HIGH CLASS, LOW COST
Cooking dinner with a loved one or new flame on Valentine's Day is a fun date idea with benefits: It avoids the hassle of reservations and overpriced prix-fixe menus. Even inexpensive meal ideas can make for an impressive Valentine's Day, and even beginning cooks can put together one of these romantic dishes (which they can later slot into a normal weekday repertoire).
A fast, cheap, and nearly foolproof pasta recipe, spaghetti carbonara is a staple of many Italian restaurant menus and just as tasty at home. This elegant dish is mostly pasta, eggs, pancetta, and Parmesan (although a recipe from Amateur Gourmet stresses the importance of parsley at the end). It takes almost no time at all; in fact, it can be thrown together while the pasta boils. At a restaurant spaghetti carbonara can cost as much as $15 a plate, but made at home it can feed two couples for the same price. Enjoy it with a budget-friendly white wine bought with the savings from avoiding restaurant prices.
Rich, creamy, and flavor-packed, risotto is another romantic yet inexpensive meal idea made of a few simple ingredients. At its core, risotto is Arborio rice grains cooked in broth, stirred until creamy. Enhance and customize it by adding flavors -- starting with an easy mushroom risotto or trying a paella-like saffron risotto with seafood on Allrecipes. Risotto is a very hands-on dish; consider it an excuse to spend date time in close quarters. The added labor adds to the cost at a restaurant: A simple plate of risotto can cost between $12 and $15 in a restaurant, and more like $20 if the dish includes meat or seafood. Compare that with about $3 for a pound of Arborio -- and that’s most of the dish. Even with the spices, broth, butter, and a protein, risotto should serve two for less than $20.
Easy and budget-friendly, roast chicken is an elegant entrée for a romantic dinner. Season it with anything from herbs to citrus fruit and make poulet rôti without French restaurant prices. Consider buying a whole chicken instead of chicken breasts. It’s surprisingly cheap -- about $1.50 a pound -- and yields a lot of meat (use the bones and other inedibles to make homemade chicken stock for future meals). On a Valentine’s Day prix-fixe menu, ordering this budget-friendly entree won’t keep a multi-course meal from costing between $75 and $100 per person. Make roast chicken at home, and even adding soup and/or salad, a side dish or two, and dessert shouldn’t put the total over $50 to $75 for two people.
Mussels are a relatively inexpensive seafood -- between $4 and $6 a pound -- that still packs a romantic punch. (Stories persist that mussels and other mollusks are aphrodisiacs.) Steam the mussels in white wine and herbs for a fast, easy, and impressive dinner entrée courtesy of Martha Stewart. Add some crusty French bread to soak up the juices and the cost of a meal still won’t approach the $15 a nice restaurant is likely to charge for a pound of mussels.
BAKED SQUASH WITH STUFFING
When presentation is key, impress a date by baking stuffing in a squash "bowl." Scoop out halves of pumpkins or another squash and fill with veggies, meats, rice, or breadcrumbs, and bake. Most of the dish is vegetarian, making for a deliciously cheap dinner: A whole squash from the grocery store costs between $3 and $4, and filling might be made of items already in the pantry. Even after buying rice or breadcrumbs, veggies, and a favorite meat, cooking this dish at home should cost less than $15 per couple -- the cost of one plate ordered out. Food.com has a recipe for baked pumpkin with wild rice stuffing to try.
SOUPS AND STEWS
February is a chilly month in most of the country, so warm up with a hearty soup or stew -- always a cheap and versatile way to get the most out of meats and vegetables. Serve over rice for additional mileage and keep in mind that a loaf of French bread does wonders to elevate a meal. Soups are one of the most budget-friendly date-night choices, because recipes call for items likely already in the pantry, such as spices, broth, and beans. One bowl as an appetizer at a fancy restaurant can be upward of $10 -- the same cost of an entire pot of soup that could feed a couple on Valentine's Day and for many meals to follow.
THAI OR INDIAN CURRY
Add some spice to Valentine's Day -- literally. A Southeast Asian curry can be a cheap but romantic meal for this special night, or any night of the week. Dedicated cooks can buy individual curry powders and spices, but a jar of curry paste mixed with coconut milk, or even a ready-made curry sauce, does the trick in less time and for less money: One jar of curry sauce costs about $3. Look to Allrecipes for highly rated Thai red chicken curry with steamed jasmine rice or a version of the Indian favorite chicken tikka masala. Between the curry, rice, and chicken, two can eat for less than $10, while a nice restaurant would charge as much as $15 to $17 for one.
One of the most revered pieces of meat, filet mignon is a staple at most upscale restaurants and steakhouses. While this can be one of the priciest dishes to eat out, costing upward of $35 to $50 a plate, it is relatively affordable to make at home. Buy a 6-ounce filet for between $8 and $12 (although prices can soar at high-end grocery stores). Be careful cooking -- this tender cut of meat needs to be handled with care, as it can burn easily. The blog No Recipe Required has a rundown on the cut and recommendations for cooking, as well as a video demonstrating its technique. The steak can be served with a baked potato and a favorite vegetable.
Scallops are light yet filling and aren’t typically a go-to for any ol’ weekday dinner, making them an appealing choice for a romantic night. They can be seared in a hot pan with oil, garlic, and butter -- or, because they adapt well, many other flavors. Fans of Asian foods, for instance, may want to try soy sauce and green onions. Because scallops are delicate and expensive, one plate at a restaurant can include three or four on a fancy plate for $20 or more. Make them at home, being careful not to keep them in a pan long enough to make them tough, and $20 will likely buy a whole pound.
GRILLED PORK TENDERLOIN
Pork is enhanced by many seasonings, sauces, and side dishes. Throwing a tenderloin on the grill with barbecue sauce makes for a savory dish (and a simple recipe from Add a Pinch makes a lot of leftovers as well). A version posted on Allrecipes goes a different direction, flavoring a baked pork roast with salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. Paired with rice and vegetables, it is a hearty and flavor-packed dish perfect for an evening in. Tenderloin costs around $4 a pound to make at home vs. $20 a plate at a favorite spot on Valentine’s Day.