Food — Home-Based Date
By Amy Diaz
A night at home trumps the night out Home-based date is cheaper, cozier and under your control
When was the last time you went on a date?
Especially after a month of holiday gatherings and relative-heavy events, a romantic dinner for two (husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you and your crush object) can seem like a distant memory.
Ah, you think, what better way to spend a chilly winter evening — gazing at each other in complexion-friendly candle-light, no other distractions, just you and your honey, spending time together at a classy restaurant.
Yikes, the credit card bill is for how much?
Before you start to consider the possibility of romance under the neon glow of the golden arches, there is another way to achieve the romance without worries about breaking the bank. Plan a date night at home. With a little (but not too much) effort you can set a mood similar to the amore-feelings created by your favorite Italian restaurant and still have money left over to pay the rent.
Wow him or her with one or two dishes, then cheat on everything else.
The intricate balances of flavors work great at a restaurant because you don’t have to cook any of it. At home, when constructing a romantic multi-course meal, remember that you’ll want time for romance. Don’t pile on the complicated dishes.
I like starting with a cheese plate. It’s as satisfying as any multi-ingredient appetizer but it doesn’t require a huge commitment of time.
Want wow? Try fresh bread. It smells great and, when successful, tastes as good as anything at a four-star eatery. But, while it sounds like an all-day endeavor, it really only requires about 20 total, non-consecutive minutes of attention. After the initial mixing/kneading stage, bread dough neither wants nor needs your attention for two hours. And, after the shaping stage, the bread has another hour or so of private time. Don’t have the four or so hours it takes to bring bread from yeast to crust? Mix up the dough the night before then let rise (very slowly, obviously) in the refrigerator). After about 24 hours, the dough should double, then you just have the hour of rising (after it’s been shaped) and the 30 or so minutes of oven time. The result? The bread should leave the oven at the same time you’re ready to serve.
Fresh pasta sauce smells and tastes about 100 times better than anything in the can. It also comes with the handy advantage of tasting better the longer it simmers on a stove top. This gives you time to tidy up and to put finishing touches on your private restaurant. I like the spice of Puttanesca sauce and the fact that, the day after your date, you’ve got some damn fine pizza sauce.
Tiramisu, that standard of the Italian restaurant, is another example of something that tastes great, looks complicated but isn’t as difficult to make as you’d expect. Since tiramisu needs time to set, it can actually improve from a night in the refrigerator — making it another dish you won’t have on your choir plate in the hour or so before your date gets under way. Because all the cooking happens on the stovetop, tiramisu also makes the perfect date-night dessert because it won’t take up space in your oven — leaving plenty of room for that fresh bread.
Two romance buzzkills: children and roommates.
If you have either of these, you may be inclined to chuck any attempts at romance. Don’t despair — if your dining room has become a backpack storage space or your living room is a Playstation arcade, pick up a cheap folding screen to block off part of your kitchen as a non-messy private area (places like Pier 1, Bed Bath and Beyond and Linens N Things sell these poor-man’s room dividers; post-date they also provide you with camouflage for other public but messy corners of your home).
Set up a small but sturdy table and cover with a tablecloth (cheap paper ones are often on sale in the napkin or party decoration section of the supermarket). If your table offers enough room, decorate with a colorful cloth napkin and a small candle and a vase with a single flower. The candle can be useful later should you choose to lower the lights and up the romance factor (also, remember that everybody looks better in candlelight). As you dress up your table for two, keep in mind that it will also have to hold two entrée plates, wine and water glasses, silverware and a bottle of wine so remember to leave plenty of room. Set up a CD player and speakers nearby, though not directly on or under the table (you want to be able to hear at least some of what your date says). Choose music that is mellow but still up-tempo enough to serve as an auditory buffer between you and the competing noises of the rest of the house.
The key to romance is a good mood and the key to your good mood will be keeping costs down.
A satisfying meal, even a special occasion one doesn’t demand a great expense. Pick one or two items to splurge on and go cost effective on the rest.
If you are a fan of cheese, the cheese plate appetizer is a good place to splurge. I picked Cacio di Roma, a firm but not dry sheep cheese from Rome to complement an aged parmesan. The parmesan was a cheese I already had and use over sauces and salads. The Cacio di Roma, which served as a little dairy conversation piece as well as a key part of my appetizer, cost about $3.50 for a quarter pound.
For wine, I picked up Fourplay — a red Sicilian blend of grapes that sold for $14.95 — that the seller told me went well with sauce dishes.
My only other special purchases were the fresh herbs. In the sauce, stuffed green olives (with garlic, with sundried tomatoes, with peppers) can be substituted for the black olives and capers, though they add a welcome kick, can be left out. My version of puttanesca, which is a very loose and inexact interpretation of the dish, is fairly forgiving of additions and substitutions.
For the tiramisu, brandy can be substituted for the rum and marsala is often used instead of the Kahlua. The key is to get two spicy, slightly nutty liquors that go well together. Keep that in mind and improvisation is fairly safe.
It’s hard to feel hot when you’re covered in garlic bits.
For this reason, try to do as much in advance as possible. Tiramisu is best when made the night before anyway, so use that to your advantage and make the dessert before your big night.
On the day of, prepare your sauce as much in advance as possible — the more it simmers the better and that will give you time to clean yourself and the dining area up and prepare more time sensitive parts of the meal such as the sausage and pasta.
Cheese plates are great for their stalling abilities. While your date lingers over the grapes, you have time to finish up the pasta. Are the sausages taking longer to cook than expected? Keep the salad simple (I recommend just going with three packages — dressing, romaine lettuce and croutons) so that it can give you a buffer between appetizer and meal.
If you find yourself finished with the kitchen duties unexpectedly fast, well, score you! Now you have time to soak in the glory for having prepared such an impressive meal. Keep the dressing off the salad (to prevent wilting) and drain the pasta, toss with olive oil and leave covered on the stove (with heat turned off). The salad will stay crisp and the pasta will stay firm (the sauce will help rewarm any strands that get cold). Linger over the appetizers, make bedroom eyes over the first glass of wine — the food will wait.
Cheese and fruit plate
Slice two cheeses, preferably one hard (a Parmesan, Asiago or aged Cheddar) and one soft (such as a Brie). Place on a plate in wedge-like shapes across from each other.
In between, place a group (about one small carton) of blueberries on one side and a small cluster of grapes (green work best) on the other.
Serve at the same time as the bread.
Cheddar wheat bread
1 package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups warmish water
1/4 cup honey
Mix above together with a wooden spoon. Let sit for about 10 minutes. If mixture looks bubbly and foamy, yeast have been activated. If mixture doesn’t look bubbly, chuck and start again.
Once yeast mixture is activated, mix in about 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (wheat bread flour works, as does regular wheat flour).
Once a ball of dough has formed, turn out onto floured surface. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary.
Grease sides of bowl with olive oil. Put dough in bowl and let rise for about two hours until doubled in size.
After first rise, punch dough down. Shape into a small dome-shaped loaf. Sprinkle corn meal on a cookie sheet, place loaf on the cookie sheet. Cover with a cloth and let rise for an hour.
Preheat oven. While oven is preheating, grate approximately 1/2 cup of an easy-to-melt cheddar. Spray top of loaf lightly with olive oil and sprinkle cheese on top.
Bake for about 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
One package pre-washed romaine lettuce
1/2 cup salad dressing (or mix 3 tablespoons olive oil, 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, the juice from 1/2 a lemon and salt and pepper for a tart vinaigrette)
2/3 cup of garlic croutons
Put lettuce in large bowl. Pour in croutons. Right before serving, pour on dressing and toss.
Pasta Puttanesca with sausages
Heat a large sauce pan over medium hot heat. Pour in 1/4 cup of olive oil. When oil is heated, add:
6 to 10 large garlic cloves, minced (amount depends on personal taste—I prefer very garlicy sauces and often add as many as a dozen cloves to a large batch of sauce)
1 sweet yellow onion, chopped fine
Add salt and pepper to taste and sauté. Lower heat if necessary to prevent garlic from burning. Once onions begin to look translucent, add:
1 red pepper, chopped
1 small bunch of basil, chopped or torn small
1/2 small bunch of fresh oregano, chopped or torn small
Saute a bit more and add:
8 medium-sized tomatoes, chopped
Saute, smushing tomato pieces slightly to release water. Add:
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
16 ounces of tomato sauce
Once the tomato sauce is added, stir. Sauce should be slightly watery due to the high water content in the tomatoes. If not, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water to sauce. Turn heat down to simmer and allow to cook for at least 30 minutes (preferably 45 to an hour) stirring occasionally.
About 20 minutes before serving time, spray the bottom of a frying pan with non-stick spray and put on medium-high heat. When pan sizzles to drop of water, add as many as four hot Italian sausages and pour in 1/4 cup of water. Cook for about 10 minutes on one side. Flip and cook another 5 minutes. (There is only one way to be absolutely certain a sausage is cooked throughout—pick one sacrificial wiener to be cut down the middle. If there is still pink, wait a few minutes and then cut one of the halves in half. No one said cooking was pretty.) When sausages are cooked throughout, remove from pan and put in sauce.
About 12 minutes before cooking, boil water (with 1 teaspoon of salt) for pasta. When water is boiling, cook angel hair pasta until al dente (soft but still firm and not mushy or limp). Drain water, toss with olive oil and ground pepper.
Serve in bowls with pasta first, then sauce and sausages on top. Garnish with grated parmesan.
6 egg yolks
5 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
1/3 cup ounces dark rum
1 cup ounces heavy cream
10 ounces mascarpone cheese
2 cups espresso or double-brewed coffee
1/2 cup Kahlua
1 package containing about 36 ladyfingers
Boil water in a medium sauce pan. Once water is boiling, place a metal mixing bowl over (but not touching) the water (bowl will rest on sides of pan). Whisk eggs, sugar and rum, constantly mixing so egg doesn’t scramble but cooks into a thick, light custard. Whisk in mascarpone cheese and set aside to cool.
In a flat pan, set out ladyfingers. Mix together coffee and Kahlua and pour over ladyfingers. Let soak.
Beat heavy cream until peaks form. Mix with egg mixture.
In a loaf pan, layer coffee and Kahlua-soaked ladyfingers on the bottom, spread cream over cookies. Repeat until all ladyfingers and cream are used. Finish with a layer of cream. Grate chocolate on top of top layer of cream. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set. (Tiramisu is best when it can sit overnight but cheat by putting in the freezer for 30 to 40 minutes and then moving to refrigerator until time to serve.)
- Amy Diaz
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