Of Meat & Romance: Tips to help you cook the perfect meal
Valentine’s Day is a weird holiday to me. I would like to say something syrupy like “every day is Valentine’s Day for us” but it wouldn’t be true and nobody would believe me anyway. Fact is, we have our ups and downs just like every other couple. After 20 plus years together, Laura is not only my wife and business partner but also my best friend. After all the grief I have bestowed upon her, you would think that I would jump at the chance to have a day handed to me that demanded I lavish her with gifts and cards.
Truth is, I would much rather DO something nice for her than BUY her something that will be gone in a few short days. One of my super powers is cooking, so that is the direction I usually head in.
I’m not sure there is a better way to tell someone how you feel about them than to cook for them. That is especially true if you are not a world class chef…or a candidate for Worst Cooks In America, for that matter. The romance of the gesture is in the care and attention you put into it. Remember when you were a kid and your Mom said “I would much rather you made me something than bought me something”? It’s kinda like that.
So what are you to do if you I tell you to nappe’ the sauce and you think you should put a spoon under your pillow? Well, I’m here to help! Here are a couple of tips to help you cook the perfect meal for your sweetheart…or at least closer to perfect than normal!
Put Some Thought Into It!
Think about your partner’s favorite foods or memorable meals you have had together. Even a nod to a location is meaningful. We took a great trip to New Orleans a few years back and I remember having this amazing meal with all kinds of charcuterie and Cajun specialties. Oddly, as she generally does not like spicy food or organs, her favorite bite of the whole meal was a deep fried rabbit kidney in a pepper jelly. Don’t worry, babe, I’m not cooking rabbit for Valentine’s Day (although we have that in the Web Store). However, I might make something that reminds her of that trip. See what I’m sayin’?
One of the cardinal sins in any project, particularly cooking, is to start building without a plan. First, pick a protein. Just because its Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean you have to go with Chateaubriand (although we have that in the Web Store, too J). One of my favorite meals is when Laura makes Cuban Pulled Pork with Black Beans and Rice. I love it because it is part of her heritage and know it means something to her when she cooks it.
Now that you have chosen the perfect protein, let’s pick a recipe. Fair warning, I’m terrible at using recipes. I tend to use them for ideas and then forge my own path. If you fall into that category, no problem. But you still need a plan. Start with a list of ingredients and either make sure you have them or go buy them. Nothing worse than getting half way through making a bowl of cereal only to find you are out of milk, right?
If you are one of those folks that does better with step-by-step directions, you are in luck! You can drop the protein you are cooking into any search bar and the web will give you about 5 billion ways to cook it. Some of them will even be good! If you are going to search for a recipe online, try to stick with the more well-known sites. I like Food Network, Epicurious, Cooks.com and the cooking section of the NY Times website. They usually have vetted the recipes before they get posted. Often the comments below the recipe are really helpful.
Mise En Place
This is just a fancy French phrase for being organized (it means everything in its place). Take some time to read through your recipe. Look at the steps and see what you can do ahead of time. The less rushed you are the better your food will taste. Do you need chopped onions? Minced garlic? Chicken Breasts pounded out thin? All these things can be done ahead of time. For that matter, you could really get your food geek on and measure out all your ingredients ahead of time. Use a little masking tape to label the containers for anything you’re not familiar with to avoid confusion later. Nothing worse than accidently adding a cup of salt to your cake batter!
Take some time to check your equipment. What pan/s are you going to use? Do you have the right measuring spoons? And where is that damn meat thermometer Adam kept harping on me to buy??? The less time you spend scrambling to find something, or worse, finding out you don’t have what you need, the more likely you are to put together a memorable meal.
Start Clean/End Clean
When I cook Laura’s favorite meal, Chicken Marsala, the kitchen looks like I just made Thanksgiving dinner for 30. Take some time to clean your kitchen BEFORE you start. This does a few things. It gives you a clean work space. It gives you more room to work. It gives you an empty sink to both work in and fill with dishes as you go.
If you have a dish washer, empty it before you get started. This way you can rinse dishes and put them straight in as you cook. Leave enough room in it for the dishes you will serve and eat on. My beautiful wife has been known to comment the only thing sexier than a perfectly cooked meal is a clean kitchen afterward. If you clean as you go, post-dinner KP will take no time. The last thing you want to do is kill all that romance by flipping a coin to see who gets to do the dishes.
You have given this a lot of thought. You have a plan. What could possibly go wrong??? It doesn’t matter. Food is love. The mere act of cooking for someone shows how much you care for them. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten distracted by something shiny and have overcooked steaks on the grill. The point is that you made the effort. Sure, it’s great if you cook a Michilen Star worthy meal. But the effort is what will be meaningful. So do your best, plate it pretty, wipe the edges of the dish before you serve it, and do it all with a smile. And if all else fails…A dozen roses and a box of truffles never hurt either.