Cooking a Valentine's Day dinner for your special someone? Good for you! Seal the deal with these nine easy tips.
1. Have a plan
There are times for spontaneous culinary improvisation, but this is not one of them. Yeah, they cobble something together with pretzels and half a jar of pickle relish every week on Iron Chef, but someone always loses. That would be you. Figure out your menu before the event.
2. Go with what you know
How confident are you in the kitchen? Not so much? I'd leave the gigot farci en croute for another time, and stick to dishes you can easily figure out. A simple, well-made dish served with confidence is always better than a noble attempt buried in wreckage. (Check back tomorrow for a fantastic beef tenderloin that Bridget and I just tried out.)
3. Map it out
What are you going to make? Read through your recipes and make sure you can make them, have all the implements on hand, and that they don't compete for oven time, counter space, or attention at the same time. Print out your recipes and tape them above your work surface for easy reference. Make a simple timeline of preparation order. You won't believe how much thinking this saves in a crunch. I'll give you item #1: "Date arrives: present with flute of champagne".
4. Shop in advance
Once you know your shopping list, be sure it's ready in your pantry at least a day--or more—before. Shop early.
5. Shortcuts are okay—to a point
Want to make a crabmeat quiche, but can't manage crust? It's okay to buy a few prepared items, as long as they're high quality with the fewest number of ingredients. But don't go overboard; you want your date to run away with you, not Trader Joe.
6. If you don't know, ask
How should I cook that side of beef I have hanging in the entry? What wine goes best with pork rinds? Most market employees are actually flattered when someone asks their advice about food pairings and preparations; they're genuinely interested in food and want your business. And you might learn something.
7. Prep, prep, prep
This is an extension of #3 and #4; when you know what your recipes call for, you can often chop, dice, and prep days ahead of the final cooking. When the shallots are minced ahead of time, you can just reach for them as you're cooking, and look like a pro.
8. Don't forget the table
This is paired with #4. Even if you've created a four-star masterpiece, your date is going to be underwhelmed when you invite her to stand over the sink and eat it with you. A couple of matching plates and some candles are a bare minimum. Cloth napkins are a nice touch. Flowers, maybe? Be sure clear off your laundry first.
9. It's supposed to be fun
Nothing ruins the mood like a stressed-out cook. Your date is there for entertainment, not an intervention. Okay, say the duck legs caught fire and now the kitchen is being hosed down by the fire department. If you play it right, you can win major points for nonchalance and charm. Keep it light, keep a sense of humor, and have fun. With any luck you'll be doing it again, next year, for the same person.