FOOD and romance, Susan Branch believes, can turn a man and a woman into a pair of smittens. As Cupid's courier, she is in her element come Valentine's Day, offering advice on romance and friendship and ideas for just plain fun with the kids.
Eight years ago, Ms. Branch moved from California to this island off Cape Cod - a favorite haunt for romance-seekers with its abundance of Victorian ``gingerbread'' houses, weather-worn cottages, and miles of sand and sea.
Seated in a toasty, robin's-egg-blue kitchen in her historic home, Branch sips tea from a heart-laced mug and chats with a visitor as though with an old friend. A single, coral rose sits in a vase on the window sill. Behind her, rows of delicate, floral tea cups and egg cups line a rack, and around her neck hangs a dainty silver locket.
She says the island environs have served her well: She has written two successful cookbooks here, and recently signed a contract for three more.
In addition to a wide range of recipes - from elegant to simple - her two cookbooks offer an adventure in creativity. Simple paintings and miniature hearts, flowers, and moons are sprinkled throughout both ``Heart of the Home,'' (Boston: Little, Brown, $18.95, 1986), now in its fifth edition, and ``Vineyard Seasons'' (Little, Brown, $19.95, 1988). Nearly every page is trimmed with a different, cheerful border - hearts, vegetables, tulips, colorful leaves, even slices of pie. And each page is painstakingly handwritten in her own script.
The books are so personal that at times you feel you're peeking into someone's diary. Quotations on love, home, and friendship abound, as well as bits of advice for spending time with your family, friends, even yourself.
She offered these suggestions for Valentine's Day.
A Romantic Evening. A two-page spread on romance in ``Vineyard Seasons'' outlines the ingredients for a ``fail-proof'' romantic evening. Ambience is essential, says Branch.
``Concentrate for a few minutes on how you want it to look,'' she says. ``Do you want flowers, do you want candles? ... What kind of music do you want? How do you want it to taste - do you want it hot or do you want it cold? Throw in your own bit of imagination - your own way of doing things - and you can't miss.''
Valentine's Day is on a Wednesday this year, so you may not have the time that a weekend might give you for elaborate last-minute preparations. You can still impress the dickens out of your valentine, though. Branch recommends you look for recipes that can be prepared beforehand and refrigerated - to keep you out of the kitchen and in the mood with your honey.
``Any time you can feed your partner or eat with your hands - there's just something romantic about that,'' she says.
What if you're a fumble-fingers in the kitchen? Branch says many of her recipes would suit the non-cook. Baked banana with vanilla ice cream, for example (see recipe).
Branch quickly adds that she's fond of gourmet cooking: ``But I hate to be in the kitchen for a thousand hours, because it takes people only three minutes to eat it - and it makes me mad! So these are gourmet recipes, but there's nothing hard about them.''
She offers some more demanding, but romantic suggestions: Oysters Rockefeller, Poulet au Poire Cr`eme, Clams Casino, Cold Salmon with Watercress Aioli. Or why not honor your sweetie with a tangled heap of Angel-Hair Pasta, a chocolate cake decorated with powdered-sugar hearts, or a spinach dish with hearts cut from red bell peppers?
The meal you choose often sets the scene, she says: ``Some of these fancy recipes are neat, but the tried and true traditional things are going to bring people together,'' she says. A fried-chicken dinner, for example, would make a fabulous family Valentine's Day dinner, she says.
Breakfast for Mom and Dad. ``A kid could do a German Pancake, and he would love himself,'' says Branch exuberantly (see recipe). It's a good surprise breakfast-in-bed meal for the beginning adult cook, too. ``Everybody thinks they can cook when they see how gorgeous this comes out.'' (Children should have adult supervision around a hot stove.)
The baked banana recipe is well-paced for younger children, she says, and looks wonderful served on a pretty tray with a croissant, juice, hot beverage, a napkin, and a rose.
For younger children she recommends a joint parent-child project: Choose a fun recipe like Heart-Shaped Pan Cookies (see recipe). ``Anything with cookie cutters or in shapes always impresses a kid,'' she says.
For the Kids. ``My mother did the cutest thing in the world. She took hot cereal, and tinted it pink, and sprinkled cinnamon hearts on it. So when we came down for breakfast on Valentine's Day, this is what we had,'' says Branch.
``We also had strawberry milk, where she'd put strawberries and milk in a blender. But you could also do strawberries and milk and ice cream to have a pink float for after school.''
Branch is the eldest of eight children. Her father worked for the phone company while her mother stayed home and cared for the children. Spending money was scarce when Branch was growing up, so her mother searched for creative ways to spend time with her children. A May Day celebration, for example, involved making colorful paper baskets, filling them with cookies and flowers, and leaving them anonymously on the doorsteps of friends and neighbors.
``It doesn't take very much to make something special - a note in a coat pocket, in one of your kids lunch boxes ... can really make a difference,'' she says.
Her cookbooks emphasize such ideas: birthday parties, a lobster boil on the beach, making fortune cookies and strawberry preserves. A section called ``Kid Stuff'' includes recipes for purple cows (grape juice, fizzy water, and vanilla ice cream), some-mores, and Jell-O in a hollowed-out orange half. ``They just think that's so clever,'' she says with a grin.