A few weeks ago, a reader of The Bite, Salon's weekly food newsletter, sent me this note:
"Hello, Ashlie! I'm a guy in my 20s wanting to (what else?) impress a date on Valentine's Day. But I'm on a $50 max budget, and I'm admittedly not great in the kitchen. What can I make that's cheap and easy, but still feels like I put in thought and effort?"
I love this question because it gets to the heart of a culinary hat trick that so many of us try to pull off when cooking at home for someone special on a big night. The meal needs to be slightly elevated, but also affordable and attainable. Here are five pointers to keep in mind:
Let meat take a backseat
Good meat is expensive (and rightly so when you consider the labor and time that goes into sustainable production and butchering). That's one reason why I tend to leave meat for eating out and instead center my meals at home around flavorful produce and grains. I know this potentially doesn't sound as straightforward as grilling up a ribeye, but trust me, finding a combination of those food groups — whether that's a beautiful lemon spaghetti or a ratatouille and couscous — is an easy way to demonstrate that you know your way around the kitchen (at least a little bit).
Reach for seasonal produce
Seasonal produce is a great place to draw inspiration for a special dinner menu. For starters, stuff that's in-season runs cheaper than any hothouse counterpart. It also tends to be more flavorful, so you don't have to worry about zhushing it up as much. For many in-season vegetables, a little olive oil and salt is enough to make the flavors pop. As a bonus, they add a nice element of color to the dinner table.
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Keep it simple
If you're inexperienced in the kitchen, it's easy to underestimate how long seemingly simple dishes can take to put together. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to have multiple courses, each with multiple components. Stick with a main, (maybe) a side and a dessert.
Also, if you have the budget, consider getting an element of your meal from a local restaurant or specialty food shop i.e. a cake from your favorite bakery or to-go cocktails from your favorite bar. This lightens your workload in the kitchen; plus, if you choose to grab something from a place that means something to you (like the location of your first date, for instance), it can be a really meaningful addition to your evening.
Don't feel like you have to completely recreate a restaurant experience
While it can be tempting to look to restaurants as the platonic ideal of romantic meals, keep in mind that there's often a full staff — from prep cooks to sauciers — behind your plate. Instead of trying to point-by-point recreate a restaurant experience, consider what elements of dining in a restaurant read as the "most romantic" to you. Is it the lighting? Dim the lights at home and light a few candles. Is it the music? Cue up a playlist. Those seemingly small, background touches are a big part of what makes dining out (and in!) so much fun.
Presentation can make all the difference
A big part of what makes meals feel special is the presentation. Don't feel like you have to go overboard with sauce bottles and tweezers, but definitely put away the paper plates for the night. You just made this thing! Be proud and show it off. Pro-tip: A little greenery, whether that's a flourish of dill or finely-chopped parsley, can go a long way in making a dish look complete. Scan a few pages of a favorite cookbook or Instagram for inspiration.
Now that we've covered the basics, what's a meal our reader could make for his Valentine's Day date? Here's a suggested menu:
Creamy polenta with mushroom ragù
Polenta is a cornmeal mixture popular in Northern Italy that can either be served fried or as a creamy porridge. Here, we're going the second route, mixing in good quality cheese and topping it with mushroom ragù.
The ragù is really simple to make. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large pot and toss in the carrots and onion (see below for portions). Once those have softened, add another tablespoon of butter, followed by the sliced mushrooms. Salt and pepper everything generously and stir over medium heat until the mushrooms are slightly browned.
Pour in the white wine (it will steam, which is fine!) and reduce the heat to low, stirring occasionally until the liquid reduces by half. This should only take about 5 minutes. Pour 1/4 box of vegetable stock over the mushrooms and play the reduction game again.
Then add 1/4 box of stock over the mixture again. This may seem like a lot of the same, but what we're doing here is building flavor. Finally, when the mushrooms are very brown and look like they're in a thick sauce, cover and remove them from heat.
Now, it's time to get the polenta ready. This process is pretty simple: In another pot, add the polenta and the remainder of the vegetable stock. Salt and pepper generously and stir over medium heat. Once the polenta is thick and warmed through, finish with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and parmesan cheese.
Separate the polenta between bowls and top with the mushroom ragù. Garnish with parsley.
- 8 ounces sliced portabella mushrooms: $2.49
- 2 chopped carrots: $0.48
- 1/4 minced white onion: $0.24
- 1/4 cup dry white wine: $3 (Chill and drink the rest, if you imbibe.)
- 1 box vegetable stock: $2.89
- 18-ounce tube polenta: $3.49
- 4 tablespoons heavy cream: $0.40
- 4 tablespoons butter: $0.40
- 1 ounce grated parmesan: $0.55
- Parsley for garnish: $0.10
Broccolini with lemon zest
Broccolini are one of my favorite vegetables to cook! They have long, lean stems that char beautifully and are a little more subtle in flavor than normal broccoli.
Bonus: They're also super easy to cook. Drizzle one bundle of broccolini with a tablespoon of olive oil and generously add salt and pepper. Toss the broccolini on a sheet pan and into a 350-degree oven. Bake for 20 minutes, flipping once halfway through.
Remove from the oven and garnish the bundle with the zest of one lemon and more salt, if needed. The flakier the better.
- 1 bundle broccolini: $2.99
- 1 tablespoon olive oil: $0.12
- Zest of 1 lemon: $0.89 (Reserve the juice for dessert!)
Blood orange and mascarpone shortcakes
When you're grocery shopping, take a detour over to the bakery section of the supermarket and pick up a bag of pre-made shortcake "shells." There are usually 6 to a pack, and all you have to do to make a complete dessert is add a filling.
What we're going to make here is a really simple mascarpone filling. Mascarpone is like an Italian cream cheese, and it's super velvety and almost buttery. You can totally sub in normal cream cheese, too!
Whip the mascarpone with 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and the juice of the lemon leftover from the broccolini recipe. Fill the shortcake shells with the mascarpone mixture and top each shortcake with a few pieces of segmented blood orange.
- 6-count pre-made shortcake shells: $2.89
- 8 ounces mascarpone: $4.49
- Juice 1 lemon: $0.00 (leftover from the broccolini recipe)
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar: $0.08
- 2 blood oranges, segmented: $1.90
There are still about 3 cups of wine in the bottle leftover from the ragù recipe. You've got some flexibility in your budget, but there are actually some great dry whites that come in around $10 a bottle. Check out this list from Food & Wine, or just cruise through the wine shop at your local Trader Joe's, for inspiration.
Grand Total: $35.12
In the end, we came in solidly under budget. Wondering what to do with the remaining $15 or so? You have options: Use it to buy some inexpensive flowers from the supermarket, grab a bottle or two of nice sparkling water and potentially some good bread to serve with dinner. Or just put it in the bank to save up for your next at-home date night.
More super simple at-home meals:
- The viral feta pasta dish everyone's raving about is even better without pasta
- A chocolate sandwich tastes exactly as comforting as it sounds — and it's sublime
- This riff on a classic Southern pie is comfort in a bite — and the leftovers taste great for breakfast
- French-inspired lentils are the easiest cure for your winter blues — and they're impossible to mess up