Valentine's Day is Sunday. What a dilemma, right? Do you take your significant other out to your favorite fine-dining restaurant, where you are sure to find a crowd and an expensive ending or stay home, light a few candles, put the cat out and do it yourself?
Does it sound intimidating? Well, it shouldn't, even if you are on a budget. Food and wine does not have to be over the top expensive to be delicious, and a lot of the success of the evening is going to depend on thorough, and thoughtful planning.
First steps are to establish a budget, take into considerations likes and dislikes, then develop a menu.
Always start with something on the table; never sit a guest at an empty table. If you are "bad poor," as some Southerners might describe it, a simple bowl of fruit will do, if your circumstances are slightly better, add a piece of cheese or two, and if you're well off, go for a thick slice of pâté de foie gras and some wild-caught Scottish smoked salmon.
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You will certainly want to have something to offer your sweetheart to drink. If a bottle of wine is out of the question, you can pick a bottle or two of your favorite craft beer.
There is nothing wrong with a good pilsner to start things off. If you can afford a bottle of wine, visit a wine shop that has a sommelier and ask them to pair a wine you can afford for the first course, as well as the second and third, if you can. This is a situation that will require expert advice. Guessing is always a bad idea.
For the main event, or second course, let's consider three choices:
The first is a simple but delicious sausage and green pasta. Make sure to have a piece of Parmesan Reggiano to fresh grate over the pasta, and success will be yours.
The second is just a bit more expensive, a German-inspired schnitzel, but just as delicious, and if you are handy with a good sauce, your guest will be happy.
The third option, and most expensively, will be an aged filet of beef. You are going to have to go ahead and order the beef but nothing will beat a great piece of beef, grilled over an open wood fire.
Light the candles, open the wine well before your guest arrives, set the table, and be prepared for an evening you won't soon forget!
GREEN PASTA SAUSAGE
1 pound green linguini (homemade is best)
2-3 locally made, fresh Italian sausages
1 small chopped onion
1 small chopped green or red bell pepper
4-6 cloves chopped garlic
4 cups Italian imported whole tomatoes
Lots of Parmesan Reggiano (never buy pre grated)
1 cup good, never sweet, red wine
Olive oil as needed
Salt, freshly grated black pepper, and red pepper flakes
In a deep and heavy bottom sauce pan sauté the sausages until done, give them a good chop, and then remove. Leave the juices and oil in the pan. Add the onion and bell pepper, season and cook over a low flame for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add the wine and reduce by one half. Add the tomatoes, and the sausage and simmer for 45 minutes. Cook the pasta according to package directions. If you want to make it just that much better, remove the pasta 2-3 minutes before being done, and finish cooking in the sauce. Plate the pasta, add a 1/2 a cup of sauce, remember it is not soup, and a few pieces of sausage. Add as much Parmesan as you like, and don't forget the wine.
FILET OF BEEF AND ASPARAGUS
No matter how good your grill cooking skills are, if you do not invest in an excellent piece of beef, you are doomed to mediocrity. If you have never tasted excellent beef, you will not understand what I am talking about. I am talking about beef that can cost as much as $50 a pound. You do not have to have the very best, which many people would say is Japanese Kobe style Wagyu, but you are going to want something that is pretty pricey. One last point: don't invest in a great piece of beef, then cook it on your stove top, or overcook it. Medium rare is about as done as good beef should be cooked.
1 filet per person
1 bunch asparagus
Freshly ground black pepper
Uncork that bottle of red wine you have chosen. It needs to breathe for half an hour or so and you can take a sip, no one will know. Combine the butter, fresh thyme and a little salt. Allow the beef to come to room temperature. Season the beef with the pepper and just a little soy sauce. Start the fire, and when it has burned down, but is at its hottest temp, grill the beef, just giving it a good sear on each side, but making sure it is still red in the middle. Add a little butter to the top of each steak and allow to rest. While the beef is getting ready, quickly sauté the asparagus in a little butter, but leave them just a bit crunchy. Light the candles, plate the beef and asparagus. Enjoy.
SCHNITZEL AND PASTA
1 boneless pork chop per person
1 cup flour
1 well beaten egg
1 cup breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
Pasta cooked to package directions
Using a meat mallet pound each chop as thin as you can get it. Season the flour with salt and pepper and then each chop. Dip the chop in the egg, then the flour, back to the egg and finally in the breadcrumbs. Shake off excess. Melt butter in a sauté pan and sauté until golden brown. Remove the chops, toss the cooked pasta in the pan with the leftover butter, plate the pasta with a schnitzel on top. Serve with a slice of lemon.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes Coast Cooking in Wednesday's Sun Herald and has a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with columns in magazines.