How to pull off the most intimate Valentine’s Day wine dinner at home without breaking a sweat. NYC writer & passionate-home-chef, Zachary Sussman gives the secret to V-day success.
Still haven’t made that big Valentine’s Day reservation? I don’t blame you. Personally, the prospect of sitting down to the usual overhyped, overpriced “prix fixe” meal in a jam-packed dining room doesn’t exactly fill my heart with desire.
More than that, it’s a predictable move: anyone with a credit card can impress a date by shelling out for a fancy restaurant. So rather than dine out this Valentine’s Day, make your honey swoon by choosing to dine in. After all, what could be more romantic than preparing your own multi-course meal– complete with perfect wine pairings– in the intimacy of your own kitchen?
What’s more romantic than preparing your own multi-course meal?
The Valentine’s Day dinner should be the culinary equivalent of foreplay. Ideally, you don’t want to rush it, but rather to prolong the experience over at least a few courses. However, rich and rib-sticking food weighs you down. You don’t want to end the meal with your waist too swollen to enjoy postprandial delights of a different (and altogether more exciting) kind.
Stick to Seafood: It’s Easy
For this reason try seafood and, perhaps, even the raw variety. This includes oysters, clams, and fresh raw fish: crudo, sashimi, or ceviche, whatever cultural term you prefer. Not only does it pair amazingly with a wide range of wines, it’s all extremely easy to prepare. This means you won’t spend hours slaving away in the kitchen while your date checks Facebook on his or her phone.
4 Course Menu
- Oysters on the Half Shell with Brut Nature Champagne
- Arctic Char & Tuna Crudo with a crisp white
- Uni Udon Carbonara with a crisp white
- Wine Poached Pears with Tawny Port
GUIDANCE (look for green boxes)
I’ve documented making an intimate Valentine’s Day dinner for two, along with tips for what to drink. Rather than hard-and-fast rules, these are just suggestions. So don’t be afraid to improvise or mix things up.
Course I: Amuse Bouche of Oysters
How to prepare the oysters easily
Let’s start things off with oysters. Not only are they nature’s readymade amuse bouche, but they supposedly have aphrodisiac qualities to boot. Need I say more? You’ll probably want to start off with at least a half-a-dozen each. They can be shucked and kept on ice in the fridge a bit beforehand which might be a good idea, since prying those out of their stubborn shells can get messy. Some prefer to serve their bivalves with a mignonette or cocktail sauce, but I take mine with just a squeeze of lemon to perk up their inherently briny tang (I find that a vinegary sauce always clashes with wine). The whole point is to let the pure, unadulterated flavors of the oyster mingle with whatever is in your glass, enhancing the enjoyment of both.
Now, for choosing a bubbly
I, for one, opted for a bottle of Champagne – the one Valentine’s Day stereotype I support without any reservations. With oysters and other raw seafood, you want to find a style of Champagne that is as dry and bracing as possible. Keep an eye out for examples labeled “Brut Nature” or Extra Brut” which are bottled with a smaller amount of “dosage,” or added sugar. My friend Sophie, who buys an amazing variety of Champagnes for Chambers Street Wines, insisted that I try a bottle of the Laherte Freres Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut from a small independent domaine in the village of Chavot. Chalky, savory, and acid-driven, with a lacy bead of bubbles, it couldn’t have been a better compliment to the oysters. That said, I couldn’t resist trying them with a few sips of the Chablis I’d reserved for a later course; Muscadet from France’s Loire Valley is another time-honored pairing.
What you’ll need for Course I
Ingredients: a dozen oysters, oyster shucker, lemon, ice
Wine: A sparkling wine such as Brut Nature Champagne
Course II: Arctic Char (a.k.a. raw fish)
It’s all about slicing on a bias
The Champagne in your glass will act as a perfect segue to the next course, an Arctic char and tuna crudo served over a bed of shaved fennel. I chose these fish because I think they look pretty together on the plate, but you can pretty much use any kind you like. Best of all, this dish couldn’t be easier to prepare. All you need to do is slice up some fish and shave some fennel, but the finished product looks super fancy. Be sure to use a very sharp knife to cut against the grain of the fish; if you’re anything like me, you won’t always achieve a perfect “sushi master” slice, but that’s okay. Just tell your date you’ve intentionally made a “rustic” style of crudo, then toss on some pea shoots (I like to douse them in lemon and white balsamic vinegar) and black sesame seeds, topped with a pinch of sea salt and a nice dribble of olive oil.
Airy delicate white wine
For wine, you want something fairly bright and delicate here, which won’t overwhelm the subtlety of the fish. You can simply finish the rest of your Champagne, as I did, but virtually any fresh, acid-driven white would work just fine– perhaps an Albariño from the north of Spain, a dry German Riesling, or a Falanghina from Campania, Italy. Frankly, it’s hard to go wrong.
What you’ll need for Course II
Ingredients: nice cut of tuna and arctic char, fennel bulb, pea shoots, lemon, sesame, white balsamic vinegar, sea salt, olive oil
Wine: A zesty white like Chablis, Falanghina, Gavi, Dry Riesling, Albariño
Course III: Uni Udon Carbonara with Pan-seared Scallops (a.k.a. ‘spaghetti’)
How to Carbonara
Now for the main course, which I have dubbed “uni udon carbonara with pan-seared scallops.” This is the one dish that actually requires a stovetop. If the name sounds complicated or intimidating, I promise: if you can make a basic plate of spaghetti carbonara, you’ll be able to pull this off without a problem. The skills involved are virtually identical.
A pack of fresh uni from the market
Uni refers to sea urchin, or rather, the tiny orange morsels of roe contained within the urchin’s spiny shell. For sushi lovers, this is the ultimate delicacy: soft and velvety, with a gorgeous buttery texture that melts in your mouth. As much as I love to eat my uni raw— and I suggest that you spoon-feed your date a few tasty bites before you start cooking— in this recipe, it actually provides a kick of umami flavor for a pasta sauce. While boiling your udon (I try to use fresh ones whenever possible), reduce down a cup and a half of cream. Then let it cool to room temperature and whisk in the uni pieces so that they fully integrate into the liquid. In another pan, brown some chopped shallots in butter. When the noodles are ready, toss them in the pan with the caramelized shallots and pour the uni-infused cream on top, along with a beaten egg yolk. Gently mix it all together over very low heat, add salt and white pepper to taste, and voila! Serve the noodles under a centerpiece of seared scallops, cooked just long enough to achieve a beautiful brown sear while leaving the insides deliciously moist and translucent. For visual effect, I like to garnish this with a sliver of lemon and a dash of micro greens.
Now, for the wine
Naturally, you’ll want a wine that can hold up to the richness of the scallops and cream, but with a saline, mineral quality that will hint back to the urchin. Remember that bottle of Chablis I mentioned earlier? Now’s the time to pour your date a nice big glass. Hailing from the northernmost part of Burgundy, the Chardonnay-based wines of Chablis possess all the structure and textural depth you’ll need, but with a classic flinty minerality that is the hallmark of the appellation’s Kimmeridgean soils (composed of limestone, clay, and fossilized oyster shells). When drinking a great bottle, such as the 2010 Gerard Duplessis Chablis 1er Cu “Montée de Tonnere,” you can literally taste the sea. These are some of the most distinctive and delicious white wines in the world.
What you’ll need for Course III
Ingredients: Fresh udon noodles, uni (urchin) & cream reduction, shallots, butter, egg yolk, white pepper, salt, micro greens (for garnish). Read how to make carbonar
Wine: Same as Course II: Chablis, Falanghina, Gavi, Dry Riesling, Albariño
Course IV: Wine Poached Pears
Of course, no Valentine’s Day would be complete without something sweet. For dessert, you could always just eat chocolate in bed (preferably with a glass of dessert wine, like the 2009 Burmester Late Bottled Vintage Port). Another quick and easy option is to peel and poach some pears in white wine (ideally, something bright and fruity) with brown sugar and a little cinnamon, then finish them with whipped cream and grated dark chocolate. The port would function perfectly here as well, as would a fizzy, sugar-kissed Moscato d’Asti. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The best dessert of all is yet to come.
What you’ll need for Dessert
Ingredients: peeled pears, sweet wine, brown sugar, cinnamon, whipped cream, grated dark chocolate
Wine: A dessert wine such as Port or Moscato d’Asti
By Zachary Sussman, wine writer, educator and consultant