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A simple yet fancy feast for the one you love

A Valentine's Day table setting Found Kitchen Evanstfeatures harrissa-crusted rack lamb served with squash puree roasted winter vegetables. Photographed Tuesday

A Valentine's Day table setting at the Found Kitchen in Evanston features a harrissa-crusted rack of lamb served with squash puree and roasted winter vegetables. Photographed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013. I Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 14, 2013 6:05AM



There are expectations and presents. Cupids and hearts. To make matters worse, Valentine’s Day falls on a Thursday this year. In other words, what you come up with had better be good.

Maybe you’re a planner. Perhaps you’re not. Either way, there’s no need to fret: it’s the thought that counts, and there still is some time.

Rather than work yourself into a frenzy, hit it out of the ballpark with a fancy — if deceptively easy — meal, all capped off with a romantic setting. With a wee bit of effort, an easy, breezy night is in reach.

But where to start? Design your meal around a crusted or creatively garnished protein. It’s simple and showy approach that allows you to do most of the prep work a night in advance. Since the day-of works, too, your sweetie won’t be any the wiser.

Rack of lamb offers the perfect fix, according to Nicole Pederson, executive chef at Found Kitchen and Social House in Evanston.

“You can sear it a day ahead, brush on mustard and finish it with herbed bread crumbs,” she says. “Then, just cover and refrigerate the meat. When it’s time for dinner, simply put the meat into a hot oven to finish cooking.”

Alternately, Rick Gresh, executive chef at David Burke’s Primehouse, recommends preparing a spicy mayo with eggs, olive oil, roasted jalapenos and lime up to two days in advance.

“Turn it into a creamy seafood ‘salad’ by mixing it with lump crab meat or raw shrimp,” he says. “Then, sear steak in a hot pan, top it with the seafood mixture and finish cooking it in 400 degree oven for a twist on surf and turf.”

Gresh says he’d serve simply prepared, oven-roasted potatoes alongside. As for dessert, consider a made-ahead mousse or egg custard.

Clark Grant, executive chef at III Forks, advocates a somewhat different approach. His cocoa-coffee rubbed New York strip steak gets bathed in butter and topped with a commingling of flash-fried, crispy Brussels sprouts and peppadew peppers.

If even that sounds like a fuss, take Matthias Merges’ advice. The owner of Yusho and Billy Sunday says there’s no shame in using high-quality specialty items to bolster the meal. Smoked salmon and caviar top his list.

“They have great impact and require only a little assembly,” he says, noting it frees him to focus on the main event: herb-topped cod en papillote.

Naturally, a pulled-together meal requires a table setting to match.

Amy Morton, owner of Found Kitchen and Social House, says you can — and should — work with what you have. Her eclectic, mix-and-match storefront is a great source of inspiration.

“Gather some books, stack them at different heights and top them with candles,” she says. “If you use old books, all the better: it’ll take on a cool library effect.”

She also likes to repurpose plates, carafes and bottles, using them in unexpected ways

“Random little things can become candleholders,” she notes. “You can even invert a big, bold Burgundy glass and fill it with ribbons, raffia or flowers.”

Basically, don’t get hung up on following convention.

“Set your table off-center, or place napkins and flatware on chairs instead of next to the plate,” Morton continues. “It’s all about creating surprises and setting a tone for the evening.”

Rachel Crowl, architect at of fcSTUDIO, agrees. She’s Matthias’ wife and partner and the designer of Yusho and Billy Sunday.

“Have an indoor picnic using your best china, but set it on a coffee table for an easy, relaxing evening,” she says.

Remember that not everything has to match.

“Incorporate Champagne flutes or vessels with historic or sentimental value,” Crowl says. “The point is to evoke good times you’ve had together — anything that makes your partner feel special.”

Whether labor-intensive or thrown together on the fly, it’s the message that resonates, long after the meal is done.

Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.



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