For Smooth Operators

By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

After quite a few mid-February crash-and-burns -- I might not have have lost the girl, but I definitely overcooked the steak -- I finally have the Valentine's Day formula down pat.

Admittedly, many years in professional kitchens have aided the cause, giving me a steady hand with a saute pan and some practice at guiding my more culinarily challenged bachelor friends. The experiences have taught me the rules for how most any level of cook can prepare a romantic dinner. Many of those tenets are coated with common sense -- save that daring tableside flambe for another night, for instance -- but the guiding principle is to prepare simple things that will shine, for you and the object of your affection.

If you have any doubts about the "simple equals elegant" formula, consider the prosciutto-wrapped pear slices with which I like to lead off the meal. They sound fancy, but all you need to do is pick up some thinly sliced prosciutto (splurge on the imported stuff), top with a wedge of pear, roll up and roast. The saltiness of the ham cuts at the sweetness of the pear, sort of like a winterized version of prosciutto and melon. Though these are great as is, they rise to the level of special when you pair them with a blue cheese cream. This warm dip (blue cheese and light cream whisked together on the stovetop) is at once subtle and intense. With a good local blue cheese, it will win over even phobics like my girl, Marguerite.

Much of the rest of the meal can be made ahead, which hits another one of my rules of engagement. It's not that you or I couldn't do the Emeril thing and make amusing chitchat while we prepare a meal, but on such a relationship-focused night, it's nice (and a heck of a lot less stressful) to sit down and relax together while dinner is cooking.

Soup perfectly fits this make-ahead concept. You can whip up a batch the day before, then rewarm it and top with a couple of bright garnishes just before serving. I'll go with an asparagus soup this year. It might be a little early for the green shoots around here, but the California season has started. Asparagus makes for a clean, elegant soup; I like to cook it with leeks and chicken broth and then puree until smooth.

Maybe it's just me, but I get a little bored if a soup doesn't have all sorts of flavors and textures; I like to adorn this one with some lemon cream and a sprinkling of croutons. The lemon cream is simply fromage blanc (fat-free sour cream would do in a pinch) punched up with some lemon zest and fresh rosemary. Prepare the croutons by tossing bread cubes in a skillet until crisp.

For entertaining in general and for Valentine's Day more specifically, I like to rely on the even heat of the oven for cooking. Roasting (or baking) leaves hands free, so you don't have to fiddle with a skillet or constantly stir. Dressy, lean cuts of meat or fish, particularly salmon, are well suited to this approach. Roast a couple of thick fillets along with diced beets until both are cooked through. Toss the roasted beets with fresh orange juice and a spoonful of horseradish for a kick, then serve napped over the salmon. The sweet heat of this saucy mixture complements the richness of the fish, and its magenta hue is color-coded to the evening. Note that the roasting temperature for the salmon is the same as that for the pear, so it's a seamless transition from one to the next.

To cap off the meal, there's no debate: It's mandatory to serve something sweet and rich and preferably filled with chocolate. To me, that means pot de creme, a luxurious, grown-up version of pudding. Prepare these custards by bringing milk to a simmer and then gently combining with chopped chocolate, a couple of egg yolks and a sprinkling of instant espresso. Bake the custards in a water bath until they are set, refrigerate until chilled (you can make them a couple of days ahead), and serve with a dollop of whipped cream and some chocolate shavings. Rich and unsparing of calories, yes, but it's Valentine's Day, so enjoy.

A final rundown of the meal tallies two make-ahead dishes and two roasting preparations, which fits my idea of a Valentine's Day success. And if you follow the rest of my rules, your culinary preparations for the evening should end up as just that. I must stress, though, that you're on your own with the remainder of the night. Though I can help you cook, I'm not nearly as strong in the romance department.

Tony Rosenfeld is a contributing editor to Fine Cooking magazine.

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