Countless forests have been sacrificed to print recipes for the easy things in life: cooking for crowds, dinner parties for six or eight, family suppers, holiday feasts. When it comes to the real challenge, though, one leaf is missing.
What do you do for dinner for two?
It can be the most satisfying experience for both cook and diner, but getting there is a minefield. You need a menu that is easy to produce, without constant running between table and stove to check on the fish or the dessert. But you also need food that is dramatic, that says this is a special meal.
And even if you cook for two on a regular basis, there are times when you want to make a little more out of the meeting of minds over plates, to take a little more effort to make dinner as much an event as sustenance.
The everyday meal for two requires ambition beyond getting out the pot for pasta or the grill pan for fish for some 15-minute, old, reliable entree. In our kitchen it usually means downsizing a company meal: turning on the oven an hour and a half early to roast duck legs in a crusty coating of mustard and bread crumbs, or taking the time to shape crab cakes that need to chill before frying.
On a night when even whisking a vinaigrette for salad seems like too much effort, simply adding a high-end store-bought dessert or a carefully chosen cheese can elevate the whole experience.
Pull out the stops
THE best thing about dinner for two is that you can brave dishes that would be too labor-intensive and time-consuming for a crowd. You can fry up little corn cakes to top with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, or skillet-roast a whole duck cut in half, or saute two skate wings that can go from skillet to plate without waiting for four or six more to be cooked.
But when you want a night to remember, you can pull out more stops and spend a little more money. In polling coupled friends on their ideal menu with wine but no cliche roses, I found the ingredients and dishes always differed, but the underlying philosophy was the same: special but simple.
Some started with foie gras or raw oysters or similar exercises in overkill, and then passed on dessert. Others skipped the first course and saved room for something sweet, usually ice cream in various states. But in every case the main course was the main event.
And in most instances it involved either bones to gnaw on, for that Tom Jones effect, or something shareable, such as a whole lobster or Dungeness crabs. Ideally, you should reach both goals. One friend inevitably chooses rack of lamb, but another, Donna Gelb, had the best idea: cote de boeuf for two, the way she always cooked it with her former husband when they learned to make it after eating at the legendary Paris bistro, Chez L’Ami Louis.
Basically, it is a slab of prime rib for two, a honking chunk of prime aged beef cut to order with meat on either side of the bone. You season it, grill it, let it rest and then carve it into juicy slices at the table. When all the meat is gone, you share the bone. Gelb always serves it with cubed potatoes sauteed in duck fat, also echoing the way it’s done at L’Ami Louis (although there the fat is from geese).
Soaking up the juices
SOMEHOW the richness seems more right than a dainty salad alongside would. Plus the potatoes soak up the amazing juices from the meat.
She starts with foie gras, also Paris style. Ripping the plastic off a prefab terrine is not much of a challenge for the cook, although embarking on the expense and effort of foie gras au torchon is a project best left for a night when more mouths will appreciate the investment.
A better indulgence is that most luxurious of seafood, crab meat, light but rich and satisfying. Toss fat chunks with a fruity dressing of orange and lime juices with fava beans and diced avocado, then with butter lettuce, and you get a decadent salad and an extravagant appetizer in one. (Edamame can substitute for fava beans if you want to skip the shucking and peeling.)
Desserts can be a challenge, given that so few are designed for two with no leftovers, which is why ice cream is so appealing.
Another friend, who likes wild sea scallops to start and shrimp as a main course, winds up his meal with vanilla ice cream doused with bourbon and dusted with Illy espresso powder.
My lamb chop friend always finishes with profiteroles for a hot-cold contrast with the chocolate sauce, and you could cut the usual recipe by half to make only enough for a couple.
But in English cookbooks I found the perfect closer in something tantalizing called a posset, which is nothing like the dictionary definition in this country of a hot drink of milk curdled with wine. It sounded like the impossible dream, made from nothing more than cream, sugar and lemon juice, which theoretically should curdle, not come together as a sensational sweet. But it really works.
The lemon juice is added after the cream is heated with the sugar, and as the mixture chills it sets up like a mousse but with much livelier flavor and lovelier consistency. The tartness is also a great counterpoint to the rich meat.
I adapted a recipe from those English cookbooks by using Meyer lemons, which are sweeter and more subtle than regular lemons and add an even more celebratory element because they survived the recent frost (suddenly lemons of any sort feel like a luxury).
Served in a brandy snifter, a posset can be a showstopper that gives no hint of how easy it is to make. You can garnish it with mint leaves, a candied lemon slice or just a lemon twist.
Much of this menu is all in the timing. The crab salad can be dressed ahead of time, omitting the avocado until the last minute to prevent that little browning issue. To ensure perfect cooking, the beef should be at room temperature before you lay it into the grill pan. (A 2-inch thick, 2-pound piece is ideal.)
The potatoes should also be par-cooked in advance, then peeled and cubed. Then they only need to be tossed with duck fat and coarse sea salt in a skillet until they turn crisp. And the posset should be made at least four to six hours ahead of time, preferably overnight, so that it will set up.
Once it is all done, though, you can concentrate not on what is on the plate but on the one thing that really matters: who is at the table.