Meals that can melt hearts

That makes a dinner romantic can be as difficult to define as love itself: a candlelight meal on a ship at sunset; a dinner in the quiet corner of an intimate bistro. Or even a picnic for two amidst a crowd under a sky of fireworks.

With the approach of Valentine's Day, would-be Cupids and Cyranos may be casting about for inspiration. In the spirit of seeking the essence of dining romance, several Monitor staffers offered to share their most intimate meals.

"There is nothing more romantic than when a guy makes dinner," says one editor. "That he took the time to clean up his place and plan and cook a complete meal leaves quite an impression. It's even more romantic if he tells you there's absolutely nothing you can bring but yourself," she adds. "Just the idea that I was on his mind and he went all out to please me."

From a Texas correspondent: "Romantic evenings are made of soft lighting and hushed conversations, at a place where you don't have to shout over a Knicks game. The appetizers should be just enough to stimulate the taste buds. Between courses, you pause to listen to a recording ... Maria Callas, Billy Holiday perhaps.

"The restaurant fills, and you don't care. Nobody's going to take your table or speed you up.

"After the entree, dessert is one Crme Caramel for two. After dinner, you walk into the crisp blue night, hugging tightly to fend off the chill."

Another editor discusses romantic dinners after marriage and kids.

"When my wife and I were dating, a romantic dinner was sharing a vegetarian biryani with poori bread and onion chutney at a favorite Indian restaurant.

"After we were married, romance was breakfast at a cozy caf in Paris at Christmas time, or dinner together anywhere there was candlelight and we could hold hands across the table.

"Now, with three boisterous young sons, a romantic meal is ... anywhere quiet. Anyplace where kids do not drop their forks three times during a meal or need to be reminded that one may not use one's fingers to eat spaghetti.

"And if my wife and I can hold hands occasionally across the table without setting them down in something wet (ketchup, milk, or worse), well then that's just fine."

Location, location, location ... is what this writer believes makes a dinner romantic.

"For me it would involve the ambience of a woody mountain lodge, well appointed, with a roaring fire (it's a snowy winter day); a large stone fireplace inside a spacious great room. The sun would be sinking behind a mountain vista. The table would have fresh flowers.

"The meal would be light, trout perhaps, with early asparagus. For my wife, such a dinner might be romantic enough, but would be aided by Chopin. She also might ask me to put on something other than my usual blue jeans and T-shirt. I would, of course."

But can these meals happen spontaneously? One staff writer wouldn't have it any other way.

"On our anniversary, my husband and I woke up to two feet of snow with more dropping every minute and the radio blaring that the mayor had closed down the city. Which means exactly nothing when you work for a newspaper.

"So I slogged the mile or so to the subway, and then, when it broke down, trudged the rest of the way into the office. By the time I was ready to head home, the storm had been declared the third-worst in Boston history.

"When I finally arrived home late that night, exhausted and starving, my husband had set up an indoor picnic, complete with cake and candlelight, and we spent our anniversary looking through our honeymoon photos and sipping sparkling cider."

From a Washington correspondent: "The whole idea of a romantic dinner is to whip up something astonishing in the kitchen with the door shut. It must be a surprise, and it should be wonderful - like 'Babette's Feast,' without the turtle.

"So, when my husband suggested that he cook for the occasion, it didn't quite fit the plan, especially when he said he'd invent a recipe: Why bake potatoes when you can slice them thin, and stir them around in tons of hot olive oil, throw in lots of paprika and the juice of all the lemons in the fridge?

"Three lessons from the experience: (1) Don"t try this with a sensitive fire alarm. (2) Remember, cooking was invented to solve the problem of the raw potato. (3) Romantic dinners are better with two, so scrap the menu, open the kitchen door, and invent away."

And, finally, from a features editor:

"What makes a romantic dinner? Two words: whipped cream."

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