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A Valentine’s Dinner
The Perfect Gift for Someone Special
By Kirk Leins

A Valentine’s Dinner - The Perfect Gift for Someone Special - By Kirk Leins

Valentine's Day is a wonderful concept, in theory at least. While the idea of a holiday dedicated to couples in love is sweet, its purity has given way to the pressure of creating the perfect evening. If this strikes a chord, fear not. My gift to you this Valentine's Day is a game plan for creating a great night for your special someone.

The History of Valentine's Day
The origins of Valentine's Day date back to ancient Rome and a Pagan fertility celebration known as Lupercalia. Originally celebrated on February 15th, the Pagan holiday was turned into a Christian feast day in 496 by Pope Gelasius I. The Pope renamed the holiday, St. Valentine's Day, and moved it to the 14th.

But here's where it gets a little tricky. Apparently there were several saints named Valentine and no one knows for sure which one is being honored on this day. The assumption is that the holiday recognizes a Roman priest named Valentine who caught the wrath of Emperor Claudius II. While there are several romantic legends behind why Father Valentine met his demise, it's most probable that he was executed over his love of God, rather than a woman.

We know for a fact that in the 14th century, St. Valentine's Day became associated with romantic love and I'm pleased to say that we have a writer to thank for that. In 1381, poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote "The Parliament of Fowls" to commemorate the engagement of England's Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. In the poem, Chaucer links the couple's engagement to St. Valentine's Day, as well the corresponding mating season of birds.

The holiday evolved over the years and by the 18th century, exchanging handmade cards became all the rage in England. The tradition didn't make it to the states until the 1850s. Nowadays, however, Valentine's Day cards represent a whopping 25 percent of the greeting card industry.

Keeping It Real
For some reason, the handmade cards of yore have given way to overpriced roses and overcrowded restaurants. I'm not saying that flowers and food isn't a romantic combo, but it is a coincidence that both are more expensive, as well as much harder to come by on Valentine's Day. This wouldn't be so bad if the rise in cost and effort equaled a rise in quality, but that's not always the case. Since food is my area of expertise, I'd like to address the potential downsides to dining out on Valentine's Day.

Let's start with making your reservation. Put it this way, if you are reading this article and you've yet to reserve a table, you may be in a lot of trouble. Living in Los Angeles, my experience is that in order to dine at a romantic spot on Valentine's Day, you better start calling at least a month prior to beat the rush. Yikes! I don't know about you, but I'm still recovering from the holidays in mid-January.

I may be pointing out the obvious, but in terms of the restaurant world, high demand usually equates to large crowds, and limited supply. Starting with the former, do you really enjoy dining in a crowded restaurant? I don't. If you ask me, it's fairly noisy and very unromantic. One option is to accept a “late” reservation, let's say 9:30 pm. But be warned that doing so can yield two potential problems.

The first is that your dinner will take up the best portion of your evening. Let's not forget that Valentine's Day falls on a Thursday this year, so time is of the essence. The next problem involves the manner in which many restaurants operate on Valentine's Day.

Due to the large crowds and limited supply, many choose to offer a prix fixe menu. For a set price diners are allowed to choose one first course, one entrée, and one dessert from a minimal selection of offerings. At the same time, many of these restaurants will not offer anything from their regular menu. I don't know about you, but I'm not crazy about the idea.

My worst late-night, prix fixe Valentine's dinner happened about ten years ago at a restaurant I'd eaten at many times prior. My date and I arrived for our 9:30 reservations but weren't seated until 10. By the time we ordered, two thirds of the choices were no longer available. We had no other option but to order dishes that neither of us wanted to eat. To boot, my fish was so overcooked I could barely get a knife through it. I paid good money for this meal, only to feel like a schmuck afterward.

If you've read enough of my articles, you can probably guess where I'm going next. That's right. Why not make your own romantic dinner? By following the plan I'm about to set forth, you can prepare a delicious dinner that will minimize your cost and maximize the time you can spend with your partner. Let's start with the dessert.

Lemon Chiffon Squares with Raspberry Coulis (serves 4)
If you're wondering why I'm beginning with dessert, it's because this is a recipe you can make the day before, allowing you even greater flexibility on the big night. I love this dessert because it tastes great, looks beautiful, and is on the lighter side when it comes to a sweet fix. Here it is.

For the squares:

  • 1 envelope Knox® unflavored gelatin
  • 1 C sugar
  • A pinch of kosher salt
  • 4 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 3/4 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Zest of 1 lemon

For the coulis:

  • 1 small container of fresh raspberries
  • 1/4 C of sugar

Whipped cream for garnish

In a heavy-bottomed saucepot, add the gelatin powder, ½ cup of the sugar, and the kosher salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and lemon juice. Add the eggs to the gelatin mixture and stir to incorporate.

Place the pot over a low flame. While continually stirring with a whisk, allow gelatin and sugar to melt completely without boiling. You will know this has happened when the mixture is no longer granular. This process will take approximately 5 minutes. Transfer to a large glass bowl and place in the refrigerator.

Whisk the refrigerated mixture every five to ten minutes to ensure a smooth consistency.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites using either an electric beater or a large whisk until a meringue begins to form. While continuing to whisk, slowly add the remaining sugar. Once the mixture stiffens, place bowl in fridge.

When the egg mixture achieves the consistency of yogurt, carefully fold in the beaten eggs whites until fully incorporated. Transfer the mixture to an 8”x8” glass dish that's been greased with a non-stick spray. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to set up overnight.

Place raspberries and sugar into a food processor or blender, and process until it becomes a smooth sauce. If desired, you may pass the sauce through a sieve to remove the raspberry seeds. Transfer the sauce to a sealed container and refrigerate overnight.

On the day of, spread a thin layer of raspberry sauce on to the desired number of small dessert plates. Cut the lemon chiffon into four even-sized squares and plate atop the sauce. Place a large dollop of whipped cream on top of the squares and serve. Don't worry if you have any leftover, as the dessert will still taste great the next day.

For those who are adamant about having a chocolate dessert on Valentine's Day, I'll direct you to last year's Valentine's article (and video) for Molten Chocolate Cake.

Classic Salad (serves 2)
When it comes to a great salad, you can't go wrong with the combination of fruit, nuts and cheese. Toss in baby greens and balsamic vinaigrette, and it's the ultimate starter to a romantic meal.

For the salad:

  • 4 to 6 C of spring greens or baby lettuce of your choice
  • 1/2 of a pear, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 C pine nuts or chopped walnuts, lightly toasted in a dry pan
  • 1/3 C crumbed goat cheese or blue cheese

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 C balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, add shallots, mustard, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk until fully combined. Slowly add the extra-virgin olive oil while continuing to whisk. Once an emulsion forms, give it a taste and re-season if necessary.

Place greens into a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Toss with just enough of the vinaigrette until all the leaves are lightly coated.

On two salad plates, fan out equal portions of the sliced pear. Place equal portions of the greens onto each plate, making sure that the pear is peeking out from underneath the greens. Top each salad with equal portions of the nuts and cheese and serve.

Halibut en Papillote (serves 2)
This is a delicious meal that's really easy to pull off. Trust me when I say that you really can't mess it up. While it is a satisfying main course, it's not one that'll put you in a “food coma”. In French, papillote is a butterfly. The name of this dish refers to the shape of the parchment paper in which the fish cooks.

  • 2 fresh halibut filets, 6-7 oz. each
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 of a large red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 3-inch long matchsticks
  • 1/2 of a lemon, sliced into thin rounds
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 C parsley, chopped
  • 3-4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 C dry white wine
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 pieces of parchment paper, each approximately 2½ -feet

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Fold each sheet of parchment paper in half so the cut ends meet. Using scissors, cut the parchment so the unfolded the shape resembles a butterfly, or a heart. You can use a pencil to draw a cut line, if you wish.

Unfold one of the sheets and place on a flat surface. In the center of the right half, make a bed of vegetables, using ½ of the onion, ½ the bell pepper, ½ the carrot and ½ the garlic. Drizzle with 1 tbsp of olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Place one piece of fish on top and season with salt and pepper. Place two lemon slices on top of fish and sprinkle with parsley. Drizzle with ¼ cup of wine and dollop with 2 tbsp of butter.

Fold over the left side of the paper so the cut ends meet. Fold along the outside edges of the paper and staple together, every two inches, so that it creates a completely enclosed packet.

Repeat this process to make a second packet.

Place both packets on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 15 minutes.

Place each packet on its own plate or shallow bowl and bring to the table. Use a sharp knife to cut a slit in the top of the packet and peel back in all directions. Serve along with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

Now that we've completed our dinner, I have one last Valentine's Day thought. In my opinion, true love is not about a demonstrative gesture on one specific day. Rather, it's about smaller gestures spread out over the course of many days. Anyone can spend half of his or her weekly paycheck in an attempt to celebrate a holiday. The real test is if we can show our love consistently. Call me crazy, but preparing a delicious meal and connecting with whomever we choose to sit across the table from, is the perfect place to start.

Here's to true love.

Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at

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