As promised, here are some very simple ways to create impressive, romantic alternatives to going out on Valentine’s Day.
Oysters and champagne. The most difficult part of this is getting the little buggers open. If that is something that you are comfortable with, and your Valentine likes oysters, this makes for a great starter to a meal, or a wonderful centerpiece to a light dinner to go with your wine. If you can’t shuck your own, see if your fish monger will do it for you and give you the bottom shells. Most will be happy to do so. Here is what you do:
First, lay out your oysters in their shells on a broiler safe pan. Lightly sprinkle with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Slowly cook some bacon over med-low heat until crispy, taking care to not get any burnt flavors. After the oysters have had some time with the lemon juice, about 15 minutes should be good, put a splash of champagne over each and lightly salt. Broil for about 5-7 minutes, until they start to appear cooked on the edges but still look plump. Pull out of the broiler, crumble some bacon on top and serve with a glass of champagne.
Cheese and fruit plate. This is nearly impossible to screw up. Arrange a variety of fruits and sliced cheeses. Serve with some fancy crackers and toast points (get some good bread, toast, cut into small “sailboats”). Things to keep in mind: Strong cheese needs strong wine. Red wine is usually better with cheese than white wine. Sparkling wine goes with everything!
Mussels. If you can get fresh ones, this is very easy, and fantastic tasting. Get a heavy bottomed pot with enough room for the mussels. Check for any dead ones, check for beards and remove, then scrub and rinse very well. Put your pot on med-low heat, drizzle in some olive oil and sweat a couple minced shallots and very 2 or 3 very well minced cloves of garlic. As soon as you start to smell the garlic, which won’t take long at all, add a couple of cups of crisp white wine and turn up the heat until it starts to boil. Stir in your mussels, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook until the shells open, about 6-10 minutes. Remove the mussels and place in a big bowl, discard any shells that failed to open. As the liquid simmers whisk in a few chunks of cold butter. Pour the liquid over the mussels, sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley, and serve with lots of crusty bread. Muscadet is a great, and cheap, match for this, but any crisp unoaked white should be good.
Chicken breasts and green beans. Boy, that really sounds boring, doesn’t it? Not if you do it like this: Get two nice, fresh, plump breasts. Sounds less boring already. Lightly season with salt and pepper and place in pan over medium-high heat with a little olive oil. A non-stick pan is the most fool-proof choice here, but go with what you are comfortable with. Cook until done and the chicken has good color, but is still very juicy. Remove from pan and lightly cover with foil. Drain off any grease or oil and reduce heat to med-low. Add a chunk of butter and lightly saute a couple of chopped shallots. When the shallots start to get slightly translucent turn the heat to med-high and immediately deglaze with 1/2 cup of white wine, then add 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Toss in some capers and reduce by a little more than half. Squeeze in the juice of one lemon. Continue to reduce until you have just enough sauce, then whisk in enough goat cheese to thicken. Salt and pepper to taste, then return the chicken to coat and warm. Guaranteed not to bore. A nice sauvignon blanc goes well with this.
For the beans, saute cleaned, fresh green beans in a little butter with some chopped shallots. When the color of the beans starts to darken, add some thin strips of red bell pepper. Cook until the beans are tender-crisp. Sprinkle on a small amount of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, then stir. Serve right away.
Those are just a few ideas, feel free to add your own, or to let me know how things turn out if you take my suggestions. Done correctly, any of these should be better than over-paying someone who under-delivers, not to mention the extra credit you will get for your efforts should be well worth it.