I do not mean to overestimate any skill in this area, but based on my various dinner parties and one-on-one dinner dates that I've posted here, I tend to get a lot of questions and e-mails from guys around my age that just want the perfect recipe and wine pairing that will impress women. I tend to counter with, "What woman and what does she like?" I'm tempted to write this post in the style of Esquire circa 1954 (there was a big trunk of old issues in my garage growing up), but I'm reasonably certain that anyone suggesting that a man cook outside of the setting of a BBQ would have been fired posthaste.
The following are a few generic tips for the advancement of civilized behavior amongst my brethren, and many thanks to dear Julia for volunteering as dinner companion.
Set the table
This is by no means a perfect table setting, and the plastic jug chilling the sparkling wine was done more out of convenience than anything else. It's not overly complicated, but it shows you have it together prior to the guest's arrival. I've got a bunch of mismatched dishes and glasses, but try to have at least two of everything. Putting the "little plates on the big plates" is an old French expression for a fancy dinner, but it separates your meal from the everyday rummaging through a bag of fast food.
Have a sparkling wine on hand. Cocktails are great but you need to pace yourself. Spend at least $20 and very politely get someone at the wine shop to pick out something appropriate. If the two of you are novices, go a little sweeter like with a Moscato d'Asti. If you're entertaining a relatively experienced wine drinker, slide over to Samantha's blog and learn about great Champagnes. Now, if your date is an expert like Samantha, you probably need to let her pick out the wine. Sit down, shut up, and listen hard, young man.
There are no recipes that will save you, for a date or otherwise--technique is all that matters
Man up and learn how to cook. End of story. Rudyard Kipling should have include a line in "If" about being presented with three random ingredients, an aluminum pot, and a single burner on top of a mountain. I'm sure he'd have talked about the Khyber Pass, but I would like to think he'd appreciate my own attempt to boil water at nearly 3600m/12,000 ft. in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, hovering over the cook pot so that the fire doesn't go out while getting pelted with hailstones. Let the record state that nobody went to bed hungry that night.
That being said, if you don't know about cheese and wine pairings, start simple with a small wheel of brie topped with honey and walnuts. Here I substituted a British treacle for honey, but use what you've got on hand and warm it up in the oven prior to serving with a decent baguette.
Homemade soup is your friend
Soups are some of the easiest things to make but often impress, and usually they're better if you make them the day before. Make it taste great and serve small portions. Find out a vegetable that she likes, and then figure out how to turn it into a soup. I'm not going to teach you how to tie your shoes, pal, but here were my specific requirements for Saturday: not a cream soup, and sweet potatoes are a go. So I oven roasted two sweet potatoes, two green apples, and then simmered the roasted mush with chicken broth, white wine, and a Madras curry spice blend I had on hand. After a few hours of simmering I blended the hell out of it until it achieved a uniform yet appealing consistency. For serving, a grating of nutmeg followed by drizzles of sour cream with a knife drawn through them. (It's easier to do this with a full bowl, but even in a ramekin I appreciate the random splashes of contrast.) It turned out how to be a big hit. Tomato soups are stupidly simple, but don't double up on your ingredients over the evening. For example...
Learn how to cook pasta
Even the most incompetent of guys will claim to be able to boil noodles and warm up a jar of sauce. And they are wrong. In this case, Julia wanted chicken and broccoli as part of a main course. For timing purposes, I prepared homemade marinara sauce ahead of time from imported canned San Marzano tomatoes, shallots, and garlic. A few splashes of wine, but a good red sauce doesn't require much more. I'm not going to go into full sauce technique, but when you cook your pasta, drain it but don't rinse it. Make sure you save some of the cloudy pasta water.
Throw the pasta in a medium low skillet with your protein and vegetables and a little olive oil, ladle in some of the sauce, ladle in the pasta water, and stir until you get painfully hungry, which should occur within five minutes. Adjust with salt and peper as needed at the last minute. Here I used blanched broccolini and roasted chicken thighs, combined with some great gemelli and my own marinara. Learn how to do it right and people will say, "Wow! So the pasta itself is supposed to taste good? I never knew that!"
Allow the lady to provide dessert
If you're a talented pastry chef or if you work in a gelateria, ignore this. But if you're doing all the cooking, give her the opportunity to be involved in the process. The standard is that she will pick out something delicious from a bakery, such as Julia's selection of wonderful cannoli from The Fresh Market. (By the way, I love their Tiramisù.) Sometimes an aged relative will be invoked to provide something like banana pudding or a peach cobbler or turtles or seven layer cakes or some of Grandpappy's homemade peach ice cream. If you live in the South you are in for a treat. For anyone that had the sad misfortune to be born north of the Mason-Dixon line I can only weep in regret and hope that you are able to come down here and redefine your entire concept of dessert.
Now... what wines to pair with each course? If you're cool enough to get free samples from around the globe this is not an issue. But for everyone else, if you get an idea of what you are going to cook for dinner, find a wine shop that you like and trust. Present a list of courses--not every ingredient, but broad strokes about dinner. Use the following words: "Here's what I'm cooking, here's what I'm willing to spend per bottle. Can you pick out some bottles that fit?" He or she is going to probably present you with some varying options. Just say, "You pick, I trust your judgment." This will accomplish a few different things. First off, you'll get some great wine. More importantly, you're going to make that salesperson's day. Even more importantly than that, you're going to establish a wine buying relationship with someone that involves mutual trust and respect, and that person is going to go out of his or her way to point you towards amazing wines or even things that aren't out on the retail floor. And the discussions about scheduling the wine and food ahead of time? That's always great to use for any possible lulls in conversation during the actual dinner.
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Gentlemen, go forth and impress.