Going out to dinner on valentine’s day can be a bit of a nightmare; everyone else has the same idea and soon you find yourself crammed between endless tables of two, fighting for your busy waiters attention. If you’re lucky, you may see an at-table proposal in some cliché manner, such as on top of a fancy dessert or in a champagne glass. I prefer to stay in, I’ve never been very romantic and am not a huge fan of the holiday but I usually like to make a 3-5 course meal at home. That may seem daunting for those who aren’t seasoned cooks or don’t like to cook much so here’s my easy tips for making an upscale romantic at-home dinner, regardless of your skill level!
1) Set the table – “Oh wow,” you’re thinking, “I obviously know that a table needs plates and cutlery.” But I mean really set it, and make this the first thing you do. Get out the good china – or borrow some from your mom – have a side glass for ice water, proper cutlery for the courses, real napkins, candles, maybe some flowers. I love including a little chocolate or something on the plate for a little something extra, maybe a card. My point is you don’t want to be halfway through your dinner prep and have to stop everything and get the table ready. When your date gets there, a beautifully set table will wow them.
2) Pair up – I’m not talking about finding another human to have dinner with, if you’re reading this I assume you have that bit covered. If you don’t….you have just over 24 hours, figure that out and come back after! I’m talking about alcohol. When you plan your menu, also decide what beer or wine you would like to serve. Most people know the most general rule for both is the lighter the main, the lighter the beer or wine and if you want to get technical, here is a chart for beer, and one for wine. But I think it’s better to have a meaningful choice than one that fits the guidelines; do you remember their favourite wine? Do you have a barrel-aged beer cellaring from a trip you took last year? I think the day of love is the time to grab those out, regardless of what’s on the menu.
3) Dress up your sides – Think of it like choosing the right necklace for that little black dress. Veggies can be a little on the dull side if you just steam them and throw them on a plate, but they also can be beautiful and can add a little finesse to a meal if you let them. Add some slivered almonds to your green beans and toss them in butter. How about some bacon for your Brussel sprouts, crispy onions on your mashed potatoes, or honey and dill on carrots. It’s such an easy way to dress things up without needing to know your way around the kitchen.
4) Pre-plan and pre-plate – When you are doing a coursed menu, you still want as much time with your guests as possible. In this case when there is just the one guest you don’t really want to have them sitting by themselves for more than a couple minutes at a time! To start, plan out your dishes, say there are four; an appetizer, salad, main, and dessert. Ensure you have the cutlery and plates for each and set them out. Then see what you can make in advance, for a dinner like this I would suggest that more than 75% of your cooking and prep should be done beforehand. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you need to have a cold meal, but your chopping, seasoning, and what you can plate, should be done. Set up your salad and pop it back in the fridge, just don’t dress it until you are ready to serve. Then choose dishes that can independently cook while you relax, or that you can prep in advance. Roast sides are perfect for this and things like mashed potatoes that can just be kept warm.
5) Petite portions for the win – I once went to a seven course dinner, with wine pairings, at a hotel and the portions were so big I was full after soup and salad. I think it was at the fifth course that I was presented with a pork chop the size of my face and had to excuse myself, calling my husband in a bit of a panic, so full I was terrified to put another morsel of food in my mouth. Smaller portions not only prevent your date’s stomach from testing its physical limits, they also look prettier. You can do more with your plate when you have the white space to be creative; which brings me to my next item.
6) Add a little garnish – Even the simplest of foods can benefit from a little beautifying. We’re past the time of the parsley sprig on the side, and people are actually consuming kale instead of squishing it between rolled up sandwich meat, but a garnish can still go a long way. Add sauces in fun patterns and try to plan your dish so it has a balance of different colors. A little green onion sliced on top, arugula, microgreens, or pea shoots are always no-fuss secret weapons to fancy meals. The meal below? Just a bunch of leftovers over-top pizza and tossed into pasta. Yup – presentation is huge.
7) Cook what you know – Practice makes perfect, so it’s probably not your best move to try something that is completely out of your wheelhouse. Instead, look for recipes with techniques that are familiar to you, and choose a protein you’ve made before. If you really want to cook a something out of the ordinary, it is a good idea to test it beforehand. If you’re set on challenging yourself, at least look all the online reviews if there are some, to see if people may have some advice for getting the recipe right.
8) Get ready before, but change last minute! I should probably listen to myself on this one, I couldn’t count how many times I have dressed up only to splash oil or spill a sauce on my favourite shirt. When you’re closer to meal time, change and then throw on an apron. Guys, this may not matter to you, but ladies, my advice is to do your hair and makeup beforehand. Again, from experience though less often, I have found myself madly throwing on mascara when guests are ringing my doorbell because I was too busy playing in the kitchen.
9) Don’t skip the sweets! If you are going to skimp out on any course, on valentine’s day, that better not be dessert! Especially since almost all desserts can be made in advance. Not a baker? Head to your local bakery or grocery store, walk PAST the silly pink cupcakes and heart-shaped sugar cookies, and grab two individually sized confections. The best part about buying versus cooking yourself? You can get two types! I almost always make Crème Brûlée since its my husbands favourite, but I have been known to let the professionals look after dessert too.
10) Keep it light – this has a two-fold meaning; firstly easy on the carbs, if you do choose pasta, ensure it’s not size kind of bowl you would consume as a growing teen. Secondly, have fun with it! Food is an adventure and being able to cook your sweetie a meal while pretending like it’s a fancy restaurant is half the fun. No need to stress, if you’re with someone you love, they will just be grateful for the effort. Any mishaps you will both probably just laugh about later. So have fun, and if you cook up a romantic dinner this valentine’s day, or any another, let me know how it went!