Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Romantic Dinner for Two

Ah, the romantic dinner for two. It’s just what we need in these trying times, but with the credit crunch going on, it can be difficult to go out for a romantic dinner very often. Before you even start you probably have to consider the cost of a babysitter and even if that is not an issue, restaurant meals can be very expensive. But staying in often means that one partner ends up working really hard to pamper the other - so one person’s romantic dinner becomes another’s nervous breakdown in the kitchen. However it is possible to have a wonderful (dare I say easy?) dinner à deux that lets both partners enjoy themselves, without breaking the bank.

You may find, as my husband and I do, that it can be nice to prepare the meal together. This means all the pressure does not fall on one person, and also that you can enjoy time together before the meal as well as during and after! However, if you are trying to impress, this is definitely a very manageable meal to cook on your own - no nervous breakdown required.

(If you can, arrange for the kids to go to a friend or relative’s house overnight, or do a babysitting swap with a friend. Failing that, take the children out for the day and let them wear themselves out playing in the park or at the beach, and then put them to bed a bit early just this once!! If your children are older, arrange this dinner for a night when they are out with their friends or away. After all, this is supposed to be dinner for two - without interruptions.)

The rest of this is less a proper recipe and more hints and tips for how to take some very simple ingredients and make something very special indeed. So here goes:-

Unless you are vegetarian, I can think of no better dish for a romantic dinner than steak. It needs few accompaniments, and it is filling enough that you really do not need a starter, or even a dessert for that matter. (However, a few chocolate dipped strawberries with a cup of coffee never hurt anyone!)

Buy the best steaks you can afford, preferably from a butcher. Not only will they be less expensive, but they will taste better and the butcher will trim them up for you so there is just the right amount of fat on them. I like sirloin steak as I find it much nicer than rump, but without the eye watering price tag that is always attached to fillet steak. However, whichever cut you prefer / is on special offer is fine. My favorite way to cook steak is to barbeque it - and as my husband is incredibly good at this task, provided the weather is warm and co-operative, I leave the cooking to him.

I like to bring the steaks out of the fridge a good ten to twenty minutes before we are going to cook them as it means the meat has a chance to warm up a little. It can toughen a steak if you bring it straight out of the fridge and start to cook it. You can cook steaks on a barbeque or indoors under the grill (broiler) or in a frying pan. Whether you are cooking the steak indoors or out, and whichever method you are using, you want it to be quite hot when you start. I brush both sides of the steak with the tiniest amount of olive oil mixed with a bit of steak seasoning. (I like McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning, but any will do - as will a bit of salt and pepper.) If we are using the barbeque my husband preheats it while the steak is coming up to room temperature and then as soon as he puts the steak in he turns it back a little so it can cook nicely. I do something similar if using the frying pan or grill, heating them right up, but then as soon as I have put the steak on, I turn things back a bit so the steak can cook through without burning on the outside.

Although gourmets will protest that cooking it to more than medium is an insult to a good steak, it really is a matter of taste how well you like your steak done - and you should have it exactly how you like it! Steaks vary so wildly in thickness it is hard to say exactly how long they should be cooked on each side, but I find for a steak that is about a centimeter thick, rare would be two minutes each side, medium three to four minutes each side and well done five minutes each side. It’s definitely a trial and error process. Just go slowly - you can always cook something a little more, but once it’s over done there is no way to “un-cook” it! Also, try to only turn the steak once. Meat does not like to be flipped over and over. Another really important thing is to remove the steak from the heat once it is done and set it aside for a few minutes. Cover it with foil if you are worried about it getting cold. This allows the juices to settle back into the meat, and gives you a much more tender steak.

In terms of accompaniments, you really only need three things - fluffy baked potatoes, a crisp salad and a very good bottle of red wine.

The baked potatoes can either be baked in the oven (just wash and dry the potatoes, wrap in aluminum foil and cook in a medium oven for about an hour and a half) or you can microwave them (unwrapped!) for about five to seven minutes to start things off, wrap them in foil and pop them in the barbeque or oven to finish off. I like my potatoes pretty plain, with just a bit of butter, salt and pepper, but feel free to garnish them with sour cream and/or chives - or whatever makes you and your loved one happy.

It’s easy to jazz up a bagged salad. Choose mixed leaves and garnish with thin slices of red onion and halved cherry tomatoes. If red and yellow cherry tomatoes are available it looks even prettier, but just use the red ones if that is all you can get. You can dress the salad with a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon white sugar shaken together. It’s economical and tastes lovely.

I don’t mean to be bossy (only helpful!), but in terms of scheduling, here is how it works best for us:-

Half an hour before dinner
Remove the steak from the fridge.
Wash and dry the potatoes and pop in the microwave for five to seven minutes.
Open the wine.
Set the table.
Pre-heat the barbeque (if using).

Twenty minutes before dinner
Wrap the potatoes carefully in foil (they will be hot!) and pop in the oven or barbeque to round out.
Pre-heat the frying pan, broiler or grill (if using).
Prepare and dress the salad.

Fifteen minutes before dinner
Brush steaks with olive oil and seasoning.
Begin to cook steaks to desired doneness.

Ten to five minutes before dinner
When steaks are cooked to desired doneness, remove from heat and cover with foil. Set aside to “rest”.
Plate up the potatoes and salad.
Light the candles and pour the wine.

At serving time
Plate up the steaks.
Serve and enjoy.

Speaking of wine, if you can, do try to treat yourselves to a really good bottle of something yummy. You can buy a wonderful of wine in the shops for much less than it would cost in a restaurant. The night we took this photograph we treated ourselves to a beautiful bottle of 2007 Pommard. However wine does not have to be expensive to taste good. Merlot (Concha y Toro Sunrise or Echo Falls Merlot are delicious, inexpensive choices) and Shiraz (try Jacob’s Creek) are great choices with steak. It can also stand up to a good Cabernet Sauvignon (Gallo Family Vineyards make a nice one) or a blend like Torres vineyards famous Sangre de Torro.

And there you have it, a romantic dinner for two in around thirty minutes. It’s a virtually stress-free plan, especially considering it should cost less than half what you would pay in a restaurant. A little romance in troubled times - just what we all need!

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