Points are always won for degree of difficulty. Handcrafted fettuccine with Bolognese sauce on their first at-home dinner date let my friend Kelly know her now-husband Aaron wasn't playing around.
Kevin made Georges Perrier's braided salmon and sole with spinach pasta for his girlfriend Theera. Given the intricacies of the recipe, they couldn't enjoy that particular labor of love until 1:30 a.m., but she was won over by his efforts.
Flavor definitely counts, of course. Sarah's chicken wrapped in prosciutto with asparagus, new potatoes, and beurre blanc is still one of her husband's most-requested meals.
Conversely, Nick Farina of Verdad and Union Taco invited a bartender to what he thought was a sure-thing first dinner (wild salmon in papillote and asparagus) - only to battle humidity, mosquitos, and the too-late discovery that she didn't like fish. She went on to marry him anyway, which goes to show that with the right person, there's a margin for error.
Nevertheless, it's generally good to take your partner's tastes into account, advises Barclay Prime chef Jeff Froehler. "When my wife and I first met, she didn't have a very adventuresome palate, so I knew my shrimp in pink sauce - my go-to for the girls - would be the first thing I made her. It's simple and easy but impressive."
Rich without being intimacy-killingly heavy and just spicy enough to electrify the palate, the pasta dish hits all the right notes. Best of all, it can be put together very quickly by a busy and not terribly experienced cook. The shrimp is marinated in shallots and garlic before getting a crisping saute. The sauce can be made from scratch, or by doctoring up a good-quality jar of sauce with a bit of cream.
Froehler suggests serving a green salad with a red wine vinaigrette. And something chocolate for dessert: "It doesn't have to be homemade - you could even pick up a couple of cannolis. Let someone else be the pastry chef so you can focus on your evening. But definitely have some good wine or, better yet, champagne to make her feel special. And that way, if the food stinks, you can at least drink."
For the more daring recipient, ingenuity is usually rewarded, says Red Owl Tavern chef Jorge Chicas. Though he has experimented with cooking from around the globe, it was a market-inspired spin on a dish from his native El Salvador that made the woman who would become his wife take notice.
"After a few dates, she was asking me when I'd finally cook for her. We went to the market and brought home some beautiful sweet corn. I added onion, peppers, and jumbo lump crab to make fritters, and served them with a chipotle aioli. She loved the fritters, and thought they were very creative."
Chicas finished off his meal with seared halibut, potatoes and olives laced with lemon vinaigrette, and a simple plate of strawberries with sabayon. The rest is culinary history: They've been married a year and a half.
The fritters are a great date-night dish, because both partners can participate, one making the batter and forming the fritters, the other frying them. "Get your significant other involved to help make them," Chicas says. "It's not always the final product that matters but the execution, and the interaction between you."
Chicas' rule of thumb for cooking for prospective partners is to choose dishes that fit your personality and your level of comfort in the kitchen. "I think you should always be yourself," he says. "But don't be afraid to play around and have fun, improvise when you can."
If the meal is a Barry White song, atmosphere is the seductive spoken-word intro. When Al Paris of Paris Bistro first met his wife of 27 years, he invited her to dinner at a restaurant in their hometown of San Francisco. Dessert at his place, a fig and almond torte, was waiting amid a sea of votive candles, iced champagne, and the bay breeze through an open window.
"I just wanted to show her how serious I was about my craft. It was a magical evening and we reminisce about it to this day," he says.
The torte itself came from his grandmother's original recipe, to which he added fresh figs and pine nuts he found in the farmer's market. A version of it, with a strawberry and apple topping, is on Paris Bistro's opening menu. "Dessert is always fun-loving. Chocolate is perfectly fine and it's good for you, but it's also predictable for Valentine's Day. I think it's good to change it up."
Corn and Crab Fritters
Makes about 35 fritters
2½ cups cooked fresh corn, about 5 ears
2 dried chiles de Arbol, minced
½ cup finely diced white onion
1 tablespoon minced parsley
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup jumbo lump crabmeat
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup milk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
Ground black pepper, to taste
For the Chipotle Aioli:
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons chopped chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large bowl, combine the corn, chiles de Arbol, onion, parsley, garlic, and crabmeat. In another bowl, whisk together flour, milk, egg, salt, sugar, baking powder, and 1/2 cup of water. Season with pepper. Add the corn mixture and stir until well combined. The batter should be slightly runny.
2. Preheat fryer at 375° F. Spoon the mixture into the hot oil, 1 tablespoon per fritter (a cookie scoop works well), and fry until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes total. Fry in batches as necessary, draining the fritters on a baking rack over a baking sheet, or on paper towels.
3. Make the aioli by combining the mayonnaise, chipotles, cilantro, and garlic. Season to taste. Serve the hot fritters with the aioli for dipping.
- From Jorge Chicas of the Red Owl Tavern
Per fritter: 71 calories; 2 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 4 grams fat; 11 milligrams cholesterol; 127 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.
Linguine With Shrimp and Pink Sauce
Makes 2-4 servings
1/2 cup olive oil, divided, plus more for the pasta
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced, divided
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 cup merlot or cabernet
14-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
14-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped basil, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
1 pound fresh U-12 shrimp
1 shallot, minced
1/2 pound linguine
1. In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onion and 2 garlic cloves, along with the red pepper flakes, and cook until soft. Add the wine to the pan and bring to a boil. Cook until reduced by half, then lower the heat to a simmer.
2. Drain the whole tomatoes, reserving the juice for later. Crush the tomatoes by hand into the pan, and then add the already-crushed tomatoes and the herbs. Allow the mixture to simmer for at least an hour. Add the reserved tomato juice to thin sauce if needed. Stir in the cream and season to taste. Cover and keep warm.
3. Meanwhile, toss the shrimp with ¼ cup olive oil, shallot, and remaining garlic. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes and no more than an hour.
4. Cook the linguine in boiling water as directed. Drain pasta, then toss with a bit of olive oil (don't rinse) and set aside.
5. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saute pan. Remove the shrimp from the marinade, season with salt, and add it to the pan. Cook until pink and firm, no more than 3 minutes total, turning as needed. Add the cooked pasta to the warm sauce and toss, adding more olive oil if needed. Add shrimp to the pasta. Serve in bowls, garnished with additional basil and parsley.
- Courtesy of Jeff Froehler, Barclay Prime
Per serving (based on 4): 708 calories; 37 grams protein; 51 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 36 grams fat; 321 milligrams cholesterol; 502 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.
Almond and Fig Torte
Makes 8 servings
4 ounces sweet butter, softened to room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
3/4 cup sugar
12 ounces almond paste
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup almond flour, sifted
1 cup dried black mission figs, stemmed, halved, and soaked in hot water
1/2 cup pine nuts
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 10-inch springform pan with butter. Add the remaining butter and sugar to the bowl of a standing mixer. With the paddle attachment, cream until fluffy. Add the almond paste, eggs, and vanilla and mix until incorporated. Add the baking powder and almond flour and mix until incorporated.
2. Pour batter into prepared pan. Drain the figs and then arrange them cut-side up on top. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the figs. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until the edges of the cake are browned and the center is set. (The cake will be dense and soft, with the texture of almond paste.) Turn the oven off, crack the door of the oven, and let the cake rest in the oven for 20 minutes more. Slice and serve.
- From Al Paris, Heirloom and Paris Bistro
Per serving: 557 calories; 10 grams protein; 58 grams carbohydrates; 47 grams sugar; 35 grams fat; 112 milligrams cholesterol; 120 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber.