Some say the route to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, and though I haven’t found that true, some female friends claim that women are impressed when men cook for them. And I do like to cook.
With that in mind, I was asked to suggest a romantic dinner a man might prepare for Valentine’s Day.
After thinking a bit, I realized that there were really two options: an impressive meal from a man who doesn’t normally cook, and one from a food nut like me.
There was also the question of romance versus lust. Most of us remember the dinner scene between Tom and Mrs. Waters (Albert Finney and Joyce Redman) in “Tom Jones.” That was lust. A romantic dinner would be far more subtle.
And then there was the question of whether a romantic dinner should include purported aphrodisiacs like oysters, asparagus and chocolate. Of course it should, even if there’s no proof they work. Reality in this case may well be perception.
A noncook’s dinner
Someone who doesn’t cook regularly might lean more toward the lusty side, and what’s better than food you eat with your fingers? You can put together a great meal to eat that way using the right prepared foods. The secret is to make it special.
Here’s a suggested menu for a lusty dinner:
• Oysters on the half shell to start. Opening oysters is certainly a manly task; think of cavemen. Forget the cocktail sauce, however. Serve with slices of lemon or lime, or a delicate mignonette sauce, but they’re really best with nothing to cover the delicate and provocative taste. Hog Island at Oxbow Public Market sells oysters in bulk if you order ahead.
• A salad of romaine spears to pick up and dip in shared Caesar dressing, the way it was originally served.
• A roasted chicken to rip apart with your fingers. You can get a good chicken at many places, including Folio Enoteca at the Oxbow Public Market, and many supermarkets and delis.
Or cook one: It’s easy. Rub with butter, salt and pepper and roast for an hour at 375 degrees. Don’t forget to remove the giblet packet stored inside first.
• A Dungeness crab to rip apart works, too.
• Fat asparagus spears to pick up the way the British do, and Hollandaise sauce to dip them in. It only takes a few minutes to steam or boil asparagus, but don’t overcook them or they flop.
• Long oven-roasted potato spears, perhaps sprinkled with truffle powder or oil, also to be eaten with your fingers.
Be sure to have plenty of cloth napkins handy!
• A chocolate dessert, of course. Bakeries sell sinful chocolate decadence and other such treats.
For wine, obviously, bubbles are best. My preference is a sparkling brut rosé like those from local wineries Schramsberg, Chandon, Mumm or Domaine Carneros. It would be perfect with everything up to the dessert, but will likely to be gone by then anyway. If you run out of bubbles, a Carneros pinot is perfect with the roasted chicken. It even works well with the asparagus, which is considered unfriendly to wine, due to the lemony Hollandaise accompaniment.
For dessert, one possibility is a sweet sparkler like Schramsberg’s Cremant, Mumm’s M, or Chandon’s Riche. Another is a sweet dessert wine like the faux ports made here, especially one from a tannic grape like cabernet or petite sirah to balance the bitter tannins in the chocolate.
A home chef’s romantic dinner
The ardent home chef may be more likely to be romantic and sensitive than lusty. Here are some suggestions for his meal.
Start with caviar — from the tin, eaten with mother-of-pearl spoons or ice cream sample spoons if you don’t have pearl ones. Accompany it with toast points but forget the onions and eggs, which obscure the delicate caviar. And remember that relatively inexpensive American farmed caviar is excellent. You don’t have to contribute to the extinction of Caspian sturgeon.
An alternative starter would be Oyster Rockefeller or one of its cousins, or a steamed artichoke to share with melted butter if it’s hot, mayonnaise if cold.
The next course would be a soufflé to share, either plain cheese, or possibly spinach, artichoke or asparagus if they’re not used elsewhere in the meal. Soufflés aren’t as scary to make as they sound, but they’re always impressive. (See recipe below).
Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco is famous for serving almost nothing but soufflés, and it’s always high on the list of romantic restaurants.
What could be more romantic than Maine lobster, especially a classic preparation like Lobster Thermidor. Julia Child’s recipe from her classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is longer than this article, but it’s available at www.oprah.com/printrecipe/food/recipesseafood/20090806-orig-julia-child-lobster-thermidor.
If that’s too much to tackle, plain steamed lobsters are great but fall more in the lusty category.
For those who don’t go for lobster, a steak could do the trick, but forget tasteless filet mignon unless you serve it with Béarnaise sauce. Opt for the more flavorful New York, ribeye or shared Porterhouse.
Rice would be ideal with the lobster; perfectly double-fried potatoes with the steak.
Spring asparagus is still the best vegetable, and you can’t beat it with Hollandaise (unless you have Béarnaise on the steak!) And creamed spinach is also perfect.
After all that rich food, a simple salad of lettuce, oil and vinegar would be a welcome palate cleanser.
And the finale: A chocolate fudge cake with molten chocolate center, of course! The recipe follows.
Sparkling wines would again match the food, though a Napa cab would be the best match if you opt for the steak. And the same comments as above apply to the dessert wine. I don’t know where the idea arose that a cabernet is a good match for sweet chocolate, but it’s not. They clash terribly.
Of course, you might also decide that it’s easier to just go out. Most Napa Valley restaurants have special meals for Valentine’s Day; just be certain to make reservations in advance.