With Valentine’s Day approaching, I polled my Twitter followers for their favorite frugal and romantic date ideas. Some of the great responses included:

  • From @Finc_Confluence: “A photo scavenger hunt worked well for us recently. Inexpensive, memorable, and a great conversation piece!”
  • From @MrsMicah: “Borrow an old movie from the library, enjoy with blankets and maybe hot chocolate. We had fun with The Awful Truth recently.”
  • From @JoyfulAbode: “Go for a walk and hold hands (very important part of it!). Clean the house together (no joke) then relax in it.”
  • From @merchantships: “Visit the fancy grocery together, try something new from deli cases, and eat at nearby park. No tip, plus healthier than fast food.”

The most popular tip was to share a romantic meal, but nobody suggested dining out. Many of you are fans of picnics together — indoors at home, or outside if it’s nice. One of my favorite cheap dates is making dinner with my wife. It’s a great way to spend time as a couple. Kris is the better cook, so she chooses the recipes and directs the production. I’m her sous chef: I chop the onions, mince the garlic, boil the pasta. We’re a good team.

This year, instead of offering yet another list of cheap dates, Kris and I pulled together a menu for a simple but delicious meal that you and your partner can prepare yourselves. These recipes aren’t super frugal, but they’re not expensive, either. They’ll certainly save you tons of dough over restaurant prices.

So pull out the tablecloth, light some candles, and put on the romantic music. It’s time for a recession-era Valentine’s dinner — a meal that you and your partner make together. There will even be leftovers!

A marvelous main course
The highlight of a shared meal is a delicious main course. Here’s a recipe for chicken piccata, one of our favorite showcase dishes. We’ve prepared this a dozen times, and often serve it when we want to impress our friends. It’s easy, tasty, and won’t break the bank. It’s restaurant-quality food without restaurant prices.

Chicken Piccata (serves 4)
from Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentiis. Takes about 20 minutes.

  • 4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, halved crosswise to make 8 small block-shaped pieces (not strips)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • flour, for dredging
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock (homemade, if possible)
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
  • 1/4 cup jarred capers, drained & rinsed to remove some of the salt
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  1. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge lightly with flour to coat.
  2. In large sauté pan, melt 2 Tablespoons of the butter with the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook just until browned, 3 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a plate.
  3. Add broth, lemon juice and capers to the same pan. Bring broth to a boil over medium high heat, scraping pan to get all the good crusty bits. Return chicken to the pan and simmer 5 minutes.
  4. Transfer chicken to plates or platter.
  5. Remove pan from heat. Add remaining 2 Tablespoons butter to sauce, whisking to melt. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with parsley.

Serve the chicken piccata with a nice salad and some crusty bread. (The bread is essential for soaking up all of the sauce!) And while you’re at it, pair it with a good wine…

Valentine’s wines from Gary V.
In December, Gary Vaynerchuk offered Get Rich Slowly readers his advice for finding good wines at great prices. Vaynerchuk is host of the incredibly popular Wine Library TV video blog. When I asked if he’d be willing to suggest some wines for Valentine’s Day, he was gracious enough to pull together a new five-minute video.

“There are four distinct types of wines that I think really do tremendous on this day for a variety of reasons,” Gary says. His list includes:

  • Conde de Subirats cava rose Spanish sparkling wine ($10-$12) — “A very solid sparkling wine.”
  • 2007 Tantalus riesling Canadian white ($23) — “A light, crisp wine. Could be the perfect wine to start your romantic dinner.
  • 2006 Clos Pucelle French white ($24) — “A great play with a lot of foods.”
  • 2006 Selaks ice wine New Zealand dessert wine ($14) — “I highly recommend this. This is widely available in the U.S.”

Note that Vaynerchuk is recommending these types of wines, not necessarily these individual bottles. (Though it’s clear he thinks they’re good choices.) A riesling would probably go well with the rest of the menu in this article.

And remember: price isn’t the most important factor in choosing a wine. What’s important is what you like. “Price has no impact on quality,” Gary says. “At $8-$15, there is an enormity of opportunity [to find good wines].”

Vaynerchuk has offered to produce future segments on frugal wine choices just for Get Rich Slowly readers. If you have a topic request, please let us know! And don’t forget — you can find new wine tips every day at Gary’s video blog, Wine Library TV.

A piece of cake
What’s a romantic dinner without a nice dessert? This butter almond cake is one of my wife’s favorites. It always wins rave reviews, and would be the perfect ending for a homemade Valentine’s meal. It’s moist and delicious, but not too heavy. It’s also quite frugal (although that’s not the reason we love it), and takes only about five minutes of preparation to get it to the oven.

Most almond-flavored cakes call for large quantities of nuts (expensive) or even almond paste (outrageously expensive). In this version, a small amount of almond extract infuses the entire batter with its lovely taste and aroma, and the texture created by mixing the sugar with melted butter is part cake, part cookie and totally wonderful.

When you prepare this cake, be sure to use real butter, but feel free to use imitation vanilla extract. This cake doesn’t rise high. It’s dense and flavorful, so a small slice is all you need. You’ll have to invest in almond extract if your kitchen is without it, but altogether this cake costs less than $5, even with the sliced almond garnish.

This cake should be a hit for you — if not for Valentine’s, then any other day of the year.

Butter Almond Cake (serves 8-10)
This recipe was printed in our local paper years ago. Kris believes it originally came from Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, which is full of foolproof recipes. Takes 5 minutes plus baking time.

  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup real butter, melted
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tablespoons sliced almonds (optional)
  • 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar (for garnish)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use butter wrappers to generously grease a 9″ round cake pan. With a mixer, blend together the sugar and melted butter. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat in. Stir in extracts. Add salt and flour and mix until everything is incorporated. Spread batter in the pan and sprinkle the top with sliced almonds (optional) and 1 Tablespoon sugar. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack before removing from pan. If desired, serve with whipped cream or fruit on the side. (Home-canned peaches go especially well!)

These are just a couple of dishes you might make for a Valentine’s dinner. They’re recipes we love. The possibilities are endless, though. This year, instead of dining out in a restaurant, pull a cookbook from your shelf (or make a quick trip to your public library), pick a favorite recipe — old or new — and prepare a meal with your sweetheart. It’s a fun way to spend a romantic evening. What happens after dessert is up to you!

Do you have favorite meals to prepare with a partner? Are there certain dishes you love to cook together? Share them in the comments!

Photo by justintosh, whose work is very nice!