By:  J. Scott Wilson

When it comes to Valentine’s Day meals, every newspaper, magazine, website and TV station has its own array of suggestions for what you should make to show how much you love your sweetheart. On this very site, you’ll find an array of links that will help you plan an elegant and wonderful romantic feast.

Personally, this will be the first Valentine’s Day in my adult life I’ve spent solo, so I’ll probably have some wings and fries and drown my (non) sorrows in a pint or three of good local brew.

But for those of you with the happy burden of having to plan a Valentine’s feast, don’t let the constraints of convention trap you into pulling a number at the seafood counter and waiting to pay through the nose for a lobster. I love lobster, but I’ve never understood how putting something that looks like a giant bug on a plate and hacking it open shows your love.

One of my favorite Valentine’s meals is also one of the simplest dishes I’ve ever created. Start with a generous handful of pine nuts (pignola) and toast them carefully in a nonstick skillet. Stir them frequently and do not leave them unattended, as the line between “yummy toasted” and “nasty burnt” is about 10 seconds wide. When they’re toasty, dump them into a small bowl and set them aside.

Take a dozen sea scallops and dip one side of each of them in flour. Melt some butter in the skillet and put the scallops flour-side down. Cook them over medium heat until the flour is lightly browned. Turn them and allow about 30 seconds to finish the cooking, then remove them to a plate.

Throw a generous amount of baby spinach (or baby wild greens if you’re feeling adventurous) in the skillet and splash a bit of white wine over them. Cook until they’re wilted, sprinkle some good balsamic vinegar atop them and stir in the pine nuts. Serve the scallops on a base of greens.

It’s the perfect dish because it’s got one fairly expensive ingredient, requires multiple cooking techniques and looks like it took far more effort than was actually required. It’s also fairly bulletproof, so even rookie cooks can be assured of a fairly high degree of success.

Meals from memory

If you’re with someone with whom you share some history, pay attention to that when you plan your romantic repast. For my first wife and me, fried chicken was one of those dishes. When we got married, I was working for a security company that agreed to give me a whole two days off for a honeymoon. We were living in Houston, and could just barely afford a honeymoon in Galveston at the grand old Flagship Hotel, now gone thanks to Hurricane Ike.

We left Houston after I got off work at 9 p.m., and realized neither of us had had dinner. On the way down, we stopped at a truck stop that was a favorite of ours on night patrols when she’d ride with me and picked up a box of the awesome fried chicken that the night shift clerk made to feed hungry truckers. We got to our room, checked in and spent a happy hour sitting on the balcony over the water, eating chicken and tossing the bones to what we imagined were ravenous sharks below.

You won’t find fried chicken on many Valentine’s Day menus, but the fact is that it always brought back memories for us, and that’s what counts.

One of my friends and his partner met working at a chili cookoff, and to this day they take turns making each other “The Ultimate Romantic Chili Dinner.”

Keep it local

If you do insist on going out for Valentine’s Day, check out your local restaurants. You can find some surprisingly romantic goings-on well away from the neon-drenched chain places serving the same dreck they shovel out every day, but with a rose petal or two scattered on the tablecloth. Near my home in North Carolina, for example, there’s an antique shop with a cafe in the back that’s putting on a lovely V-Day dinner complete with music for a price about half what the prix fixe deals at the local big restaurants would be. Great handmade food and local music in rustic surroundings … if I had a Valentine, I know where I’d be!

Maybe next year.


About J. Scott Wilson, food columnist:

J. Scott Wilson is, as the title implies, a former short order cook. He has written for more than a decade on topics from home cooking to gourmet products and food trends.

A transplanted Texan now living in North Carolina, his strongest suits are grilling and breakfast creations, although just about anything may come out of his test kitchen on any given day.

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