Setting the scene
Eager to impress with home-cooked romance, but not quite sure whether the pots and pans will get the better of you? Help is at hand as Ramona Depares brings you the cheat’s guide to hassle-free hosting, with some cunnning pre-planning.
Hosting the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner conjures visions of Mission Impossible coupled with The Day the Earth Stood Still – in my case, anyway. Editing The Times’ food and drink magazine has certainly helped instil a stronger appreciation for the good things in life. But turned me into Nigella Lawson, it most certainly has not.
Which is why you are unlikely to find me as the protagonist of this story, now that the fires of initial romance have been somewhat, ahem, subdued. This is not to say that I haven’t learnt a trick or two along the years. And the first trick was not to expect to pull off a miracle in the kitchen two hours before the victim, erm, I mean the honoured guest, shows up, and emerge looking as though you spent the day chilling at the spa.
My advice: pick a couple of simple recipes that can be prepared from the day before, so that on the actual night, you can impress and greet your guest with a glass of bubbly at the door, rather than a frazzled hairdo and an even more frazzled temper.
So that’s the basic strategy sorted. Now on to the nitty-gritty. When picking your menu, bear in mind that you don’t want to overwhelm yourself or the potential Prince/ss Charming (or Frog, depending on how your luck falls on the night) with a dinner that is too heavy. After all, witty post-prandial banter – maybe more? – is what you are after here, as opposed to a snoreful and silent session in front of the box.
Bad moves include anything heavy on pastry, sauces and carbs. These will not only make your tummy bloat like there’s no tomorrow, but you will also wind up fighting a bad case of drowsiness roughly 15 minutes after finishing dinner. Good moves include anything light that will quell your hunger without making you feel over-full: think light wraps, salads, bresaola, white meats and fish, sushi (only if you’re ordering this in, though) and sashimi.
Finally, unless we’re talking long-term partner here, do not forget to check whether your date happens to suffer from any allergies, is vegan, or vegetarian.
To break the ice
Think dainty hors d’oeuvres, some of which may need to be prepared on the day rather than before – however, little work is required so there is no need to stress about it.
One of my favourite icebreakers – and do make sure you get a bottle of Prosecco for this part of dinner – is carpaccio. Just buy your preferred type of meat or fish (don’t skimp on quality), arrange the slices a bit artistically on a plate, squeeze oodles of fresh lemon juice, accompany with some grissini (lighter than bread, less hassle than toasted triangles), et voilà.
My own personal favourite is venison carpaccio, but it’s not that easy to come by. If you’re really keen, you can ask your butcher to order the right cut from beforehand. If both of you are into fish, swordfish carpaccio has a beautifully mild taste, salmon is a tad stronger... but you can always fall back on the tried-and-tested beef carpaccio if unsure.
The recipe is very basic and requires very little work – prepare it the day before, place it in a sealed plastic container overnight and plate an hour before your date kicks off. This can be done for most kinds of carpaccio.
If carpaccio is not your thing, you can always get away with some homemade dips and crudités. Do not be tempted to buy the ready-made stuff as these will only add 40 minutes max to your cooking time the day before.
Instead of going for the usual suspects (tuna, salmon, cheese and the like), try to get creative. Think Greek Olive Dip – blend Greek olives, black pepper, grated parmesan cheese, half a tablespoon lemon juice, garlic, fresh basil, mayonnaise; Tzatsiki – blend sour cream, grated cucumber, garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt; Honey & Mustard – blend equal part mayonnaise, honey and mustard, salt and cayenne pepper; Italian Dipper – blend minced basil, chopped parsley, minced garlic, dried thyme, dried oregano, add olive oil and fresh lemon juice and serve with chunks of bread.
To get in the mood
Forget serving some massive plate of pasta or rice. Think delicate flavours and small portions. Soup is always a good choice that can definitely be prepared beforehand, even as long as three days ahead. It involves quite an amount of pots, pans and patience so it might be best to get it out of the way before the rest of the dinner.
Pumpkin and sweet potato and mushroom are always good choices. Do not be tempted to go for ready-made. Seriously, the difference is instantly evident.
If you prefer something more substantial, opt for a classic, Italian parmigiana. Featuring eggplant, tomatoes and Parmigiano, it is a simple dish – however, the marriage of these ingredients, when done well, leads to spectacular results. It’s also hearty enough to satisfy most appetites without weighing you down. Make sure you do keep to starter-sized portions because even soup and veggie bakes can be quite filling.
Prepare your parmigiana the day before and store in the fridge, making sure you cover well with tin foil.
To seal the deal
You have two options at this point and it very much depends on the level of food diversity that your guest is willing to accept. Many Maltese still feel cheated without a meat or a fish dish – in this case, you will need to go with the boringly traditional.
On the other hand, if your date is quite willing to go ‘alternative’, so to speak, consider a light tart (we’re still talking food here – focus) for the main course.
I wouldn’t suggest spending too much time and effort over this part of the meal. If everything has gone as smoothly as it should have, given all this effort, chances are that by now you’ll be focusing on the... let’s call it chit-chat.
However, a strong sweet tooth cannot be denied so best have some back-up in the shape of chocolates (go with the obvious), a couple of basic liqueurs (go with Frangelico and Grappa) and maybe a light chocolate mousse that will satisfy cravings without making anyone feel like a beached whale.