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 appetisers 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 date 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. She decided on homemade pizza and 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 when it’s okay 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. “It can be as simple as melting chocolate over some beautiful berries. I don’t think people should feel pressured 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 advised, “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 do wear 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 about it.
“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. Really.
“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.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service
LOBSTER TACOS WITH SPRING ONION-CORIANDER SAUCE
This recipe from author Heather Christo makes enough to serve four, but you can half the recipe or save leftovers for lunch the next day.
Makes 4 servings
Spring onion-coriander sauce
6 sprigs spring onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeno or bird’s eye chilli, roughly chopped
1 cup fresh coriander, packed
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
salt to taste
2 sprigs spring onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 bunch radishes, trimmed, thinly sliced
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tsp vegetable oil
salt to taste
1 tbsp oil
2 sprigs spring onion, thinly sliced
zest of 2 limes
1 tbsp lime juice
350g cooked lobster meat, chopped into bite-size pieces
salt to taste
8 corn tortillas
For the sauce
Combine the spring onion, jalapeno, coriander, vegetable oil and lime juice in a blender. Pulse on high until you have a smooth green sauce. Season to taste with salt. Set aside.
For the salad
Gently combine the spring onion, coriander, radish, 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 spring onion and lime zest. Stir in the cooked lobster to gently warm the lobster.
Add lime juice to taste and season well with the salt.
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 coriander-radish salad onto the tortillas. Top with a generous amount of the lobster and then drizzle with the green sauce.
Serve immediately with avocado slices and lime wedges.
SIZZLING MOROCCAN PRAWN, COUSCOUS AND RAINBOW SALSA
Adapted from British chef and cookbook author Jamie Oliver’s latest book Everyday Super Food.
Makes 2 servings
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic
sea salt to taste
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 good pinch of saffron
6 large raw shell-on jumbo prawns, deveined
Couscous and rainbow salsa
1/2 cup whole-wheat or regular couscous
400g colourful mixed seasonal vegetables, such as peas, asparagus, fennel, zucchini, celery, spring onion, red or yellow bell peppers
1 fresh red chilli pepper
1/2 bunch of fresh mint (15g)
salt to taste
2 tbsp plain yoghurt
1 pomegranate, optional
To prepare prawns
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 orange into wedges (leaving the skin on) and toss with the prawns and the marinade.
Set aside to rest for about 10 minutes.
To prepare couscous
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 colourful seasonal vegetables and the chilli pepper. Put them into a nice serving bowl.
Pick a few pretty mint leaves and put to one side. Destem and finely chop the rest; add to the vegetables in the bowl.
Juice the orange and the lemon; add juices to the bowl. Lastly, add the couscous, toss together and season to perfection.
To cook prawns and finish
Put a large nonstick skillet on high heat. Add the prawns, marinade, and orange wedges; cook until the prawns are gnarly and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes.
Arrange them on top of the couscous. Dollop with yoghurt, then halve the pomegranate and, holding it cut-side down, bash the back so the sweet jewels fall out and tumble over everything. Sprinkle with reserved mint leaves and serve.