Just so you know, if you're looking for romance at the table this coming Valentine's Day, it isn't going to come from anything that you eat.
A lot of ink and cyberspace has been devoted to the ultimate in romantic dining, and it would be nice if what we ate really did have a direct effect our inclinations. But the truth is, romance is mostly in our heads. What we eat affects it only if we think it will.
The really sure way to bring romance to the table, then, is to feed our loved ones the foods they love. That is, so long as those foods don't get in the way of romance by requiring the diner's undivided attention or by being distractingly messy.
It should also not be something that we look ridiculous eating - or after we've eaten (like spinach stuck in the teeth). Yes, there's a sensuous element to messy food, but that has its limits. So you might want to avoid things like spare ribs dripping with sauce or spinach dip.
It's also a good idea to avoid things that require a lot of last-minute attention: there's nothing romantic in being, or looking at, a harassed, sweaty mess.
In short, the key to romance at the table lies in inspiring flavors that are well-loved, easy on the cook, and that keep our attention focused where it should be: on one another.
One last thought: if you're alone just now, either by choice or circumstance, don't dismiss romance at your table as having nothing in it for you. I know a handsome widower who cooks a lovely meal for himself every night, and enjoys it by candlelight at a beautifully laid table.
Because he knows he's worth it. And so are you.
In the end, because food and romance are so personal, only you can devise the perfect romantic menu that works for you. But to help get you started, here are some of my own ideas. Truth to tell, in my household, we'd rather spend money on luxuries other than filet steaks. Such things are beyond many budgets, even for special occasions, so I'm offering alternatives that are budget friendly.
Oysters a la Grecque
If you both love oysters, there's no better way to begin a romantic meal than with ice-cold raw or piping-hot broiled oysters on the half-shell. I've done a lot of oysters on the half-shell over the years in this column, but dressing them la Grecque (Greek-style) makes a fresh change.
1 dozen fresh, live oysters in shell
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Â¼ teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
Â¼ teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1. Open oysters (or have fish monger do it for you) and loosen from shell, discarding shallow shell. Leave oysters in deep shells and nest in rimmed pan filled with crushed ice (for raw) or rock salt or crumpled foil (for broiled). Keep cold.
2. To serve, if broiling, position rack 5 inches from heat source and preheat broiler 15 minutes. Season oysters to taste with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Sprinkle with herbs. For raw, transfer to chilled platter and serve at once. For broiled, place under broiler until plumped and gills curled, then transfer to platter and serve at once.
Homemade Gravlax with Capers and Dill
If oysters aren't your thing, homemade gravlax is an impressive alternative, and is embarrassingly easy to make. The only hitch is that it does have to cure, so begin at least two days before you plan to serve it. You'll have leftovers, but with gravlax, that's never a bad thing!
1 pound skin-on salmon fillet (in one piece)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 rounded tablespoon chopped fresh dill or 1 heaped teaspoon dried dill, plus more for serving
Thin-sliced brown bread (party pumpernickel is fine) or toast
2-4 tablespoons unsalted butter or cream cheese, softened
2-3 tablespoons nonpareil capers, drained
1. Pat fish dry and feel for pin bones. Remove bones with tweezers or needle-nose pliers. Mix together salt and sugar. Rub both sides of fish with salt and sugar, using all of it. Sprinkle dill over flesh side of fish.
2. Place in zipper-locking bag, squeeze out air and seal. Put in rimmed baking dish and weight with second dish of similar size. Refrigerate 48 hours, turning fish every 12 hours. When fully cured, rinse under cold running water, pat dry and slice as thinly as possible with very sharp, thin knife. Garnish with dill and serve with brown bread, butter or cheese, capers and lemon.
Pan-Broiled Beef Filets with Bourbon Deglace
Despite its posh reputation and correspondingly dear cost, the filet is the least flavorful of all steaks, but bourbon brings out the best in it. This does have to be made at the last minute, but it's quick and simple.
It's best made in a well-seasoned iron skillet. If you don't have one, you can use a regular heavy-bottomed skillet (not non-stick), but brush both the pan and the steaks with oil before adding them to it. Adapted from my book "Essentials of Southern Cooking" (Lyons Press/2013).
2 beef tenderloin steaks (about 6 ounces each), cut 2 inches thick
Whole black pepper in a mill
3 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into small chunks, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallot or yellow onion
2 tablespoons bourbon
Â½ cup beef broth, preferably homemade
2 teaspoons chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1. Bring steaks to room temperature. Wrap well in paper towel and pat dry. Unwrap and sprinkle generously with black pepper. Press pepper into steaks on all sides.
2. Preheat well-seasoned 9- to 10-inch iron skillet over medium or heavy-bottomed regular skillet (not non-stick) until almost smoking hot (about 4 minutes). Raise heat to medium high, add steaks and sear well, about 1-2 minutes per side. Steak may seem to be sticking but will naturally release from pan when ready to turn. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking, turning once, until done to taste, about 2 more minutes per side for rare, 3-4 for medium-rare. Remove pan from heat and transfer steaks to a warm plate. Season well with salt.
3. Add 1 tablespoon butter and shallots to pan. Return to medium heat and saute, stirring constantly, until golden-brown 1-2 minutes. Standing clear of pan, slowly pour in bourbon, and leaning away, carefully ignite. Allow flame to burn out, then add broth and any juices that may have accumulated on plate. Boil until liquid is reduced and syrupy, stirring and scraping to loosen any cooking residue, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, swirl in remaining 2 tablespoons butter and parsley, pour sauce over steaks and serve at once.
On a budget or not really a fan of rare steak? This homey dish is still romance-inspiring, and in fact is what would make my own loved one the happiest.
1 pound cubed steak
Flour spread on a dinner plate
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
2-3 tablespoons lard, bacon drippings or butter
2-3 tablespoons olive, peanut or vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced
About 1 to 1 Â½ cups meat broth, preferably homemade
1. Cut steak into pieces 3 inches across. Season with salt and pepper. Heat fat and oil in lidded cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet over a medium-high heat. Roll steaks lightly in flour, shake off excess and add to pan. Brown well on both sides and remove to warm plate. Add onion to pan and saute, stirring often and scraping pan to loosen cooking residue, until onion is softened and golden, about 5 minutes.
2. Sprinkle heaped tablespoon of flour over onions and stir until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute, then slowly stir in broth and raise heat to high and bring to boil, scraping and stirring constantly. Return steaks and any collected juices to pan, add splash or so of Worcestershire to taste, then cover and lower the heat to a slow simmer.
3. Simmer, occasionally stirring and turning steaks, until fork tender and gravy is thick enough to suit you, about 30 to 45 minutes. If too thick, thin with a little water. Remove meat to warm platter. Taste gravy and adjust seasonings, and pour over the meat. Serve at once.
You can't go wrong following either steak with a salad dressed with champagne vinaigrette. Allow about 3 lightly packed cups mixed greens or all romaine torn into bite-sized pieces, mixed with julienned carrot sticks, a thin-sliced radish, a handful of grape tomatoes, halved, a couple of thinly sliced scallions or green onions, toasted pecans or cashews and whatever else, within reason, suits your fancy.
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar (available at specialty grocers)
Â½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Whisk together vinegar, mustard, pinch of salt and pepper to taste.
2. Slowly whisk in 1 tablespoon oil, a little at a time. Taste and keep adding more oil by droplets as needed. Taste, and adjust salt and pepper. Can be made an hour or so ahead.
3. To serve, whisk to re-incorporate if needed and pour over salad. Gently toss until greens are evenly coated and glossy. Serve immediately.
Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee for Two
You'll need a kitchen torch for this, available at most kitchenware stores. The alternative is to caramelize the sugar with the oven broiler, but I've never had any luck with that method. Adapted from James Peterson's classic, "Glorious French Food" (Wiley/2002).
1 cup heavy cream
Â½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped but reserved
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
Â¼ cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons (for the topping)
Strawberries Grand Marnier, for garnish (recipe follows)
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 325 F. Bring cream, vanilla bean and seeds to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and let infuse 5 minutes. Remove from heat and remove bean pod, but leave seeds. Let cool slightly.
2. Whisk egg yolks and Â¼ cup sugar together in glass or ceramic bowl. Slowly and lightly whisk in cream, not whisking hard so that cream does not foam up.
3. Pour custard into 5-inch round or oval gratin dish. Set dish in rimmed baking pan and set dish on center rack of oven. Carefully pour hot tap water around edges until it comes halfway up side of dish. Loosely cover entire pan with foil, carefully slide rack back in place, close oven, and bake until just set, about 45-55 minutes. Start checking after 40 minutes or so. Custard should not ripple when gently shaken.
4. Carefully remove custard from water bath pan and let cool 30 minutes. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour, then cover with plastic wrap. Can be made a day ahead.
5. When ready to finish and serve, remove from refrigerator and uncover. Sprinkle evenly with sugar and glaze with kitchen torch until sugar is bubbling and browned without burning. Let cool at least 5 minutes before serving with Strawberries Grand Marnier and two spoons.
Strawberries in Grand Marnier
Florida strawberries are now in season and make a perfect end to a romantic meal. In fact, for a lighter and more budget-friendly finish to the meal, dispense with the creme brulee and just serve these berries topped with a little fresh whipped cream. For two, double all the ingredients and allow about Â¼ cup heavy cream, whipped at the last minute.
Don't make this more than two hours ahead or the berries might get mushy.
Serves 2 as garnish for Creme Brulee, 1 as a dessert with that dollop of whipped cream.
5-6 small strawberries
Â¼ teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
2 teaspoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1. Wash, hull and cut berries into quarters or smaller. Sprinkle to taste with sugar and add zest. Toss and let stand until sugar dissolves and syrup is formed, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.
2. Just before serving, add liqueur and toss to mix.