It is Valentine's Day next Monday, and few things say "I care" better than a home-cooked meal. If you need to make up for the mistakes of Valentines past, are out to impress or are simply feeling a little strapped for cash, preparing a three-course dinner for the one you love is the way to go. Forget about the supermarket flowers, forgo the cheap chocolate truffles and don't even think about that cuddly toy; just get yourself into the kitchen double-quick.
The recipes below have been devised with romance in mind. This is not the night for a large portion of pie and mash, nor would I advise tucking into a spicy curry (think hot sweats and bad breath), and avoid spinach at all costs – it really does have a tendency to get stuck between the teeth. Instead, the menu features light and flavourful dishes, designed to awaken the taste buds and tantalise the tongue. The asparagus dish is a good place to start the meal and is best eaten with the fingers – elegantly, of course.
For the main course, don't serve up a hefty plate of pasta. What you're looking for here are delicate swirls of linguine, coated in zingy lemon butter.
The chilli is included for a reason: it contains capsaicin, a chemical that increases the heart rate and stimulates nerve endings as well as releasing endorphins. Just don't go overboard and do remember to remove the seeds.
Roasted tiger prawns are meaty and delicious while also being light. The lemon and garlic, meanwhile, provide plenty of flavour – do note that the recipe uses just the one clove.
Chocolate mousse or fondants are traditionally served for dessert on Valentine's Day, but they can be overwhelmingly rich for this point in the evening. The aroma of fresh vanilla is said to enhance mood and evoke emotions. The espresso sauce, meanwhile, perks up the end of the meal.
Crucially, most of the preparation can be done in advance, so you can enjoy the evening rather than spend it sweating over a hot stove (never the most seductive sight).
If, on the other hand, you really don't want to cook, several restaurants are offering Valentine menus. My pick for romantic dining is listed below. But first, the menu:
Asparagus with Parmesan and almond crumbs
The asparagus can be blanched and the breadcrumb mixture made in advance; you just need to bake it at the last minute.
30g toasted almonds, chopped
50g brown breadcrumbs
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
3 sprigs thyme, leaves picked and chopped
40g Parmesan, grated
20g butter, melted
1 bunch asparagus
salt and black pepper
In a small bowl mix together the toasted almonds, breadcrumbs, garlic, thyme, Parmesan and butter. Season with black pepper and set aside. Trim the asparagus spears, then blanch in a pan of boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes. Place in a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking process. Pat dry and store in the fridge until needed.
Heat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6, and when you are almost ready to serve, pour the breadcrumb mixture into a small roasting tray or dish and bake for 5 minutes, until golden.
Remove from the oven, tip the breadcrumbs on to a plate and arrange the asparagus spears on the baking tray.
Scatter the breadcrumbs over them, return to the oven and cook for 6-8 minutes, until the crumbs are a deep golden brown. Enjoy.
Linguine with roasted prawns, chilli and lemon butter
The chilli and lemon butter will keep for up to a week in the fridge, so it can be made well ahead of time.
6-8 tiger prawns, peeled and deveined
2 tbsp olive oil
For the chilli and lemon butter:
70g butter, at room temperature
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
half-1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
zest of lemon
2 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and black pepper
Place all the ingredients for the chilli and lemon butter in a bowl, season with salt and black pepper and beat together until smooth and well combined. Store in the fridge until you are ready to serve.
Cook the linguine until al dente.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the prawns and cook for 1-2 minutes, until they turn pink. Add half the butter to the pan and use to baste the prawns, coating all over. Cook for a further 2 minutes.
Drain the linguine and toss in the remaining butter. Arrange piles of pasta in two serving bowls and top with the roasted prawn, drizzling over any butter that is left in the pan.
Vanilla panna cotta with espresso syrup
For the panna cotta:
200ml double cream
1 vanilla pod
20g icing sugar
tsp powdered gelatine
vegetable oil, for greasing
For the syrup:
150ml espresso coffee, freshly brewed
35g caster sugar
15g hazelnut, toasted and chopped
few shavings dark chocolate
Pour the cream and milk into a saucepan. Add the icing sugar and the seeds from the vanilla pod. Stir well and slowly bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Leave to infuse for five minutes.
Meanwhile, pour one tablespoon of water into a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatine over it and leave to absorb the water for five minutes.
Stir the gelatine into the vanilla cream until dissolved.
Lightly grease two small moulds (such as espresso cups, ramekins or metal or plastic pudding moulds) with vegetable oil. Pour in the panna cotta mixture. Leave to set in the fridge for at least two hours or overnight if possible.
To prepare the espresso syrup, pour the coffee into a small saucepan, add the sugar and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil for 5-7 minutes, until the mixture has a syrupy consistency. Leave to cool.
When you are ready to serve, turn the set panna cottas out on to two plates. If they won't come out very easily, then slide a sharp knife down the side to break the air seal or very briefly dip the moulds in hot water. Or, for less hassle, serve the panna cottas in their moulds (just use pretty ones).
Add the chopped hazelnuts to the syrup and spoon over the panna cotta. Scatter a few shavings of dark chocolate and serve.
Emily Shardlow's pick of the romantic rendezvous
Hakkasan, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi
Start by sharing Hakkasan’s signature steamed dim sum platter, then feast on grilled Chilean sea bass with honey and stir-fried king prawns with XO sauce. Finish the meal on a sweet note with a glazed dark and white chocolate mousse.
Dh350 per person. Valentine menu served from February 13-15. To book, call 02 690 7999.
Cipriani, Yas Marina & Yacht Club, Yas Island
If you get bored with gazing into each other’s eyes, there’s always the stunning view of the marina. Cipriani is offering a special Valentine menu featuring luxury ingredients, with Maine lobster to start, a main course of beef filet mignon and ending with a decadent-sounding bitter-sweet chocolate soufflé with mascarpone cream.
Dh450 per person. Served from February 10-14. To book, call 02 565 0050.
Bord Eau, Shangri-La, Abu Dhabi
If you live in Abu Dhabi and fine-dining French food is your thing, then you’re probably well acquainted with Bord Eau, the elegant restaurant at the Shangri-La. The chef Jean Hurstel is known for his creativity and what better time to try his newest dishes than on February 14?
Set menu Dh450, February 14 only. To book, call 02 509 8888.
Okku, Monarch Hotel, Dubai
The luxury Japanese restaurant is offering two Valentine packages, available from February 13-15. Why not try its special sharing menu? After all, love is being willing to split a portion of black cod. For out-and-out indulgence, there is a spa package on offer, which includes a deluxe room at the Monarch, Balinese massage, use of the steam room, sauna and jacuzzi, and a 14-course (!) meal at Okku.
Dinner package Dh395 per person. Dinner and spa package: Dh1,800 per couple. To book, call 04 501 8777.
Traiteur, Park Hyatt, Dubai
It really doesn’t matter whether you choose to sit out on the terrace, with its dappled lighting and views of the Creek, or opt for a table inside. Both locations are stunning and altogether romantic. The Valentine menu at Traiteur offers five courses of classic French cooking for Dh650 per person. Not cheap, but hey! – it’s a treat.
Dh650 per person, February 13 and 14. To book, call 04 317 2222.
Pier Chic, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai
For wow factor alone it doesn’t get much better than Pier Chic. Sashay down the jetty, settle at a table and drink in the view – it’s so good that you may find yourself neglecting your companion. One thing is for sure though, you will be dining in style, beginning with caviar, sour cream and buckwheat blinis.
Dh530, February 14. To book, call 04 366 6730.