The last place you’ll catch my wife and me on Valentine’s Day is dining at a restaurant. Since I’m a food writer, I eat out nearly every day, and few calendar dates strike me with more fear than Feb. 14. See, Valentine’s Day is one of a handful of occasions when everyone else decides that they have to go out too. Good reservation times vanish. Service becomes harried. Count in the cost of scheduling a baby sitter, and we might as well walk around with our credit card number plastered onto our foreheads.
Instead, we celebrate Valentine’s Day at home, using it as an excuse to ignore the entire world (with the exception of our daughter). Plus, we splurge on items we’d hardly be able to afford at a restaurant. You know the good stuff: Champagne, shellfish and fancy chocolate.
Cooking at home, of course, is not without its own hassles. Sweating in the kitchen for hours to craft the perfect romantic meal can feel just as stressful as braving the wilds of the restaurant scene on Valentine’s Day. That’s why our menu consists of items that require the least amount of effort to prepare, yet make you feel like a million bucks.
Instead of dirtying a bunch of silverware, we devour all the food with our hands, maybe because it’s romantic, allowing us to satisfy some primal urge, but mostly since it’s more fun.
Oysters need nothing more than to be opened. While this does require some finagling — and you will need to purchase an oyster knife for stress-free shucking, and an old towel helps avoid serious injuries — once popped, all you need to do is slurp away. Sure, some might like a squeeze of lemon or a drop of a vinegary mignonette, but if you score great oysters from a trusted fishmonger, why cover them up? We like to order a dozen, usually six from the East Coast and six from the West Coast, though we let the fishmonger direct us toward the freshest offerings.
Oysters slurped straight from the shell just beg for Champagne. It’s no trouble to find a good bottle in the $30 to $40 range from a nice wine shop. While that’s far more than we’d normally spend for a night at home, know that the same bottle would cost about $100 at a restaurant. See how we’re sort of saving money?
Plus, the next course is mussels. Even though you’ll be purchasing the bivalves by the pound (3 pounds is about right for two), they are still among the most affordable shellfish options around. And they couldn’t be simpler to prepare.
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Just create a flavorful base, add the mussels and cook until they spring open. Sure, mussels need to be cleaned and debearded — a five-minute job if you’re counting — but they can be cooked in less than five minutes.
While there are innumerable versions of the dish (one of our favorites is with coconut milk and green Thai chile paste), this year we are going with a simple combination of tomatoes and white wine. Saute some onion and garlic, add some tomatoes and the wine, dump in the mussels and, three minutes later, dinner is served. The only way you could screw this up is if you forget the crusty bread to dip into the mussel-imbued liquid. Seriously, dunking fresh bread into the liquid is probably the best part, so don’t forget that, OK?
And then we end with chocolate, because why wouldn’t you? Usually, that just means a nice bar of dark chocolate, though we’ve been known to spring for a few chocolate truffles. Whatever your chocolate craving of choice, it will work here.
And that’s it. With a minimal amount of effort, you have a shellfish-stocked meal, plenty of bubbly and never have to worry about asking for the check.
MUSSELS WITH TOMATO AND WHITE WINE
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: 2 servings
3 pounds mussels
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup crushed canned tomatoes
1/2 cup dry white wine
Handful fresh parsley, chopped
Rinse and scrub mussels under cold water. Remove beard from mussels, if necessary. Discard any mussels that won’t close if gently pressed.
Heat oil in a large pot set over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and salt; cook until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and oregano; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the tomatoes; cook until they have slightly thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour in wine.
Increase heat to high to bring to a boil. Add the mussels, cover the pot and cook, stirring every minute, until all the mussels have opened, 3 to 4 minutes. Discard any that don’t. Turn off the heat; add the parsley.
Divide mussels and liquid between two large bowls. Serve with crusty bread.
Nutrition information per serving: 426 calories, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 102 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 43 g protein, 1,618 mg sodium, 3 g fiber