Valentine’s Day is on a weekday this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t swing a memorable home-cooked dinner for your girlfriend, boyfriend, or even your mom (no judgements here!). The key is employing a few shortcuts (as Ina says, “store-bought is fine,” in many cases) and knowing where to concentrate your efforts.
First, memorize this mantra when trying to impress her or him on Valentine’s day with a dinner that feels special: “Less is more.” That’s sage advice from Christopher Kimball, the founder of Milk Street, a site dedicated to home cooking. Back when he was first starting as a chef, Kimball would host elaborate dinners, churning out seven-plus courses. But these days, he prefers to hone in on one or two easy dishes (we especially like this Grilled Skirt Steak with Red Miso or this easy Chicken Pho) and dedicate the extra time to having a conversation with his guests and, you know, actually enjoying the evening.
The same concept applies to an intimate dinner for two. “It’s going to take you three times longer than you think to make it,” Kimball explains. “So I would start with the simplest possible menu, and no one’s going to complain that you didn’t make four other things.”
Sometimes, the most intimidating aspect of preparing a home cooked dinner for your Valentine (something that goes beyond your weekly salmon-and-brown-rice-routine) can be the front-end work of grocery shopping and preparing the ingredients. But don’t panic—there are a few basic ways to streamline the process.
“The thing that I tell people a lot when they’re cooking for two,” says Dan Zuccarello, the Executive Food Editor at America’s Test Kitchen, “is to rethink the way that they shop for their groceries.” For a dinner for two, he suggests going for quality over quantity. Meaning, buying the perfect amount of organic vegetables over bulk non-organics, and opting for smaller organic or grass-fed cuts from the meat counter.
Also, keep an eye out for your grocery store salad bar. It’s a solid option for pre-cut vegetables like broccoli florets or sliced onions, and the produce there is generally fresher than in packaged salad or sauté kits.
Stocking up on pantry basics and what Kimball calls “big flavor ingredients”—soy sauce, fish sauce, gochujang, a great vinegar—is another simple way to add tons of different layers to a meal without making your pasta from scratch or trying your hand at a complicated ramen. “Let your pantry do the work,” he advises.
And when possible, always go with store-bought items that are just as good as homemade. For example, most home cooks who know what they’re doing will always tell you puff pastry is not worth the time or effort to make from scratch. Also, pre-made rotisserie chicken is a home chef’s go-to and can and should be mixed into a soup, casserole, or pot pie.
Or consider whipping up your own pizza. Grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s, and some neighborhood pizzerias, sell standout pizza dough. (We also love Lidia’s Marinara as far as bottled sauce options go.) Add fresh mozzarella, some basil, and a nice bottle of red and you’re done. You can also use the dough for calzones, stromboli, or even zeppole.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid relying on pre-cooked foods that are tricky to reheat or toughen quickly, like steak or fish. To save time when preparing meat, Angela Davis, food blogger and recipe developer behind The Kitchenista Diaries, recommends salting the meat the night before to bring out more flavor in the pan.
If there’s one course you should try to make on Valentine’s Day, dessert might just be it. And because you have to do chocolate on February 14th, mug cakes might just be that special unicorn of sweets you’re looking for. These individually portioned cakes are quick to assemble, and you can nuke them in just a few minutes.
Other options are Pots de Crème, which can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge. Keep in mind fruit is super versatile and has seemingly endless variations. Davis suggests rolling out puff pastry and baking with fresh fruit and brown sugar, or even just combining berries, hand-whipped cream, and balsamic. And remember, nobody is going to turn down chocolate chip cookies baked from frozen dough.
Of course, even the best-laid plans might still go awry. Just in case you don’t make it home in time to get those filets on the table at 7 p.m. as planned, we say stock up on a few of Trader Joe’s beloved hors d’oeuvres, like the vegetable bird’s nests or French onion soup bites, in case you really get in a bind. After all, there’s nothing more romantic than a meal of improv small bites to share and a good bottle of wine.
Check out our Valentine’s Day giveaway on Instagram (three lucky winners will get lots of goodies from Hotel Chocolat)! And get more sweet recipes, tips, and tricks at our Valentine’s Day headquarters, including great Valentine’s Day gift ideas.
Related Video: How to Make a Valentine’s Day Cocktail with Kombucha
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