Cupboard love

Why bother going out on Valentine's Day, when you can have a more romantic time at home? Mark Hix shows how
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Too late. If you were hoping for an intimate tête à tête dinner tonight in your favourite restaurant you've blown it. This must be the worst day of the year to get your feet under a tablecloth for a bit of footsie and some fancy food to play with. You'd have had to plan it months ago.

Too late. If you were hoping for an intimate tête à tête dinner tonight in your favourite restaurant you've blown it. This must be the worst day of the year to get your feet under a tablecloth for a bit of footsie and some fancy food to play with. You'd have had to plan it months ago.

If it's any consolation, to avoid being overrun with couples staring into each other's eyes and barely noticing what's on the plate, some restaurants don't even take bookings for two tonight. Others put their prices through the roof, for the priviledge of presenting you with course after course of food that's been messed about with and turned pink and heart-shaped. Balloons on the back of the chair, and an odourless rose for the ladies are all part of the package. Do you really want to spend a hundred quid a head on the Valentine's menu and a taxi home? Thought not.

Even if you have booked a table you might want to think again - after all, there are things you can get up to in the privacy of home that you might be too inhibited to do in public, or could put off other diners if you're not. So have a little consideration, never mind that reservation and make a quick raid on the shops instead for a much more romantic meal at home with your lover or lovers. I hope there are only a couple of you because just for this week I've given recipes for two.

Keep the cooking simple. You could try supposedly aphrodisiac ingredients, though I must admit I've never knowingly experienced the aftereffects of an aphrodisiac food. Pulling the leaves off artichokes and dipping them in butter seems to do the trick, though. Anything can be an aphrodisiac if you put your mind to it. You don't have to splash out on oysters and caviar, although shellfish does always do it for me. The taste of the sea, messy fingers, and the thought of a velvety bisque from the bones another day (that's my fantasy life exposed, then - perhaps my mind's more likely to be racing ahead to tomorrow's soup).

If you want to get back to basics, I'd recommend lobster and chips. I have great memories of dipping those chips into Hellmann's mayonnaise and sucking the meat out of the claws with butter running down our chins. Then again maybe only a chef would consider frying chips a good idea for a date.

Remember, you don't want to spend too long in the kitchen, unless you are eating there anyway. Labour-intensive cooking takes up precious time when your partner is sat in the other room, twiddling their thumbs while you mess around on the stove trying to re-create the restaurant experience.

As for me, I won't be frying tonight. I haven't made any plans, but my favourite restaurants aren't exactly romantic. Last year I went to the Turkish grill with some mates and got stuck into grilled lamb's sweetbreads and kidneys. I'm tempted by the idea of an ox-heart salad and a fruity bottle of red at St John Bread and Wine, or I may get a few couples round and have a fondue party.

All recipes obviously serve two intimate friends and are intended to be shared. And eaten with your fingers. Valentine's night is no time for cutlery.

Salt and pepper tiger prawns

Serves 2

These are great for sharing and will keep you busy while the main course is on the way. Try to buy sea-water prawns as they have a much better taste than fresh water. Good fishmongers these days offer different sizes and types of prawns. Chose the biggest and save the heads, if they are still on, for a bisque (there I go again).

250g large headless raw tiger prawns in the shell
2 tbsp light (untoasted) sesame oil
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
Half bunch of spring onions, trimmed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

Remove the shells from the prawns, leaving the tails on. With a sharp serrated knife, cut down the back of the prawns about 5mm into the flesh and give them a rinse under cold running water to remove the black intestinal vein, then pat dry on some kitchen paper.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil in a wok or heavy-based frying pan and fry the prawns on a high heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the salt and Sichuan peppercorns, and continue cooking for a couple of minutes, stirring every so often. Remove the prawns from the pan and keep them warm.

Heat the rest of the sesame oil in the same pan and fry the spring onions, garlic and chilli for 1 minute. Add the prawns to the pan, stir well and serve immediately.

Roast best end of lamb with baked garlic

Serves 2

Now's not the time to mind your Ps and Qs. Just picking up your food in your hands to eat it and having a bone to gnaw on seems more appropriately primitive and let's-get-down-to-basics sexy. If you want to feel even more medieval just chuck the bones into the roaring fire when you've finished with them. See - this is what I meant about other diners getting offended by unbridled behaviour in restaurants. Were you thinking of something else? You can only try this at home. This recipe gives you several little cutlets to gnaw on and it's very garlicky, which is fine if you're both eating it and not breathing on anyone else later.

I used the fresh new season garlic with no skin between the cloves, but any will do.

1 x 7-8 bone French trimmed best end or rack of lamb
Vegetable oil for frying
A few sprigs of rosemary
2 heads of garlic, fresh, new season cloveless heads if possible
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 very large baking or two medium baking potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
400ml lamb or beef stock (or stock made from a good cube will do)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tsp thyme leaves

Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC/390ºF/Gas mark 6.

Wrap the bulbs of garlic in foil and bake in the oven for 1 hour. In an oven-proof dish, layer the onion, thyme and potato, lightly seasoning each layer and arranging the top layer in overlapping slices. Pour the stock over, cover with foil and bake in the oven for 1 hour.

Season the lamb, heat a little vegetable oil in a frying pan and seal the lamb on all sides until nicely browned. Remove the foil from the potatoes, place the lamb on top and tear and scatter the rosemary on top. Continue to cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes for pink or leave it in for another 10 minutes for medium.

Serve the lamb carved into cutlets on the potatoes with a whole baked head of garlic each. You can scoop out the baked garlic flesh with a spoon, or squeeze each clove. If you can be bothered with vegetables, have finger leeks with melted butter. Mmmm.

Zabaglione with Spanish raspberries

Serves 2

OK - I must admit that I have gone a bit off course here recommending raspberries in February. It goes against the seasonal approach, but we're all Europeans and part of a common market, aren't we? Anyway in Spain the seasons for fruit and vegetables begin a touch earlier than ours due to the climate. Back in December I observed a diner next to me in Joël Robuchon's Atelier in Paris, eating these amazing looking, plump wild strawberries. The waiter informed me they were from Malaga where I suppose they are a few months ahead of us, and with not enough mouths to feed them to, so why not export a few? Although I did think December was just a tad early for those little delicacies. Oh, so what, it's Valentine's Day, can't we break the rules for once?

150g raspberries
1 large egg yolk
2tbsp Masala
1tsp caster sugar

To make the zabaglione, put the egg yolks, Masala and sugar in a stainless or Pyrex bowl. Place it over a pan of gently simmering water and whisk for 2-3 minutes until the mixture is thick and frothy, then remove from the heat. Arrange the raspberries on one or two plates, depending how you are getting on at this stage and spoon the zabaglione over them. Unlike the rest of the meal you will need a spoon to eat this with.