Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mike Fisher, a classically trained chef and consummate bachelor.
There’s nothing more romantic than a dinner date at home. Without the distractions of a restaurant, all of the focus can be on you and your date. You’ll find that the conversation will be more comfortable and honest. And of course, women love men who can cook. But when you’re cooking for someone else, it’s like you’re putting on a little show, and the pressure can be a bit nerve-racking. So just follow these “commandments” and recipe suggestions and you’ll be sure to have a romantic and successful dinner date at home.
Commandment #1: A dinner date at home does not make a good first date.
No matter how excited you are to impress her, it’s kind of creepy to invite her to your house on the first date. She doesn’t yet know whether you’re a serial killer who’s literally planning on having her for dinner. Save it for the third date or later. Also, taking her to a restaurant first will give you an idea of what she likes. Pay attention to what she drinks and eats; it will help you develop your own menu.
Commandment #2: Get as much done in advance as possible.
In trying to impress my date, I’ve made the mistake of preparing overly complicated dishes. But with poor preparation, all of my attention was on cooking and not on her. That completely defeats the purpose. Prep as much as possible so that the cooking itself can be effortless. Do however leave some simple tasks for her so that she can get involved. It will add to the experience and can give you a distraction if the conversation lags. Having her make the salad is perfect for this — that way she will be cooking at the same time you are.
This also means you need to read through your recipes before the date. If you need softened butter, get it out of the fridge before you start cooking. If you need 1 cup of beef stock, measure it out before you start cooking. If you need the oven set at 425 degrees, turn it on before you start cooking. See a trend here?
Commandment #3: Never serve anything messy or difficult to eat.
No spaghetti, no lobster, no French onion soup…etc. Things can get very awkward if you are both concerned with getting pasta sauce on your shirts. Don’t overlook your salad in this respect; make sure your lettuce is chopped small enough to be bite size.
Commandment #4: Offer her something to drink that you know she likes.
If you followed rule #1 then you would know that she likes cocktails, loves beer, or hates red wine. If she’s a teetotaler, don’t just offer her water or soda; whip up something a little more interesting. Mimic what she would order at a restaurant, and she’ll be very impressed that you paid attention.
Commandment #5: Don’t chew with your mouth open.
Mind your table etiquette; you should know better. You’ll feel more comfortable because you’re eating at home, but the basic rules still apply. Put your napkin on your lap, not in your shirt. Don’t shovel your food and keep your mouth closed when you chew. Read this article for a full guide on table manners.
Commandment #6: Don’t get too drunk.
My girlfriend’s grandparents were in town for the weekend, and I decided it would be nice to make dinner for the whole family. Unfortunately, I had a rough day at work and decided to start in early with the tequila. I am not kidding when I say that it contributed to the demise of our three-year relationship.
Commandment #7: Have a backup plan.
Did you absolutely destroy your entrée? It’s okay, have this in your fridge: butter, heavy cream (milk in a pinch), grated parmesan cheese, and garlic. Boom…you’ve got alfredo sauce.
Melt ½ stick of butter, add 1 cup of heavy cream, and some chopped garlic (one clove or so). Let simmer for a couple minutes then whisk in 1.5 cups grated parmesan. Salt to taste and add a good amount of fresh ground pepper. Serve over pasta with chicken, shrimp, or whatever you have on hand (having a rotisserie chicken in the fridge is always a brilliant move).
Mess up your alfredo? Laugh at yourself and order a pizza. She’ll appreciate your humility.
Commandment #8: Don’t bother with dessert.
Don’t go overboard: after you eat, stay out of the kitchen. Buy some ice cream, some sugar cones, and sprinkles. It’s impromptu and cute as hell. Who doesn’t like ice cream cones?
Commandment #9: Keep it simple.
The more variables you have the better the chances that things will go wrong. You don’t need candles and a table-scape to make a lasting impression on a woman. Making things as simple as possible will take a lot of pressure off of you and her. The recipes I have included focus on this concept, so stick with it.
Commandment #10: Relax.
It’s supposed to be fun.
Alright, it’s time to cook.
You need to have some food ready when she gets there so you have something to eat while preparing the salad/entree. Some simple finger food is always the best option — nothing heavy. That way you can eat while you are in the kitchen, and eating with your hands is fun. Bruschetta is a great choice because it’s better if you make it early in the day and pretty much everyone likes it. Skip the onions if you have a very picky eater on your hands.
- 1/2 baguette, sliced on a bias ½-inch thick
- 2 large cloves garlic skinned and cut in half
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 roma tomatoes, seeded
- ½ red onion
- Balsamic vinegar
- Fresh basil leaves
- Kosher salt
Chop seeded tomatoes and place in a small bowl. Pile basil leaves on top of one another and roll like a cigar. Thinly slice your basil cigar, tip to tip. Chop the basil a bit so that you don’t have large hunks. Peel and chop the red onion into a small dice. Put the tomatoes, onion, and basil in a bowl. Add a quick drizzle of oil, a pinch of kosher salt, and some balsamic. (When adding kosher salt, rub your fingers together to crush the large crystals.)
Toss it all together and put it in the fridge for a few hours before the date.
Preheat broiler to high. Place bread slices on a sheet pan. Drizzle or brush a little olive oil on each side of the bread. Broil the bread on each side, but leave the door open. The broiler gets really hot so keep an eye on the bread. When the edges start to brown, flip them. Rub the toast with the halved garlic while they are still hot.
Salad: Mixed Greens With Balsamic Vinaigrette
The salad should be prepared while you are making the entrée. Get her involved. Below is a very basic salad that involves some simple prep work for her.
Go buy a prepackaged bag of mixed greens/mesclun mix. Add to it the sorts of things you like in your salad. Chop up the other half of your red onion, slice some cucumber, chop some carrots, or add some cherry tomatoes. It is up to you what you want in your salad, but have her do the chopping.
Skip the bottled dressings and make this easy balsamic vinaigrette. If you made the bruschetta then you will already have all of these ingredients on hand:
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup olive oil
Add the garlic, salt, and black pepper to the balsamic in a mixing bowl and stir until the salt dissolves. Slowly drizzle the olive oil into the balsamic mixture while whisking briskly. The dressing should emulsify nicely but pour it into a jar or bottle anyway. Give it a rigorous shake before serving and garnish with blue cheese and walnuts if you desire.
Entrée: Molasses Marinated Pork Tenderloin + Cognac Sauce + Veggies
Choose your entree carefully. I once made a purple crab cake stuffed swordfish for a date. It wasn’t until halfway through dinner that she told me that she doesn’t like seafood. She struggled through a very fishy dish just to be polite. It was an awful feeling. I didn’t pay attention to what she ordered when we went out to dinner, and I was paying the price.
Hopefully by now you know some of her favorite foods, so find a recipe on the internet that involves them; if you don’t know any yet, then play it safe. Choose an entrée that doesn’t require more than 20 minutes of prep and a total of 45 minutes of cook time. Stick with flavor “neutral” proteins (chicken or pork), some simple vegetables, and a basic starch. Here is a great example:
Pork Tenderloin Ingredients
- Small pork tenderloin
- ¾ cup molasses
- 1.5 cup kosher salt
- ½ gallon distilled water
This recipe, to be prepped the night before, is for a simple brine. The brine is going to add a lot of flavor to the pork. Put the molasses, salt, and water in a 1-gallon ziplock and give a good shake (feel free to use anything that will hold the pork and brine, just so long as the tenderloin is fully submerged). Put your pork in the bag and the bag in the fridge. Let it sit overnight.
Roasted Veggies Ingredients
- 2 small fennel bulbs — remove the stalks and slice the white bulb about ½” thick
- 1 yellow onion sliced thick
- 5 small potatoes, quartered
- 4 carrots, peeled and chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground pepper
- Meat thermometer
When chopping the vegetables try and get them to a uniform size.
Now get out your pork loin. Pat the pork dry and try to remove excess salt (it should be a dark brown color). Let the pork sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Preheat grill to as hot as possible. No grill? You can use a regular sauté pan.
Toss the vegetables in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Put in roasting pan and in the heated oven.
Get the pork on the grill and leave the lid off (or put in a sauté pan over mid-high heat). What you want is a nice crust on the outside of the pork — the molasses is going to caramelize, but it will burn if cooked too long (if it burns, just cut it off before serving). The pork should only take a few minutes per side to crust.
Put the pork on your vegetables in the oven (stir your veg) and set your timer for 15 minutes. Check the temp of the pork every 15 minutes until your meat thermometer says 140 degrees.
When your pork hits the right temp pull it out of the oven and let it sit on your cutting board for 15 minutes (very important). Let the vegetables further cook during this time.
Cognac Sauce Ingredients
- ½ cup Cognac
- 1 cup reduced sodium beef broth
- Handful dried apricots
- Handful dried cranberries
- 2 tbl white sugar
- 2 tbl softened unsalted butter
- Pinch of kosher salt
While resting your pork, simmer the cognac with the sugar until it fumes. Put your dried fruit in a bowl and pour the warm cognac over it. In the same pot, heat your broth until reduced by about half. Add the fruit and cognac mixture to the beef broth and cook for another 3 minutes or so. Remove from heat. Stir in the butter and salt to taste.
That’s it. Slice your pork on a bias lengthwise and plate over the roasted vegetables. Finish with the fruit/cognac sauce across the top.
You made it. If everything goes as planned then the two of you are watching a movie on the couch and eating an ice cream cone. What you do now is for another article, but follow these rules and you’ll have a flawless dinner every time.