Like New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day offers diners a dilemma. Should you risk going out and being disappointed by so-so service and overpriced food? Or stay home and cook, then face a messy kitchen at the end of a long day?
Chef Ambassador Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins in Sonoma offers up a third option: Work ahead on a romantic dinner for two.
"Every year, I do a special, intimate dinner for my husband," said Lavagetto, who is teaching a "Feast of Love" class tonight at Ramekins. "I think it's really something special, just the two of us at home."
Lavagetto, who recently celebrated her 45th anniversary with her husband, Lawrence, relies on a few tricks of the trade to prevent this elaborate, multi-course meal from stressing her out.
"You don't want to be a crazy woman in the kitchen," she said. "You want to bring these things out, using all those little chef tricks that people at home don't think about."
From Mini Beef Wellingtons with Potato Gratin to the piece de la resistance, a Chocolate Orange Tart with Chantilly Cream for dessert, the menu is prepped and prepared a few days ahead, then heated and finished off at the last minute.
"I serve and plate the food just like at a catering, and we sit down," she said. "There's no clean-up, because the pots and pans are already done."
That also leaves the chef plenty of time to create a romantic ambiance, with a vase of fresh flowers on the table and candles.
"I make my husband disappear for the day, and I clean," she said. "I pull out the good dinnerware and linens and my grandmother's silver."
This year, Lavagetto's menu will include a savory first course of Smoked Salmon and Crab Custards on Mixed Greens with a Champagne Vinaigrette.
"If you make your smoked salmon and crab custards ahead, it's effortless," she said. "I just turn them out on the edge of the salad."
For the entree, Lavagetto will serve two Mini Beef Wellingtons with Mushroom Duxelles and Gorgonzola, wrapped up like tidy packages in puff pastry.
"The most classic is foie gras, but we can't do that," she said. "So I try to use gourmet mushrooms like oysters and hen-of-the-woods from Gourmet Mushrooms (of Sebastopol)."
For the Potato Gratin, she slices and bakes the potatoes in small ramekins, then holds them in the refrigerator. To serve, she simply turns the potatoes out on a sheetpan, trims the ragged edges, then warms them up in the oven.
The Chocolate Orange Tart provides a sweet finale, and Lavagetto swears it's as easy as it is pretty.
"Chocolate is an aphrodisiac," she said. "There's just something about it."
Lavagetto has been cooking Italian food for 35 years, having picked up some skills from her husband's grandmother, who had worked at Mama Leone's in Manhattan.
"I was blessed to have her for 10 years and spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen," she said. "She was 6-feet-tall and tough as nails. Her specialty was homemade pasta."
Lawrence Lavagetto's grandparents came from Genoa and settled in Oakland, but he was raised in New York, where his uncle rose to fame as a Brooklyn Dodger.
Harry "Cookie" Lavagetto made a splash in the 1947 World Series against the Yankees when he hit a double in the ninth inning that spoiled a no-hitter. He went on to coach the San Francisco Giants from 1964 to 1967.