A friend recently asked me what she should cook for a new lover coming for dinner at her place for the first time. For that, “Oh, this? It’s just something I threw together” vibe. Something a little exotic, which doesn’t seem like you’ve gone to too much trouble. Easy to prepare ahead, so you can just be your cool and collected self when things kick off.
This is a menu I come back to again and again, for lover after lover. Ok, without the lover part. It’s one of my winter go-to’s for a tasty, elegant and minimal fuss meal. A nibbly starter, followed by, possibly, my all-time favourite chicken dish with a creamy vegetable puree, and a dark chocolate mousse to finish. I decided to wheel it out on Saturday night for DS and I as a reward for our frugal and vegetarian week. It wasn’t exactly a first date, but it was the first Saturday night in a month that we’ve spent together without my parents (!), and in our own home. Something to celebrate.
We realised a little too late that we were out of wine. What? Unthinkable, I know. Luckily I stumbled upon a half litre of negroni lurking in the booze box, which I’d mixed for a party we hosted back in September. It went down a treat and is no longer cluttering my kitchen. Phew.
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INFORMAL DATE NIGHT MENU
winter / autumn / easy peasy / quietly smug / gluten free / date night
Roasted spiced chickpeas and red beans
I used up the leftover beans and chickpeas from my vegetarian chilli earlier in the week for these super simple and tasty nibbles. You could use just chickpeas or just beans to save you opening two tins if you prefer. Possibly not ideal for a very first date scenario as there’s a lot of finger licking involved. Although that could be just what you’re after.
Middle Eastern spiced chicken with butternut and mascarpone mash
This Ottolenghi inspired dish is juicy perfection. If you’re cooking for an early (juicily perfect) date, you might want to get boneless thighs to avoid any cutlery ineptitude embarrassment, or one of you feeling like you'd like to pick up the bones and have a chew.
Everyone loves chocolate mousse. This is enough for four, so you can have the leftovers for breakfast.
This menu is handy because you can do everything in advance and just pop things in the oven in the evening, giving you plenty of time to preen before dinner. All in all there is about 30 minutes prep to be done. Marinate the chicken the day before if you can. You could also make the puree and the mousse the day before if that works better with your schedule. If you’re short on time in the evening, you can of course make the puree while the chicken is cooking. It just means you’ll have to get busy with the blender in front of your guest. Might be a welcome break in conversation.
This is a gluten free menu, for no particular reason. It could easily be dairy free by omitting the butter from the chocolate mousse (it’s still delicious), and adding olive oil instead to the puree.
Roasted spiced chickpeas and red beans
Enough for 2, takes 5 minutes, plus 20 minutes oven time
starter / perennial / nothing fancy / easy peasy / ready in a jiffy / vegetarian / vegan / gluten free / dairy free / on a budget / party / date night
* A mix of tinned red beans and chickpeas - a couple of handfuls, drained and rinsed
* Ground coriander - 1 tsp
* Ground paprika - 1 tsp
* Ground cayenne - 1/2 tsp
* Salt - 1/2 tsp
* Olive oil - a glug
Preheat the oven to 210 degrees C.
Spread the vegetables out on a baking tray and toss with the remaining ingredients. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy.
Middle Eastern spiced chicken
For two, 5 minutes preparation, plus 40 minutes oven time
main / perennial / easy peasy / quietly smug / date night / dairy free / gluten free
* Garlic – 1 clove, peeled and finely sliced
* Ground cinnamon – 1/2 tsp
* Ground cumin – 1 tsp
* Ground paprika – 1 tsp
* Salt – 1 tsp
* Olive Oil – 2 tbsp
* Unwaxed lemon – 1/2, thinly sliced (skin on)
* Water – 100ml
* Free-range chicken legs – 2, or 4 thighs
* Zataar – 1 tbsp
* Fresh herbs – parsley or coriander, to serve
Start by marinating the chicken. Mix the garlic, spices (except the zatar), salt, olive oil, lemon slices and water with the chicken in a large bowl, using your hands to massage the marinade into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably overnight.
When you’re ready to cook the chicken, set the oven to 200 degrees C. Transfer the meat, skin side up, along with the rest of the marinade to a small roasting tin. Try to place the lemon slices on top of the chicken - it will look prettier. Sprinkle the zataar over the top, and roast for 40 minutes (less if you're using boneless thighs), or until the chicken is cooked through.
Serve a chicken leg over a spoonful of puree, spooning the sauce over the top. Garnish with fresh parsley or coriander.
Extra – try adding a few halved Brussels sprouts to the chicken for some extra green. They are delicious roasted up with everything else.
Butternut and mascarpone mash
Enough for two, takes 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes oven time
autumn / winter / easy peasy / quietly smug / date night / vegetarian / gluten free
Creamy, spiced and unctuous.
* Butternut squash – 1, seeds removed and cut into thick slices (it’s fine to leave the skin on)
* Paprika – a pinch
* Olive oil – for roasting
* Mascarpone – 3 tbsp
* Ground cayenne – ½ tsp
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
Toss the butternut in olive oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of paprika. Lay out on a baking tray and roast in the oven until tender. About 30 minutes. Transfer the cooked butternut to an oven proof serving dish, along with the mascarpone and cayenne, and use a hand blender to blend to an unctuous puree. Taste for seasoning, and add extra spice if you like. Serve immediately, or reheat in a hot oven for ten minutes when you're ready to eat.
Option – get creative with vegetable purees. Mix and match sweet potatoes, parsnip, carrots, cauliflower, even beetroot. Then choose what you add to the basic vegetable mash: butter is always delicious, yogurt adds tartness, cream….creaminess. If you want to stay dairy free, try with a splash of almond milk, a spoonful of coconut oil or a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice.
Makes 4 servings, takes 15 minutes plus 2 hours chilling time
dessert / perennial / easy peasy / ready in a jiffy / quietly smug / date night / gluten free / vegetarian / on a budget
* 70% dark chocolate – 150g
* Butter – about 30g
* Eggs – 4, whites and yolks separated
* Rum/whiskey – 1 tbsp
Put the chocolate and butter in a heat proof bowl and set over a small pan of simmering water. Check that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Leave to melt, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites in a large bowl with an electric whisk until soft peaks form*. Set aside.
When the butter and chocolate are melted, remove the bowl from the heat. Add the egg yolks and alcohol and stir well. The mixture will turn very thick and gloopy, don’t panic!
Using a large metal spoon, stir one spoonful of egg white into the chocolate. This should loosen the mixture enough for you to be able to gradually fold in the rest of the egg whites**.
Divide the mousse between four glasses, place in the fridge and chill for at least two hours before serving.
* An electric whisk makes egg white preparation fairly foolproof. Here are a few tips: eggs at room temperature will be easier to manoeuver, as will eggs which are a few days old; make sure that the bowl you are using is clean and dry; whisk until the egg whites turn slightly glossy and the whisk leaves pretty ribbons behind it. It is possible to over-whisk, so don’t get carried away.
** Always use a metal spoon to fold your egg whites into a mixture. Start by stirring in a large spoonful of the whites into the chocolate. Then add one large spoonful of egg white at a time, using a circular motion to ‘fold’ it into the mixture. The aim is to preserve as much air as possible for a light, fluffy mousse.