Cook a “5 senses” Valentine’s Day Dinner with these world-wise tips

A older couple in love

Photo by Candida Performa.

While I love my husband dearly, there are times that our love feels so comfortable I’m at risk for taking him for granted. But then I smell some garlic frying in oil, maybe some tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop, and I know he’s making me pasta for dinner. It’s nothing complicated – a simple gesture, really – but I know in that moment he loves me.

Food, prepared with care, is the meaningful gesture that can fix  just about everything, especially an in-the-rut relationship.

To me, Valentine’s Day is about taking this simple attentiveness and amplifying it – by exposing our five senses to something new. After all, new experiences breathe life into the old.  They help us notice.

And so this week, while I’m finishing up a few more last minute edits on my memoir, I assembled some awesome food traditions and ideas from around the world that will have your heart swooning in no time… in every sense, with every sense.

Note: These tips, though most might assume are geared for couples, are completely useful for families with children. In fact, children will adore many of these ideas – such as eating in the dark.

1. SIGHT

Photo by Dale and Kim Schoonover

Photo by Dale and Kim Schoonover

Everyone says the most romantic way to dine is over a candlelit dinner, but what about in the dark? There are several restaurants around the world that feature either pitch black dining rooms (with waiters who guide the guests to where their cups are before the meal begins), or dimly lit dining rooms and blindfolds.

The very first restaurant of this style was opened in 1993: Blindekuh, located in Zurich, Switzerland and there’s another in Basel now. They are run entirely by blind and visually impaired staff. The experience not only teaches an appreciation for the challenges the blind face, but also heightens the sensory experience of eating. When we can no longer rely on our eyes, the smell of fresh chopped chives, the watery squish of romaine, and the crackle of a parmesan crisp all pop into relief – details that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

While other famous “dining in the dark” restaurants can be found in N.Y.C., Europe, Australia, L.A., the simplest thing is to recreate the experience at home.

How to do it:

This Valentine’s Day, shut off the lights in the dining room or use blindfolds while you eat. Notice the new sounds, how the food feels different in your mouth, how even the scents of your dinner become more fragrant when you can’t rely on your eyes. Notice, too, how you react to your loved ones when you can’t see them, but can only hear them.

2. TOUCH

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In China, there’s this little thing called “kou gan,” or how ones food feels in the mouth.  It’s a prized experience, for example, to have some Balut, incubated duck eggs, complete with feathers and crunchy bones. In other parts of the world, slippery pops of caviar are the thing. In still others, it’s all about a smooth, sensual spoonful of creamy flan.

But touch is so much more than just about how food feels in the mouth. There’s the love that comes with cooking together. In many rural villages in many west and central African countries, community is held together by the rhythms of cooking together – the slow pounding of cassava, the sizzle of red palm oil in the pot, and the talking that goes along with it.

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Even something as simple as rolling dough together – as with the braided heart bread from Slovenia – or shaping it into a pizza, and diving into such a homemade creation together is a full-of-love sort activity (the best two homemade pizzas we made on this blog were the Turkish Lahmacun and the macedonian Pastrmajlija… Yum!)

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And, finally, there’s a shift that happens when we set aside our utensils and enjoy our meal with our hands. The very act slows dinner down, making the process longer, more enjoyable. There’s something so simply wonderful about plucking the petals off a stuffed artichoke over good conversation, feeling the food between our fingertips does fundamentally change the taste experience…

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How to do it:

#1 Cook together; it doesn’t matter what – just get your hands dirty and laugh while you’re doing it.

#2 Serve a texture that you don’t typically eat for dinner. If you never have soup or wiggly flan, slurp some down.

#3 Eat with your hands – try this steamed artichoke recipe from Italy or this one from Malta.

3. SOUND

Did you know that astronauts enjoy food with very strong flavors while in orbit? In a study cited on the BBC, it turns out loud background noise (such as a noisy airplane or rocket) draws our attention away from the food we’re trying to enjoy. It actually limits our ability to perceive the full range of flavor, whether it be salty or sweet. Based on these findings, a noisy restaurant is not the best place to celebrate our love. Just think: if we aren’t able to focus entirely on our food, how can we focus on our loved ones?

The Expedition Four and STS-110 crewmembers share a meal in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo by NASA.

The Expedition Four and STS-110 crewmembers share a meal in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo by NASA.

When I lived in France, I was shocked how quiet most restaurants were. There’s more of a murmur than the dull roar I’m accustomed to here in the states. But the effect is soothing and encourages conversation, since there’s not a bunch of hullabaloo to compete with.

View of Astronaut Peggy Whitson, flight engineer (left) and Cosmonaut Valery Korzun, commander (right), eating a meal in the Service Module (SM)/Zvezda. Tomato and hamburger are floating. Photo by NASA.

View of Astronaut Peggy Whitson, flight engineer (left) and Cosmonaut Valery Korzun, commander (right), eating a meal in the Service Module (SM)/Zvezda. Tomato and hamburger are floating. Photo by NASA.

What to do to make this meal special:

This Valentine’s Day create a quiet atmosphere. It should go without saying: turn off the television. If you choose to play music, avoid the radio which interrupts every few songs with advertising (there’s nothing like an annoying car-lot ad to throw the mood off). I like Pandora, which is just a few dollars a month, because it allows me to set the mood based on a single song I like. My favorite channel right now is built around Beethoven’s “Moonlit Sonata.”

4. TASTE

Sure, we all have  list of favorite foods – old standbys that we know our loved ones enjoy. But the question this Valentine’s Day is how to make our favorite foods taste even better? The secret is in adding some ‘umami,’ or – quite literally – pleasant savory taste.  The Japanese have known about “umami” for a long time, though the notion wasn’t proposed officially until 1908, by Japanese chemist  Kikunae Ikeda. Umami makes food sparkle with flavor. A dish without umami is like a soup without salt – edible, but not exciting. Umami is most commonly found in mushrooms (especially poricinis), soy sauce, MSG, dashi, ripe tomatoes, fish, shellfish, and green tea.

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What to do:

The easiest thing is to brew a pot of green tea and keep it on the table during the meal. The tea can go with most any food and, as an added bonus, will soothe digestion. Or, if you love mushrooms, try the amazing Meat Sauce we made when we cooked the Vatican City on our around the world adventure (including sweet Italian sausages and ground beef).

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5. SMELL

The biggest mistake people make when serving  a romantic meal has to do with the clean up before it – using strong cleaners and/or scented candles in close proximity to a dinner party can really ruin the taste of a meal (nothing pairs well with Pine Sol). That being said, a plain, white  candle goes a long way to purify and freshen the air in a home at a time of year when windows can’t really be opened.

What to do:

Light a few candles an hour or two before dinner and the house will smell great.

If, for some reason, dinner gets burned? There’s a (rather silly) backup plan for that, too… Yes, “there’s an app for that.”

(Want the app? Here’s more info from NPR)

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Comments

  1. I will be doing artichokes for Valentine’s day. My wife loves them, we have over 40 paintings, pics, soup turrines, mugs etc featuring artichokes. The first time she went to California with me, we drove up Rt 1 and as we came down the mtn from Big Sur toward Monteray, I pulled beside a field and told her to go look at the plants – acres of Artichoke plants. She had the biggest smile I have ever seen.

  2. Happy Valentine’s Day!! I just found your book on Amazon – ready to pre-order :) how exciting!!!!!!!

  3. Sasha I am not convinced that eating in the dark is a good idea. For me I am liable to have an accident.:-) Besides food is one half visual delight. If I can’t see it, I just worry.

    It funny what you say about quiet restaurants. In Hong Kong for example it is so loud at the restaurants you almost have to wear ear plugs. But that the conversation flows like crazy. They enjoy their food and have great fun with food.

    Still if I am on a romantic date, I want a quiet booth with good lighting so that I can enjoy the visual delight of my honey. And a table that is the right height and space to reach over and gently caress the hand of your significant other.

    • Sasha Martin says:

      ha – well, I could see it being tricky, especially with some of the messier foods… but I still can’t wait to try it with my four-year old and husband. Perhaps we’ll eat picnic-style on the floor, so no one falls over ;)

  4. I just pre-ordered your book! Does that sentence make your heart skip a beat or what?!! Can’t wait until I have it in my kitchen!!

  5. I love to cook and create meals that make guests want to have more….more food, more conversation, more laughter, more wine, more time together. My husband and I have Valentine’s Day throughout the year rather than one day within the year. He’s your basic meat loving carnivore and I could happily survive on fruit and veg. He is willing to eat whatever creation I set in front of him and only TWICE in TEN years has tried then pushed an item away (he had a cold at the time so I forgive him).

    My birthday is Feb 13 and it usually lasts two days thanks to Valentine’s Day. On those two days, hubby has forbidden me to enter the kitchen for any other reason than a cold glass of water or to let the cat out. Some years he does ALL the cooking and cleaning. Some years he orders in food. We went on a mid Winter picnic a few times. He’s even gone into the freezer to serve us meals I’d prepped and frozen a few months before. (It does taste different when someone else heats it up!) The mystery of not knowing what’s on the menu or being in control is WONDERFUL!

    And, Sasha….my hubby makes the most amazing spaghetti and meat sauce, too! What is it about men and their ability to do that?!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      What an awesome hubby – I love the idea of a mid-winter picnic :) It’s quite warm right now here, so my daughter and I did that yesterday. It is great to get rid of the winter blues :)

  6. What you wrote about the Chinese concept for how food feels in your mouth reminded me of this post from Michele Humes (the second part, about the noodles) that I thought you might enjoy http://www.michelehumes.com/2013/08/30/i-call-bullshit-on-untranslatable-words-and-propose-one-of-my-own/

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