonal vegetables and the chili pepper; put them into a nice serving bowl. Pick a few pretty mint leaves and put to one side. De-stem and finely chop the rest; add to the bowl. Juice the remaining orange and the lemon; add juices to the bowl. Add the couscous, toss together and season to perfection.
Put a large nonstick skillet on high heat. Add the shrimp, marinade, and orange wedges; cook until the shrimp are gnarly and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Arrange them on top of the couscous. Dollop with yogurt, then halve the pomegranate and, holding it cut-side down in your fingers, bash the back so the sweet jewels tumble over everything. Sprinkle with the reserved mint leaves and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 575 calories, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 223 mg cholesterol, 81 g carbohydrates, 29 g sugar, 41 g protein, 277 mg sodium, 16 g fiber
With Green Onion Cilantro Sauce
This recipe from Heather Christo makes enough to serve four, but you can save leftovers for lunch the next day.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Green onion-cilantro sauce
6 green onions, roughly chopped
1 jalapeno roughly chopped
1 cup fresh cilantro, packed
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
Cilantro radish salad
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
1 bunch radishes, trimmed, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon oil
Zest of 2 limes and 1 tablespoon lime juice
2 green onions, thinly sliced
12 ounces cooked lobster, chopped into bite-size pieces
8 corn tortillas
For the sauce, combine the onions, jalapeno, cilantro, vegetable oil and fresh lime juice in a blender. Puree on high until you have a smooth green sauce. Season to taste with salt. Set aside.
For the salad, gently combine the green onions, cilantro, radishes, lime juice and oil in a small bowl. Toss to coat; season to taste with salt. Set aside.
For the lobster, heat a medium skillet over medium heat; add the oil. Then add the lime zest and the green onions. Stir in the cooked lobster; gently warm the lobster with the onions and lime zest. Season well with kosher salt; sprinkle with the lime juice.
Heat the corn tortillas (I do this by toasting them in a dry nonstick pan on both sides or on my flat top griddle).
Spoon some of the cilantro-radish salad onto the tortillas. Top with a generous amount of the lobster and then drizzle with the green onion sauce. Serve immediately with avocado slices and lime wedges.
Nutrition information per serving: 389 calories, 22 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 20 g protein, 347 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
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