Valentine's dinner for rookies

Published On: Jan 12 2012 03:40:18 PM EST   Updated On: Jan 25 2011 07:33:58 AM EST
Woman in bed

Twenty years ago, this article would have had a title like "Men's Cooking Guide for Valentine's Day," but in this age of takeout and convenience food, the cooking knowledge gap has narrowed, with almost as many clueless females as males out there.

So, it's a couple of days before Valentine's Day, and your significant other has just announced that their fondest wish is for you to prepare a romantic dinner just for the two of you.

OK, first you'll have to get up off the floor. Kicking your heels and railing at the unfairness of the universe is not going to get the meal on the table. With just a little bit of advance planning and some dead simple cooking, you can produce a meal that will convince your beloved that you are a gourmet cook as well as an incurable romantic.

Appetizer

Your first course is really the make-or-break time. A good one will establish the belief that you are, in fact, a good cook, and cast all succeeding dishes in a favorable light. A poorly executed or bad-tasting one will have your partner dubious about what follows, and thus more apt to find fault.

So, what you want is something classic and identifiable, but with an original twist that will banish any notions that you might have snagged it at a deli and simply repackaged ... something just a little bit exotic, but not so "out there" that it will create discord with the other dishes. I've got just the recipe, and as a special bonus, it can be made the day before and refrigerated. It's actually even better the second day. Just click here for Paulette Mitchell's Roasted Red Pepper Hummus recipe.

You can even feed it to each other on wedges of pita bread if you're into that sort of thing (and you should be).

Soup

Now, the soup course can easily be considered optional. And given the type of soup I'm suggesting I'd be perfectly understanding if you chose to skip it. However, never underestimate the romantic appeal of that layer of sinful melted cheese atop ...

French Onion Soup

2 tbsp. butter or margarine

2 c. thinly sliced yellow onions

3 c. beef broth

2 slices French bread (1 inch thick)

½ c. grated Gruyere cheese, grated

Before you start cooking, head to Pier 1 or your local kitchen shop and procure two soup crocks. Make sure they are oven-safe. Stoneware is best.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sautée until lightly browned.

Combine onions and beef broth in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Preheat broiler with top rack set far enough down to accommodate soup crocks.

Place one bread slice in each crock. Fill with soup to within ½ inch of the top. Top with generous amounts of cheese. Place crocks on a baking sheet and put under broiler just until cheese is lightly browned on top.

The soup can be made the day before and warmed up before the final step. That way, you'll be just minutes from the finished product.

The fact that you use yellow onions, along with the browning in butter, will kill almost all of the "onion breath" potential. This soup is a decadent classic and will really impress.

Main Dish

This is the one dish you won't be able to make ahead, but it's a very quick one, and the flavor and appearance will be a sure hit.

How do I know? I've used it several times over the years, and it's always been a hit.

Scallops With Red Cabbage

8-10 large sea scallops, with "foot" trimmed off (your seafood shop can do this)

2 tbsp. butter

½ c. all-purpose flour

1 small head red cabbage, cut in strips

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tsp. water

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Dust scallops on one side only with flour. Shake off excess.

Melt butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place scallops, floured side down, in skillet, and cook uncovered for 3 minutes, until a crust forms on the bottom. Cover and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes until cooked through. Remove to a plate and cover with a sheet of foil to keep warm.

Pour off any leftover butter from skillet, keeping as many of the little flour "bits" as possible. Add olive oil and garlic and heat over medium heat until hot. Add cabbage and water and cook 2 or 3 minutes, just until cabbage is wilted. Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and stir well.

Serve with scallops atop a mound of cabbage in the center of the plate. Await compliments.

Dessert

Now, this is where we can run into a bit of trouble. This may well be the most important course, but it's also the most personal. Does your significant other like dark, milk or white chocolate? Fruit? Cake? Pie?

If you choose the "safe" route and purchase your dessert item from a bakery, and I'm not for a moment faulting you for doing so, be sure and personalize the presentation with some chopped mint scattered on the plate, an artistic drizzle of chocolate or caramel, and perhaps some fresh fruit such as strawberries or grapes.

If you're feeling adventurous and would like to try your own hand at dessert, check out the Valentine's section of this site. We'll be bringing you some delicious dessert options of many types.

For a real home run, Paulette Mitchell has two that will mark you as not just a gourmet, but a true artiste in the world of chocolate. Her Triple Chocolate-Cassis Brownies may just be the apex of the brownie art, and the Chocolate-Cherry Bread Pudding With Sherry Cream is ... well let's just say you might end up carrying the dish to another location to finish dessert. And both of these are simple enough for even the most rookie cooks to create!