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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 jalapeƱo 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!