The first thing to know about cooking for Valentine's Day is that the list of occasion-appropriate food preparations you'll find below was made in consultation with a woman, the only blemish on whose otherwise immaculate record of good taste and judgment is her baffling and indefensible decision to marry an unkempt and eternally dysfunctional internet food person, and this inoculates me against all criticism, forever.
The second thing to know about cooking for Valentine's Day is that it's a good idea. Dining in a restaurant is a safe choice, sure: the food will be good; you won't have to clean up afterward; and an expert waitstaff in a good restaurant will make you and your companion feel fêted in a way that, if it's not quite the same thing as romantic, is at least luxuriously self-indulgent, and might make both of you feel like taking your pants off. Cooking at home, by contrast, is more personal and vulnerable (the experience, after all, will only be as tasty and satisfying and impressive and thoughtful-seeming as you make it, and so how you go about it will reveal things about you whether you want it to or not), and therefore generous in a way that paying an army of professional servers and sommeliers to serve you dinner in a restaurant just kinda can't be.
That probably doesn't sound like much of a recommendation. Wait, cooking at home on Valentine's Day is a better romantic gesture than going to a restaurant because I can't blame a faceless line-cook if the soup has a hair in it? Yes!
Here is the thing. Either way, on Valentine's Day or on any other day, the romantic gestures you make say something about you—about what kind of person you are, and about how you express stuff. When you cook at home, you are doing all the actual lavishing of care and affection and nourishment and satisfaction yourself, with your own physical self and imagination and attention and desire to make someone else feel good; you, yourself, are providing the romance. When you take your significant other to a fancy restaurant, you are paying a bunch of strangers to do all of the actual lavishing for you; if your significant other finds this romantic, that's fine, but strictly speaking, all you did was foot the bill.
If you are not picking up on the metaphor being built, here, probably you are hopeless, but let's go ahead and spell it out: It's the difference between being good in the sack, and being good at giving your significant other an expensive vibrator for Christmas. Particularly in the early days of a relationship, you will want to fall on the right side of this difference.
(Note: This doesn't much apply to old, married sad-sacks with kids. If you and your significant other are old, married sad-sacks with kids, the last thing either of you will want is to spend another evening at home. The dinner-and-hotel-room deal is just about the most romantic gesture you can make: I love you enough to surface from the bog of day-to-day routine and parenting duties to make reservations and arrange for overnight childcare, which probably seems like nothing much to young single types but, to a harried parent, is roughly analogous to carving your girlfriend's name on the moon.)
So: cook for Valentine's Day! It's romantic and cool and either indicative of your broader goodness at doing sex or a thoughtful way of apologizing for your badness at it. Below you'll find some good stuff to cook for Valentine's Day. We've got a few simple, uncomplicated main courses, and some tasty side-dish type things; use your judgment to mix-and-match.
You might be inclined to think that steak is too, like, masculine and dudebro-y for Valentine's Day. Aren't I supposed to serve, like, lettuce cups? But no! Everybody likes steak. Even vegetarians like steak (although you should not serve steak to vegetarians). It's hearty but not elaborate or grotesquely gratuitous; in reasonable proportions, the iron-y intensity of it makes you feel flushed and lusty and alive. Steak is good food for seducin'. Sear-roast a couple of individual steaks, or (weather permitting) grill a skirt steak for a few minutes and serve it sliced thinly.
Like steak these are simple, easy to prepare, and pleasingly elegant. Basically, you just season 'em and sear 'em; their (generally) uniform size and attractively geometric shape makes them fun to present on a plate, on or around some thoughtfully-chosen complement. And, bonus, they're juuuust exotic enough—just far enough outside the roster of stuff the average person eats on a daily or weekly basis—to seem luxurious and exciting. Do not wrap them in bacon, you herb.
Not the whole, annoying bugs, if you please; the wrangling and cracking and extracting, and the occasional deeply off-putting gush of hot lobster guts, make whole lobster less than ideal as a romantic dinner foodstuff. Butter-poach some lobster tails, instead. This is a little more ambitious—which is a way of putting an optimistic spin on the tedium and annoyance of preparing the beurre monté you use for poaching—but the result is delicate and delicious, wrapped ever so flatteringly in that velvety poaching liquid, and just dead sexy.
Listen, straight up, mushroom risotto is just the sexiest food. If you put the care and attention into it that it deserves—and you do, dammit, or else you make something else [stares daggers]—it's kiiiiiiind of a nightmare to make, but it's so worth it.
Wait, no, don't close the tab yet. Broccoli, that you cut into florets yourself and cook lovingly with other tasty stuff, is vivid and pretty to look at and tastes amazing, and makes a perfect side for the kinds of simply presented proteins that, hint hint, you literally just finished reading about.
This impossibly satisfying preparation has the advantage of being richer and more indulgent than broccoli, without the starchy heaviness of, say, mashed potatoes; you can serve it without the fear that you'll both be half asleep by the time dinner's over. Pro tip: Flavor-wise, it goes wonderfully with the sea scallops—arrange three big ones in a neat, jaunty little heap on top of a bed of the cauliflower—but that'll give you an awfully white-looking plate, so, at the very least, sprinkle some finely-chopped parsley and chives over the whole thing to give it some color.
Cut it into hunks and caramelize 'em in a hot oven. They'll come out sweet, nutty, and hearty but not coma-inducing. Plus, they're a pretty color and look great on a white plate with some other food on it. It's the kind of food stone-headed dudebros never think to make, which makes it an impressive and good-tasting way to reiterate that you're not one of those, since those dudes suck.
Not, not, not not not Caesar salad. If your date reasonably feels she might incinerate your head with her blazing garlic-and-anchovy breath, you are not going to be doing much making out. Make a salad, though. Pick out some cool raw leafy vegetation, whip up your own zesty and piquant dressing, and toss 'em together with some nuts and maybe a little fruit or cheese, and you've got something vivid and exciting that'll make you both feel great.
Actually, nah, don't cook some elaborate dessert. A couple shared scoops of good ice cream will do the trick. What definitely will not do the trick will be to offer your date dessert while suggestively waggling your eyebrows toward your own crotch.
There you have it. Enough plausible and easily-accomplished Valentine's Day cooking options—and early enough in the day for you to make your preparations with time to spare!—to give you no excuses at all for schlepping your lovely and attractive partner to the goddamn Olive Garden this evening. You're on the spot now, buddy. Get busy, and maybe later on you'll be able to get busy.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo via Shutterstock.