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What you should really feed a date. May 17, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, my local paper had an article in the lifestyle section on what you should cook the first time a date came over to eat in. Curious, I looked at the menu to see what the various relationship experts and chefs recommended, and came away completely outraged by their suggestions. They advised the unfortunate victims of their well-meaning wiles to serve up an appetizer of crostini followed by pasta, then end the meal with a yogurt parfait. Clearly, these people are either deranged sadists trying to ruin the romantic lives of total strangers, or they’ve never eaten any of these foods themselves.

As any idiot should know, the first rule when creating a romantic meal is to prepare something that can be eaten with grace. This is why you should never, ever serve lobster in a romantic situation. First, there’s the issue of cooking the lobster. Unless you relish the prospect of your date breaking into an enthusiastic rendition of “lob-stah kil-lah,” as Julie Powell’s husband did in the movie “Julie & Julia,” this is unlikely to set a romantic tone.

Then there’s the consumption of the recently deceased crustaceans. Have you ever actually watched someone eat a lobster? Its eyes stare at you accusingly across the table as its various body parts are cracked, stabbed, picked, poked, prodded, smashed, and generally ripped to shreds. And with each new assault on its angry red carapace, the look in its eyes becomes more and more outraged. I kid you not: watch next time.

Meanwhile, you, the well-mannered diner, are ripping out chunks and slivers of lobster meat with your hands, dunking them in melted butter, and shoving the dripping delights into your mouth as fast as possible in a totally doomed effort to keep the butter from dripping all over your chin, clothes, tablecloth, etc. It’s a scene worthy of a Neanderthal set loose in a Shoney’s all-u-can-eat buffet. Slurp some raw oysters on the half-shell and the picture is complete.

Things that drip, things that are slippery, things that stare at you, things that are difficult to fork or cut, things that congeal, melt, or turn to concrete if not eaten at warp speed, things that stick in your teeth, things that force you to unhinge your lower jaw and open your mouth like a python preparing to swallow a whole rabbit: These things, I repeat, are not good things to serve when others are likely to be observing you closely as you consume them. And if your date is not observing you, I suggest that it should be not just the first but the last time he or she is allowed to darken your door.

With all this in mind, let’s return to that “ideal” romantic menu as presented in the paper. Begin with the crostini, covered in bruschetta or arugula topped with crumbled cheese. You bite, or rather crunch, into the crostini; crumbs and fragments of bruschetta or arugula and cheese fly in all directions. Inevitably, some lands on your clothes, and possibly your date’s, not to menion spraying the plate and the table. Crostini tastes good, of course, but there is no way to eat it gracefully.

The same is even more true of a nicely sauced pasta. No matter how carefully you try to spear or roll the pasta on your fork, it will inevitably get away, creating an undignified and time-consuming chase that invariably leads to more sauce being splashed on you and your surrounds. Body armor, bibs, huge napkins, or ponchos made from oilcloth tablecloths may protect you and your clothing from harm, but are unlikely to win points in the seductive or attractive clothing department.

The article went so far as to suggest that you buy a jar (!!!) of sauce and an extra box of pasta in case of disaster, not to mention keeping the nearest Italian take-out menu on hand in case you simply couldn’t cope. And, it added helpfully, several bottles of wine to take the edge off while you waited for the jar of pasta to heat up or the take-out to arrive. God knows, at that point you and your date would need them!

Before moving on to that fabulous finish, let’s note what isn’t on the menu: salad or side vegetables. You’re moving straight from toasted bread to pasta to a yogurt parfait. True, there was a time when salad, especially loaded with dressing, might have topped the list of food disasters waiting to happen, especially since, for whatever obscure reason of mealtime etiquette, it was considered a gross breach of etiquette to use your knife to reduce your salad greens into anything resembling bite-sized portions. Thank God, those dark days seem to be over, and we’ll return to salads and veggies in a moment.

But first, let’s take another look at that marvelous dessert choice. In what universe does a yogurt parfait qualify as a romantic dessert? In what universe could it possibly pair with pasta and crostini?!! Unless your date is wearing Earth Shoes, dreadlocks, and a tie-dyed tee-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign, what brain fever could ever make you think he or she would want to eat that?!

Now, let’s talk about what you should serve a date who’s coming to your place for a first meal. There are four basic rules to bear in mind:

1. Don’t feed them too much. By this, I’m not implying that you should starve them or make them think you’re living on Lean Cuisine. But this is not the time to show your affection by stuffing them with food until they fall asleep on the sofa. A snoring date is not romantic. As with romance itself, you should give them plenty to work with, but still keep them hungry for more.

2. Don’t make a mess. This goes for the kitchen as well as the food selection. The kitchen should look clean and smell inviting, not—no matter how great the finished dishes may look and taste—like a frat house in the aftermath of a food fight. And so, by the way, should you. 

3. Keep it simple, stupid. The food should be simple, delicious, straightforward to prepare, easy to eat, and complementary. We’ll get into this in a sec. For now, just bear in mind that you want all the dishes to taste good together, even if you’re eating an appetizer first, then a salad, then the entree, and then dessert. Pate de foie gras en aspic followed by fresh sauerkraut and beet salad followed by pepperoni and sausage pizza followed by baked Alaska does not a romantic meal make, though it would certainly be memorable, especially for the apres-meal time spent in the emergency room.

4. Make it easy on yourself. If you’re known for your Boeuf Bourguinon or Pate en croute avec confit de canard en truffe,  or everyone raves about your Crawfish and Mussel Paella or Moroccan Serpent Cake, fine, strut your stuff. Otherwise, now is not the time to try out that fantastic escargot-and-turnip pizza you were just reading about or teach yourself to make an Imperial Mandarin meal with 20 courses. You can’t go wrong making simple, good food that you know and love, so you can relax and enjoy your date. Believe me, seeing your enjoyment and appreciation of him or her will work more romance magic than any food on earth.

So, then, what should you serve? Keeping the Four Rules in mind, as well as what you and your date enjoy eating, here are a few suggestions:

Appetizers: These should simply take the edge off until the meal is served, unless you want to make a mezze- or tapas-like meal of a lovely assortment of appetizers. An assortment of good old cheese and crackers, carrot and celery sticks, olives, and deviled eggs; baked Brie with baguette slices and dried cherries or apricots or baguette slices and tapenade; dishes of nuts and dates; or hummus with warm pita or naan wedges and crudites are all perfectly find options. There are many, many more, including endive boats stuffed with a feta-blue cheese-crumbled pecan mix or homemade pimiento cheese and table water crackers. Or, for that matter, grilled mushroom and pearl onion or lime shrimp kebabs. The important thing is to make sure it’s easy to eat the appetizers with your fingers without making a mess, and to provide sturdy small plates and plenty of napkins.

Salad: The things to avoid here are lots of little, hard-to-spear ingredients and drippy, slippy dressing. Grilled Caesar salad has been getting a lot of press lately, and I’ll bet it’s delicious, but unless you’ve had plenty of practice making it, a regular Caesar with a judicious amount of dressing—not a little romaine lettuce buried under a volcanic outpouring of dressing and croutons—might be a wiser choice. This is an excellent occasion for the long-disparaged wedge salad, too: a wedge of iceberg lettuce with crumbled blue cheese and a little oil and vinegar and fresh-cracked black pepper. Incredibly easy to make and eat (as long as you provide knives!), just don’t goo it up with globs of prepared blue cheese dressing. Chilled asparagus in a lemon vinaigrette can be delightfully refreshing (don’t forget sharp knives or use too much vinaigrette), as can melon balls sprinkled with lemon or lime juice, cracked black pepper and artisanal salt, or with white balsamic vinegar. And that old cliche, shrimp cocktail, achieved its pervasive status simply because it was so good and comparatively easy to make.

Entrees and sides: I’m all for the thrill of the grill here. Grilled or roasted food is easy to make, easy to eat, and extremely good. Roasted mixed new and sweet potato wedges with roasted sweet onion wedges and mushrooms makes a delicious side dish (and a little grated cheese never hurts!). Roasted asparagus, yellow summer squash rounds, and red, yellow and/or orange bell peppers (I core them and cut them in eighths) develop incredible tenderness and rich flavor, and are delicious served alone or over rice. One of the beauties of roasted veggies is that you can mix and match: Add some roasted mushrooms and sweet onions to the veggies over rice, or to boiled green beans or carrots. Just don’t roast corn on the cob for your dinner date (remember the messy and stick-in-teeth factors)! I brush my roasting veggies with olive oil, then sprinkle them with lemon pepper, Trocomare or RealSalt, and Italian herbs before popping them in my convection oven. Grilled or roasted chicken, shrimp, steak, or beef is easy and good, a perfect complement to the veggies. What if your date’s a vegetarian? Marinate cubes of extra-firm tofu in tamari sauce, miso, shiitake concentrate, chili oil, minced ginger and garlic, and sliced scallions (green onions), then add the cubes to your veggie kebabs, grill, and serve over rice.

Dessert: You’ve reached the end of the meal and would like to end it on a sweet note. Sweet, not overstuffed, remember. Now is not the time to whip out the Molten Chocolate Abomination or, alas, the cheesecake. Fruit, nuts, cheese, and a dessert wine make a light, elegant finish (seedless grapes or sliced apples sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice are good choices, as are ripe strawberries in season; no sweet cherries, luscious as they are, because of the pits). A couple of carefully selected chocolate truffles, or lemon tarts or small slices of Key lime pie, or some other small, choice, light treat would be nice. Again, nothing hard to eat like honey-dripping slices of baklava or meringue-topped or crumbly anything. And no seconds! Send a second piece (or two) home.

Sound good? And, well, what about that pasta and pizza and cheesecake and cherries and ice cream and lobster and corn and, and…

Patience. All in good time. At this rate, there’s bound to be a second date!

           ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

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