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A meal that leaves time for romance

Cook your valentine something that's simple and elegant

Valentine's Day beckons an array of cooks to the kitchen, all intent on impressing someone. Like eager joggers out for the first run of spring, some cooks may be lured by a goal they can't meet -- and find themselves overwhelmed by the preparations.

Rule out the drama of a tableside flambe or the valor of a three-hour oven braise. Focus instead on simple, warming dishes that will delight anyone with their understated elegance. Even a novice can roast thinly sliced beets and toss them with baby spinach, stir a spicy and aromatic pot of the famous San Francisco cioppino with some of our local catch, and whip up cups of an intense chocolate mousse.

A fish stew is the perfect centerpiece for the occasion. Stews wouldn't be paired up with romance in a word association game, but cioppino is different from all the others. A modest assortment of shrimp, mussels, and cod makes a fine adaptation of the heaping Bay Area specialty.

Prepare the broth with canned tomatoes, along with fresh fennel and garlic. Set that aside before the meal, or the night before. The fennel is not traditional, but it adds a touch of sweetness, which balances the acidity of the tomatoes. Before serving, simmer the mussels and shrimp in the broth just until the mollusks pop open, then add thick fillets of cod. Beets for the salad are color-coordinated for the evening. Roasting thin slices of the firm roots will win over even the guest who associates this vegetable with the dreadful canned variety. Slice the beets thin and then cook them in a hot oven alongside quartered bulbs of shallots until the beets shrink slightly and turn intensely sweet. Sprinkle these ruby chips with goat cheese before serving on baby spinach.

No evening for lovers would be complete without a rich chocolate dessert, in this case a mousse with espresso. Most mousses rely on an egg custard base, but they can be made without eggs for a simpler, lighter mixture. Melt semisweet chocolate and fold it into whipped cream. Whip another mixture of mascarpone and instant espresso. Use parfait or wine glasses to alternate layers of the two creams, then top with chopped chocolate. The dessert turns into a poor man's tiramisu.

If your aim is to woo your sweetheart through food, anyone will fall for you after this feast.

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