Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >
Dec 20, 2008 09:47 PM

Help me plan my wife's "Christmas Gift" menu ... please!

I've decided that for Christmas I am going to give my wife something I feel is pretty cool and unique ... especially given that she is the one who predominantly cooks in our household.

Along with various and sundry other kitchen goodies, I am going to give her 5 coupons. I know what you're thinking: "Coupons? Did he say COUPONS? How lame!" But just hear (well, read) me out.

She loves food ... I love food. We love food ... and when I mean love, I mean L-O-V-E LOVE! From the hole-in-the-wall to the 3 Michelin star; if it tastes good, we are there!

She also really enjoys cooking; and I'll be the first to admit that I am considerably lucky because she does it both often and really well. And, she loves it to boot.

But I know that, deep down, she would really enjoy it if I cooked more often -- even if I am a bit of a kitchen terrorist ... and a technical disaster ... and an OCD, exacting, rigid SOB who preps everything before hand (which is good) but uses just about every single possible dish and cooking implement in the kitchen (nay, the known universe) during the entire prep and cooking (which, let's face it, is not so good come time to clean the dishes).

Anyway ... I'm rambling. The coupons I want to give her are for cooking nights, where I take care of everything ...

From the planning of the meal, to the purveying of the necessary cooking items and ingredients (and utensils/cookware should there be something my beautiful bride has yet to stumble upon and "just HAVE to have"). The prep ... the cooking ... the "expo" (plating/timing) ... the wine. Even dishes and final kitchen cleandown.

I want to give her, in essence, her own private Restaurant-esque "Chef's Table" Tasting/Prix Fixe experience, and I want each coupon to be a "theme"/cuisine. For example:

Classic French Bistro, Northern Italian, New American, Down-home Southern (we are from the Deep South), Avant Garde/Molecular, Classic Spanish Tapas, Shandong Chinese, etc etc.

The only limitations/prohibitions/caveats I want to throw out are the following:

- I am hardly the paragon of kitchen experience, but am willing to try anything (I'm assuming these will, when used, require me to take an entire day off of work)
- We do NOT have a massive kitchen
- We do NOT have a yard of any note (read: no whole, suckling pigs cooked for 14 hours in a pit please!)
- See the first item.

Other than these, I am open to any and all suggestions. We live in Los Angeles, thus we have access to lots of farmer's markets and fresh ingredients.

So, with all that being said, please feel free to throw out any suggestions, and as detailed as you like! You can simply suggest a theme, or throw out specific dish recs for someone else's idea for a theme, or even just suggest a wine/beer/cocktail to pair with a particular dish. I'll take whatever you've got!

Thanks Chow'ers!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I don't think there's anything lame about this, including the coupons.

    I have a lovely husband, who does things for me every day, and I *truly* appreciate what he does, and I do love to cook, but there are some nights when I would saw off my own right leg to have him cook dinner. Well, almost that.. :-)

    I like your themes. Are you sure you want to tackle molecular, though? Hey, how about this? Are there any dishes she really liked growing up that her mother or father made? You could have a "Mom's Home Cooking" night. I'd saw off my left leg to have my mother's pork roast. ;-)

    Give us an accurate idea of your experience/proficiency level to guide us in suggesting menu components. What does "hardly the paragon of kitchen experience" mean, exactly? That could mean you hardly go in there, or it could mean merely that you don't know how to prepare blowfish safely. So flesh that part out a little bit.

    I think this is a great gift. Good for you.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Steady Habits

      Thank you for the kind words, Steady. I was throwing all of those "themes" in more as examples than as definitive ideas for the meals.

      But you and Paula are both right; perhaps the molecular should be left to Adria and his acolytes, rather than this neophyte attempting it and blowing up the whole kitchen -- or at least making a kitchen disaster of epic proportions.

      In terms of my experience, I have cooked complete meals before ... including a few where I've just winged it instead of following a recipe (though those tended to be much simpler dishes like a Fettucine Alfredo, for example). I feel confident following many/most recipes, since as I said earlier I literally prep every last thing (with the possible exclusion of salt and pepper to taste) ahead of time, so when it comes to the actual cooking part it's only a matter of combining the ingredients in the apprpriate order at the appropriate times/intervals/temperatures ... and making sure it tastes good, of course! Also, I make (what I'm told are) beautiful risottos ... it's my go-to comfort food dish, and she loves it as well, so I KNOW I will put that on one of "the menus".

      I don't want to be breaking down chickens/ducks/etc, and I am not really at all familiar with cooking crustaceans/bi-valves/etc. I'm not the greatest multi-tasker (hence my oft-stated preference for prepping EVERYTHING ahead of time) -- I'm fine working a couple of burners (along with, maybe, the oven), but more than that and my head starts to spin.

      I would probably limit the menus to 3 courses ... 5 (and MAYBE 7) if we throw in simpler items like a simple amuse, a cheese course, a palate cleanser, and mignardises.

      Thanks, and hopefully that helps you have a better idea. Thanks for your participation so far, and please keep the ideas coming!

      1. re: a213b

        Okay, good. That sheds some light on the subject. No chicken-hacking. Got it. Three questions:

        1) The other, equally important part of the equation, as Paula noted... Tell us a little bit about *what* your wife likes to eat (besides the risotto, which is great and has already provided the key to unlocking your Northern Italian Night). Name us a couple of her favorite appetizers, entrees, desserts...

        2) Also, anything she especially does not care for? Any food allergies?

        3) Do you have in the house any of the standard general reference cookbooks that you see CH'ers mention frequently here? Say...Joy of Cooking, anything Julia Child, James Beard, Better Homes & Garden, Southern Living? And then...what about Marcella Hazan, maybe some Ina Garten (since peeps here are telling me her recipes are failproof), Patricia Wells can't even think of some of the names now, but you get the point. Maybe we could expedite your selection process by directing you to a few specific recipe suggestions in addition to dish ideas...

        I'm sure I'll be able to suggest a few menu alternatives once I know what she loves to eat, hates to eat and cannot eat. I can start thinking about French Bistro, Northern Italian and Southern right now over my morning (okay, "noon") coffee. I'm not very knowledgable about Tapas, other than the fact that I can be pretty darned efficient about ingesting them. And Shandong, no... But Szechuan, yes. (Does she like heat and spice, btw?)

        1. re: Steady Habits


          1) I'm really trying to think of things she doesn't love to eat, as I think that would be more helpful.

          - She is very selective about the seafood she eats, as she seems to be particularly sensitive to the "fishy" taste that accompanies many varieties of fish, as well as fish that is less than perfectly fresh. Plus, while a nice Dover Sole with table-side presentation would be outstanding, I don't think I am quite up to that. And don't even try to get me thinking about sushi/sashimi! I'll leave that up to my favorite Itamaes.

          - She HATES pate.

          - She loves Foie Gras, Sweetbreads (especially crispy), Pork Belly ... let's see, she definitely loves steak/red-meat (especially braised -- e.g. Short Ribs), Duck (Confit, Crispy, etc), Thai (both Northern and Southern) ... oh, and chocolate. She LOVES chocolate (but who doesn't, right?). This is hard because we try to play the "What would your last meal be" game and can never choose. We both just love too many things.

          Other than that, fair game!

          2) She does not have any food allergies.

          3) Ummm ... <shrug>. I would look, but we are away from home visiting family for the holidays. But feel free to make recommendations from any books -- whatever we don't have I could buy, or at the very least I am sure I could find said recipe online.

          For the themes, I think I've definitively settled on the following:

          1) French Bistro/Brasserie
          2) Northern Italian -- I'm even thinking of making it an Alba White Truffle meal, which she LOVES!
          3) Down-Home (this could range from Classic Southern, to "Country Style" to Creole, maybe even to Cajun).
          4) Tapas (Jamon Iberico, MMmmmmmm)
          5) Szechuan -- she loves heat and spice, but sweet too.

          Thanks! You guys rock!

          1. re: a213b

            Okay, I just have a few minutes here, so I'll tackle the French Bistro menu first. (You're going to notice a distinct Norman-Breton hint to some of my suggestions, because I'm up here in New England and their ingredients are quite close to our "cuisine du terroir".)

            I think from your description you would be able to accomplish any of these with a good recipe. So here are several ideas to consider in the various courses.


            A good onion soup (yes, a cliche, but a cliche for a reason, and definitely still served in FBs)
            A pumpkin or squash puree based soup, accented with cream, or vegetable puree soupes are very bistro
            Frogs' legs, lightly dredged and sauteed
            A crepe of country ham and camembert topped with creme fraiche
            (I myself will always kill for Escargot, prepared any number of ways--how does she feel about them?)
            Morels or mushrooms, creamed and herbed, served on toast points
            Sweetbreads, since she likes them, would also be perfectly appropriate choice on your Bistro carte


            Chicken a la Cotentin (This is a simple dish, but satisfying on a cold night. It's Norman, and Claude Guermont has a recipe for it in his book, I believe. You simmer the browned chicken in a stock and either cider or wine, with, ideally, chanterelles, but mushrooms will do, as well as shallots. When the chicken is done, add some cream to make the pan sauce.)

            Some treatment of a veal chop. (Can you get good veal, btw? There are any number of treatments I could suggest. Maybe something with mustard?)

            Daube de boeuf.

            A rabbit stew.

            Sometimes, nothing beats (no pun intended) a really good omelette.


            Braised lettuce
            Peas with creme fraiche
            A potato galette
            Simmered leeks with nutmeg cream


            Pear and watercress with a creamy mustard dressing
            Tomato and [pick a green--chicory's good] with red wine and walnut oil vinaigrette
            Baby spinach and asparagus spears (or hearts of palm) with raspberry vinaigrette


            (These are simple)

            A rustic apple or rhubarb galette
            Pears baked in cream (really, a very easy custard)
            A dacquoise (for ease of preparation, skip the cake layers and just do the meringues) topped with the fruit of your choice (voting for blackberry, myself, at least tonight)

            Let me know if I'm totally off the mark, while I put the pizza in the oven and dream about Szechuan and my favorite Szechuan shredded beef I haven't had in far too long.

            Oh, btw, I like your theme choices, but was wondering, since she likes red meat, whether you'd consider a retro NYC Steakhouse night? E.g., a Caesar salad, steak of her choice, potatoes, a mid-Century favorite dessert like Cherries Jubilee or Baked Alaska.... etc., etc. You could always give her six coupons ;-D. Just an idea; no offense taken if it's not on the menu.

            1. re: Steady Habits

              Oohhh, SH, you are like an angel sent from heaven just to help me on my Christmas Journey!

              I love your suggestions for the French Bistro night; they all sound delish, and from a first glance, everything is something she would enjoy. Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking of maybe something like the following:

              Amuse (or in this case more accurately, pre-meal nibbles) -- Creamed Morels on Toast Points: I'm thinking this is something pretty simple, and items easily purchased in small enough quantities so that we don't have a ton left over just lying around (read: begging for us to eat on 'em and fatten up!)

              First -- she LOVES soups, especially on cold nights: she adores a deliscious, classic Onion with the thick brioche and gruyere, but the squash or pumpkin purees are awesome as well. I'll have to think on it to see which I would choose especially for her; and quite frankly, I'd rather do a soup (or some other hot app) than a salad.

              Main: Coq au Vin, Cassoulet (so she can get her confit duck), Daube de Boeuf, Steak Frites, Veal Chop, hmmm ... there's so much! I will say my concern would be having a soup before all of these but the Steak Frites and the Veal Chop, just from a textures standpoint ... could be too much liquid. Hmmm ...

              Sides: Uh, duh, Joel Robuchon Pommes Puree! Maybe Haricots Verts or the simmered leeks (which sound DELISH!)

              Dessert: Creme Brulee? Maybe a Brioche Pudding avec Glace or an apple galette (or even the Dacquoise, which I would certainly do with cake layers ... she deserves it!)

              Great food for thought, and I'm thinking there's a pretty good menu in there!

              Oh, and the old school Steakhouse night is a great one! Might as well do 6!

              1. re: a213b

                If I had a vote (which your humble correspondent realizes she does not and should not--just offering an opinion)...I'd go with the veal chop IF you can get good ones. (Not really a problem around here, with a significant Italian population, but I don't know how it is out there.) But, yes, I'd say, the veal chop; whichever soup you choose. I'd go with the haricots verts in that case. The leeks are calling my name,'ve got to get some lighter fare in here somewhere, and you seem to like the creamed morels opener, so I wouldn't do another creamed dish. Nice suggestion, btw, the brioche pudding. If you do a soup, and whether that soup is onion, pumpkin or squash, either the galette (so easy) or the brioche complement those soups so nicely, I think. JMO. If you do the brioche, you could make a passed chocolate sauce, since you noted she loves chocolate. Or, if you think you'd both enjoy clutching your stomachs for hours after all this devastating good food, I think I have a recipe for a very, very serious, but simple to make, ganache tart. Of course, now that I've offered it, I won't be able to find it, so choose something else. ;-) I'm sure whatever you choose ultimately to prepare will be a knock-out (in a good way).

                Here are some thoughts on Szechuan. Now, the traditional Szechuan dinner, as I understand it, includes a starch, a steamed and/or stir-fried dish, and a soup (plus the little fruit-sweet at the end). Is that right?

                This menu would be a good opportunity to feature either lamb or duck, since they are prevalent in Szechuan and I don't think I see them yet among the considerations on your other menus.

                It's hard to come up with a lot of suggestions here, because my mind keeps going to shrimp and scallops re Szechuan, and my impression is you'd rather do something less tricky regarding quality....

                But here are a few ideas:


                Scallion pancakes
                I *would* do a plain steamed white rice, whether you do another starch, to quell any spicy dishes you might do, plus the oil that tends to accompany a Szechuan meal
                A simple spring roll
                Eggplant and sweet potato with noodles

                Stir Fry

                Sizzling lamb w/scallions (IF you don't do the pancake, obviously) in spicy black bean sauce
                Stir Fried sliced beef in tangerine sauce
                As I mentioned previously, stir fried beef (or you could do lamb) Szechuan with carrot, bamboo shoots, celery (not exotic, I know, but so good for the meat's tenderness and the beautiful contrasting color combination--plus the heat!)


                Beef steamed in rice flour and ginger (nice sauce consistency due to the rice flour)
                Steamed cabbage and cashew dumplings, or steamed chicken with walnut dumplings


                I don't know; hot and sour always comes to mind first, but I think it's somewhat involved, so instead...corn soup garnished w/shredded duck or spicy pork?

                Alternatives for duck entree: Duck in peppercorn sauce, or just a "simple" crispy 1/2 duck?

                1. re: Steady Habits

                  The Gourmet Cookbook (my favorite, can you tell?) has an amazing recipe for "fragrant crispy duck" with szechuan peppercorns, five spice powder, leeks, ginger, etc. Whenever we make it the bones end up picked clean, not a morsel left. The only thing is that they finish the duck by frying it; I put it in an oven on high heat (as high as it goes short of broiling) for an hour. Gives you nice crispy skin without the mess of boiling oil. I've also done a similar thing with just the breasts, marinating, steaming, then cutting up the meat and stir frying - no crispy skin, but it's quicker and easier.

                  1. re: Emmmily

                    Wow, Emmmily. I don't know what OP's plans are, but that "fragrant crispy duck" sounds...I was going to say, "amazing", but what I'm really thinking is, "addictive". If I were to make it, I'd follow your lead and finish it in the oven, too. Glad to hear it's possible to do that modification. I've never made duck for my husband; may be time to change that! (AFTER Christmas, LOL)

                    1. re: Emmmily

                      Ummm, yes! I am ALL over that idea, and have made the executive decision - hey, why not, I'm at least pretending to be an executive chef, right? ;-) - to incorporate it into the menu.


              2. re: a213b

                For the Northern Italian, you could make a beef (or even better, venison or other game) stew over polenta for the main course. Both are relatively simple to make (although the polenta can require a lot of stirring).

                For Down-Home cooking, there's nothing better than a good chicken-fried steak. Get an eye round (or other very lean cut of beef), and pound it out so it's nice and tender, then dredge it in flour or batter and fry it up.

                Tapas, a great dish is Gambas al ajillo. Easy to make, just heat about a quarter to a half cup (depends on how much you want left over) olive oil, and sautee some garlic until light brown, then throw about a pound of shrimp on there along with some pepper, maybe some paprika, and some white wine or sherry if you feel like it. Sautee until the shrimp turns pink, then take off the heat and serve in the pan. You can dip bread in the resulting sauce.

                Speaking of bread, you might also want to make some "No-Knead" Bread for any menu, which is an extremely simple way to make good bread:


                Hope this helps a bit...


        2. I don't think your idea is good...I think it is absolutely marvellous! What a fantastic, thoughtful, beautiful treat for a foodie! And nothing beats the feeling of having a great meal made by the person you love the most, regardless of technical 'perfection' or skill. You could come up with a nicely designed menu for each theme with a choice of, say, 3 starters, 3 mains and 3 desserts and give them to her so she can properly choose from them in advance (and then throw in a couple of off-the-menu surprises like a nice cocktail or amuse bouche).

          It obviously depends on what are her favourite foods...and what you feel confident to tackle. As Steady Habits mentioned, I would also steer clear of molecular unless you are a scientist and possess a wide array of lab tubes and tools...Spanish Tapas is a great idea as it's varied, not too difficult to make and you lay down a nice table full of lovely small dishes from which you can share, creating a relaxed atmosphere. I am very much in favour of this style of eating so if it was me, I would make 5 or 6 small dishes (Italian, Mexican, maybe a Middle-Eastern or Greek mezze, an Indian display) and share. It also means that once the fod is ready, you can both sit down and enjoy it together rather than you having to go back and forth into the kitchen to prepare or serve the next course.

          Good luck and I am sure your wife is going to be over the moon when she gets the very special coupons you have in store for her!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Paula76

            Thanks so much for the encouragement Paula! I'm trying to think hard and come up with some great ideas, so I certainly appreciate your input. Like you and Steady both said, I think I'll steer away from the Molecular ... that could be biting off WAY more than I could chew.

            Thanks for the help!

          2. Wow, I wish someone would give me that for christmas. I think one of the best gifts I ever got was when my ex surprised me by cooking me a special 3-course dinner for our anniversary. As for ideas... what about Indian night? I'd take a look in any of Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks for dishes, or if you have the Gourmet cookbook, they have a fantastic recipe for an indian leg of lamb for the entree. Maybe make some raita to go along with it (yogurt + cucumber + garlic + a little olive oil, strangely similar to my tzatziki recipe :-P). Also in Gourmet is a recipe for "Long Cooked Lamb," if you do a French night. Very easy, absolutely delicious, just takes a lot of oven time. I substitute chicken broth for the white wine in the braising, but that's up to you. Good luck!

            1. I think your idea is excellent! If my husband were allowed in the kitchen, this is what I would ask for! Instead of Avant Garde/Molecular, what about trying another cusine.. Greek, Middle Eastern, traditional Mexican, Argentinian (sp), or just a meal made with local ingredients.

              Tapas is really nice, because it can be more casual than the rest. More like 'sampling' of a lot of different dishes, as opposed to serving plated courses.

              Another suggestion... buy her a cookbook reflecting each of the themes you based your cooking on. It's a great gift because she'll remember the meals, and have the tools to recreate them.

              1 Reply
              1. re: cheesecake17

                Cheesecake, that is a great idea! I will definitely think about that!

              2. a213b,
                First off, this is a most FABULOUS Christmas present. I'm really, really impressed.

                That said, if you are interested in Northern Italian, how about a classic pasta night? Marcella Hazan's (very carefully explained, which should work for you) bolognese sauce on top of home made fettucine? Hand made pasta is pretty spectacular, and that bolognese is pretty serious date night food. She'll appreciate it. Throw in a bottle of montepulciano to go with it (I'm sure I spelled that badly), a little green salad before, some nice cheese after, with bread... and you've got a gorgeous "I worked on this for hours just for you" dinner that is not too demanding of last minute attention, works great for just the two of you or a little dinner party (if she wants to show you off to friends), and doesn't leave everyone lying on sofas like stuffed cobras thinking "oh god I need a nap.".
                Good luck!

                10 Replies
                1. re: linengirl

                  That's a great idea linen, and I am DEFINITELY going to do the home-made pasta. Here's kind of what I was thinking for the Italian night, though by all means chime in, as nothing is set in stone.

                  Antipasti: Prosciutto San Daniele with a tasting of Mozzerella (Burrata, Bufala, Fiordelatte)

                  Primi: Aquerello Risotto with fresh Alba Truffles and Castelmagno cheese (could also be fresh homemade Tagliatelle); or some other pasta?

                  Secondi: Sweetbreads Piccata, or maybe Brasato al Barolo, or Gnocchi with braised Oxtail, or a Pappardelle with bolognese sauce, or maybe even Pumpkin Raviolo in a Brown Butter sauce?

                  Dolci: Bombolini? Maybe Torta della Nonna (even though my heritage is anything BUT Italian), or some sort of Budino. Maybe a Cioccolato?

                  And then finishing with some Biscotti and Espresso

                  1. re: a213b

                    I'll take some of the pumpkin raviolo in brown butter sauce!

                    And I love the idea of french onion soup.. it's a little bit cliched but soo good

                    1. re: cheesecake17

                      Yeah, it is (both). I'm all jazzed up about it, because for the past few years now I have French Onion Soup exactly *once* a year, on Christmas Eve, and the clock is ticking. Our hostess is a French Onion Soup genius.

                      1. re: Steady Habits

                        I make it all the time for weeknight dinners. It's just so good. But I don't melt the cheese on top..

                        1. re: cheesecake17

                          cheesecake, do you use the cheese at all, in the bottom, or do you skip it?

                          I like a little cheese with mine, but now and then I've versions in which I think the soup was just the excuse or vehicle for a cheeselover to serve a half-pound of cheese. Not on my girlfriend's, but sometimes I find that big ole slab 'o cheese to be...overwhelming. I think I like it best with some nice melting cheese browned on large croutons, and then the croutons added to the soup.

                          1. re: Steady Habits

                            I use cheese, but I don't add it directly to the soup. I slice up a baguette and toast the slices, then add a little bit of grated cheese to each one and pop in the broiler till they're browned. Then I serve them on a platter like large cheesy croutons. It gives me an excuse to use mozzarella and gruyere. Also, sometimes I make parm crisps to float on top.

                            1. re: cheesecake17

                              I like those two options much better, cheesecake. Better balance, every element has a chance to shine, and just not as heavy as big cheese slabs.

                              1. re: Steady Habits

                                yup, and it works out that you get to eat cheese with every bite.. not just in a gloppy first layer.

                    2. re: a213b

                      I think you should leave little sampling plates of Northern Italian night out on your doorstep for your ghost menu conspirators.

                      1. re: a213b

                        Very sweet present. I think what you're planning to make should also depend on the season, or will they all be winter since they seem very hearty? Just on the Italian menu (as a matter of course, it's antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce, singular because I assume you're only making one of each course?)... For the antipasto, you could wrap the prosciutto around the mozzarella, heat it and drizzle balsamic vinegar on it--I think warmed mozzarella releases the flavor better. If you decide to go w/ a starch for the first course, go w/ a meat for the second so not risotto/pasta and then gnocchi. I love risotto but it's time consuming so the question is whether you want to sit and spend time with your wife, or be in the kitchen stirring. Home made pastas can be made in advanced and are quick to cook. There's always polenta w/ a mushroom ragu which is less labor intensive. Again, with the bombolini, you have to make it last minute, heating oil, frying. It's not a problem but it's all a matter of planning and how you want to spend your time during the dinner. Rather than having a lot of choices for each course and deciding between them all, it might be easier to narrow down the main course and then work around that. Or, you could present your wife with a menu of options and let her choose, kind of like a prix fixe meal where the prix is up to you. :-) I can't wait to hear the whole report of how the meals went.