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Sexy/Romantic yet affordable menu suggestions needed

A friend is coming to dinner within the next two months. I'd like to make him a memorable romantic dinner that won't break my budget. I'd like to keep my budget between $30-40 for appetizer, main and dessert. I have plenty of wine so that is covered (Lodi Zinfandels). His tastes are pretty eclectic and is pretty much an omnivore. He's taken cooking classes and likes to cook. I want to stay away from Latin inspired food as he has spent a lot of time in Central America. I know he likes Italian food a lot. Not sure if he likes Thai or Chinese so I'd prefer to stay away from Asian food until I know if he likes like it. I live in No. California and can go to farmer's markets (though they don't have highly specialized ingredients here like L.A. or the Bay Area). I have a great Mediterranean market nearby as well as TJ's, Grocery Outlet and Whole Foods. My larder has a small amount of dried porcini mushrooms, Israeli couscous, plain couscous, quinoa, long cooking polenta and farro. I own a slow cooker, George Foreman grill (condo doesn't allow barbecues), cusinart FP, Kitchen Aid stand mixer w/no attachments, stick blender and traditional blender. Other considerations: I'd like to do as much ahead of time as possible, just in case I am coming home from work or if he is on a tight schedule. Lastly, I don't like risotto. Some of the cookbooks I own: Sunday Suppers at Lucques, Essentials of Itailian Cooking,How to Cook Everything, All About Braising, Spice by Anna Sortun, and The Last Course: Gramercy Tavern Desserts. Though I have few ideas mulling around in my head I need fresh ideas, he really appreciates a home cooked meal as well as the work and thought that is put into it. I am really looking forward to cooking for someone so receptive (and nice of course!). Thank you in advance.

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  1. For the main, I would think along the lines of something braised in wine or port with spices and your dried porcini. The next day, strain and reduce that liquid down to a silky near-glaze, maybe with a little dried fruit or fresh cremini or wild mushrooms and maybe even a little grated dark chocolate. Serve over herbed polenta or creamy farro. Some simple roasted root vegetables would pair nicely---maybe little multi-colored carrots left whole or only halved lengthwise. Benefits here are that lamb shanks, short ribs, pork belly, ox tails, etc. are all relatively affordable, and you can and even should cook these types of dishes in advance.

    Other ideas would be homemade ravioli (since they really stretch ingredients) filled with something fun like duck and cherries in a sage-cream sauce. Or maybe a confit of pork (belly, loin, shoulder), since the cuts and the fat are so much cheaper to make/buy than duck meat and duck fat. You could make that well in advance and just brown it up before serving on some mixed baby greens with fresh dates or glazed fresh figs. Or maybe serve on white beans laced with a little confit fat and fresh sage or wilted arugula. Actually, both the confit and the ravioli would make fine first courses if sized appropriately. If you were to make a ravioli first course, though, I might plan on going four courses and serving a super-light (and cheap) green salad between the ravioli and the entree.

    For dessert, you can never go wrong with petite chocolate pots, which are also best made in advance.They're dirt cheap unless your recipe calls for vanilla bean (as mine does) and you don't already have one in the pantry.

    Anyhow, just a few thoughts. My tastes tend toward simple bistro fare, obviously, so might not be appropriate if you're looking for something more fancy-pants.

    1. I like Alex Guarnaschelli's Grilled Romaine Salad for special occasions. (can be done on George Foreman grill or grill pan)

      1. I think for romantic dinner there is a tendency to go really rich and heavy with chocolate and cream and beef. I prefer a lighter meal, for maximum post-meal mobility (cough).

        Well prepared seafood is always impressive. For my last romantic dinner I served 5 big seared scallops each, corn (b/c it mirrors the sweetness of the scallop) cut off the cob in a creamy sauce, with a jalapeño vinaigrette. It was awesome. You could do a bunch veg and sauce combos (greens w/ a fruit vin, whatever), or you could serve scallops on a starch.

        In this vein, some sort of seafood pasta dish could be good.

        Idk how formal you want to be, but if you're interested in something a little more fun/sexy as opposed to serious/sexy a big pot of mussels steamed in white wine, shallots, and a little sausage with a crusty baguette could be fun to tear into together.

        For dessert I'd serve fruit with sweet cream. http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/20...

        3 Replies
        1. re: luciaannek

          Shame on me for not thinking of mussels. Also a great first course if you don't want to do them for an entree. I'd certainly agree that with a beef/lamb/pork entree serving size is hugely important for these dinners.

          1. re: luciaannek

            Good point, I don't think he likes rich food. I want a fun menu -- I don't want to scare him away.

            1. re: luciaannek

              Yum, a big fat yum on this one and on smtucker's menu below. My husband is a friend who became something more after a dinner of shrimp scampi. I guess seafood is a common theme. I am a big believer in simple - main dish, salad, bread, desert, and wine (particularly wine)

            2. I would do a simple mussels in white wine with bread to sop it all up, served with white wine. Next up, braised lamb shank over lentils with carrots and leeks served with a Cote du Rhone red wine. Make the lamb the weekend before, while the lentils only take about 30 minutes if you already have the aromatics diced. End with an Apple Tart made with really good quality puff pastry. Serve with either whipped cream or super aged cheddar cheese. Finish with a lovely espresso with a one bite dark chocolate.

              1. one more thing, have the ingredients and cook the meal together. Very fun and very romantic. Good luck!

                1. I am loving all the ideas, thank you so much. I like the mussels suggestion and if they can be had then I will definitely consider making them. They (and scallops) sell out quickly at my local fish monger. I might not have a lot of advance notice so I was thinking a plan B could be something like chicken marsala or piccata or something similar to steak Diane. Is chicken too pedestrian? IIRC quite a few male friends in my life have really enjoyed piccata. It could be a good option if I have to make dinner right after work. Thanks again.

                  1. What about beet risotto for a first course? I recently had a bowl of this at a restaurant - beautiful jeweled color, a few smatterings of beet greens mixed in (not too much, just some flecks), topped with a quenelle of whipped goat cheese and a drizzle of reduced balsamic.

                    It was wonderful, and between the texture, taste, and color - it was definitely sexy!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Jeserf

                      Sorry, I am not a fan of risotto. I'd rather cook something I enjoy and can judge whether it is good or not.

                      1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                        It's at home (I'm at work) got a very good starter Roasted Red Peppers stuffed with sauted zuc,onion,bread and Smoked Mozzarella plated on top of basil pesto. They are a pain in the ass but worth it an can be made in advance. Send your email and I'll scan it for you. As far as the rest how about a pan fried duck breast-plenty of sauce options out there. Desert how bout Tiramisu or rice pudding..


                        1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                          sorry, I failed to see that in the original post. No need to be snippy - good luck with whatever you cook.

                      2. Dungeness crab is in season and should be available where you are. It would make a fun dinner. Crack your own crab and have several interesting dipping sauces, sourdough bread with sweet butter, clam chowder and/or mussels, a slightly spicey slaw. Lots of wine, of course.

                        1. Appetizer: Spanish Garlic Shrimp with Sherry:


                          Use Manzanilla sherry (the driest). I prefer to use fresh Fresno chilis, but these are hard to find.

                          For dessert: Dreyer's Double Vanilla ice cream with a little Kahlúa poured over it.

                          1. Salmon steaks. Easy to prepare and elegant.

                            1. Fish is good, but he stays near/on the water when he is travels and eats lots of fish.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                                Since fish has been Xed out, how about short ribs? These are best done a day in advance so that would work well for you.

                              2. I'd choose something classic.

                                Rack of lamb, potatoes dauphinois, glazed carrots, and a chicory salad. As long as you eat reasonable portions, it doesn't have to be heavy.

                                TJs has a very reasonable frozen rack of lamb with a fairly reliable recipe on the exterior. Wash off the seasoning because it is a little too strong and just add a little salt.

                                Serve something very simple like spiced nuts to begin and some nice chocolates to end.

                                1. when trying to impress a boy, i always find a nice roast chicken to be a winner. it looks impressive and stunning, and requires zero work, other than prepping it. then i let the boy carve it, so he feels like... well, a boy. make a gravy if you like, but i never do.

                                  on the side, some roasted veggies. and a potato or sweet potato or roasted root vegetable galette.

                                  and a nice no-knead loaf of bread - again, no work. and if i have extra cream on hand, i'll throw it in the food processor and take the 90 seconds to make some homemade butter... this always results in "wait! you made this?!" ...yup, i churned all day long.

                                  i like to start either with a nice light soup, or parmesan custard tarts with arugula or spinach and a lemon white wine vinaigrette.

                                  for dessert, it totally depends, but since i bake a lot of cookies, depending what doughs i have on hand, i'll make some ice cream and serve ice cream sandwiches. or (small) brownie squares tend to be a consistent winner as well.

                                  ...just my ten cents, hope it goes really well, and do report back when he comes!