Prepared Valentine's Day dishes at Whole Foods

Michael Fowler, specialty team leader at Whole Foods in Harbor East, displays a Brie en Croute cherry and dark chocolate pastry that he created, along with a few of the many other Valentine's Day food items available at the store, including heart-shaped crab cakes (far right). (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun photo / February 5, 2014)

In the Valentine's Day of your fantasies, you'd spend hours preparing a gourmet dinner for two, enjoying champagne and savoring dessert with the object of your affection.

Your reality, however, may be decidedly less romantic. You've worked all week, and the pantry is bare. The thought of whipping up a homemade meal leaves you cold. And, of course, your favorite romantic restaurant has been booked for weeks.

Yet Cupid doesn't have to pass you by this Valentine's Day. Thanks to the prepared-food and catering departments of your local grocer, it's easier than ever to dine in, whether you've got a few days, hours or mere minutes to prepare. 

Across the Baltimore region, several national supermarket chains and family-owned grocery stores are offering Valentine's Day-themed meals that are ready to eat or require only minimal time in the oven or microwave.

The menus feature entrees that range from lobster to filet mignon with a host of gourmet accompaniments. And depending upon your selections, the cost may be comparable to or less expensive than a big night on the town.

"Valentine's Day is a major holiday for us, it's bigger than Thanksgiving," says Kelly Stegman, who handles marketing and community relations at Whole Foods Market in Harbor East. "We're having a weeklong celebration."

To that end, the Fleet Street store has planned events for shoppers, including free food samples, a singles' cooking class Thursday evening and a photo booth Friday.

The downtown store has been decked out for weeks. A stroll through the aisles reveals red decorations, roses, candy, cards, and assorted heart-shaped items in the bakery and butcher's cases. Banners with such whimsical messages as "Brie Mine, Valentine" are strategically placed from the produce department to the artisan-cheese section.

"It's really fun for everyone," says store team leader Annette Cuellar, who notes that several departments work jointly on holiday specials, including this year's Valentine's Day menu for two. You and your sweetheart can feast on heart-shaped crab cakes, stuffed shrimp or vegan options such as olive pesto penne from the prepared foods department. If you don't mind cranking up the oven, there's a Surf and Turf deal featuring two dry-aged steaks, two lobster tails, a side of green beans, garlic butter, Borsari salt and a recipe card, all for $25. It's all tied with a bow.

The bakery has heart-shaped cakes and other desserts on tap, while specialty team leader Michael Fowler has created a sweet and savory Brie en Croute — goat's milk cheese, dark chocolate, and a cherry spread wrapped in puff pastry, topped with a sugar heart. The treat, which can be served as an appetizer or a dessert, will be sold for a limited time at Whole Foods locations across the region. "It's really good," Fowler says, smiling.

Across town at Eddie's of Roland Park, which has locations on Roland Avenue and North Charles Street, the stores are also experiencing the February lover's rush.

"This time of year, we sell a variety of romantic, luxurious foods," says marketing director Christine Stutz. "When Valentine's Day falls on a weekday, we often see a lot more couples with children."

Eddie's of Roland Park is promoting a "Dinner for Two" special that's available from Valentine's Day eve through the weekend.

For $75, you and your honey can choose from shrimp cocktail and other appetizers, entrees such as herb-crusted half-rack of lamb or stuffed flounder with jumbo lump crab meat, shrimp and champagne lemon sauce. The meal comes with a demi-baguette, plus two sides per person: say, orzo with roasted tomatoes and eggplant."Our classic creamed spinach is rich and delicious," says events coordinator Amy Simon.

For those who have room for dessert, there are chocolate-covered strawberries and a heart-shaped fruit tart, among other confections — all made in-house by staff pastry chefs.

At Graul's Market, which has Baltimore County locations in Mays Chapel and Ruxton, a team of bakers will also be busy making Valentine's Day sweets.

"They're up bright and early at 3 a.m.," says Meredith Piccinini, a store catering coordinator. "They make perfect chocolate-dipped strawberries and a red velvet cake with cream cheese icing that's wonderful."

Graul's is offering specials such as "Steak and Cake" (jumbo lump crab cakes and filet mignon) for $19.99 that patrons can whip up at home. They'll also have "oven-ready" sides such as roasted mashed potatoes and Caesar salad.  "It's one of our most popular items," adds Piccinini. "The dressing is homemade, and we even make our own croutons. It tastes incredible."

At Wegmans in Hunt Valley, where an array of produce, seafood, meats, baked goods and other merchandise vie for attention in the 140,000-square-foot. store, the staff is expecting major Valentine's Day crowds.

"Last year, our registers rang up about 6,000 customers that day," says Rita Gibney, one of several store managers. "And keep in mind, sometimes two people were shopping."

Wegmans will mark the holiday with items that include heart-shaped steaks and shrimp in a heart-shaped pan. Ready-to-cook items include horseradish-crusted salmon, chicken cordon bleu and dozens of side dishes that just need rewarming, including Brussels sprouts and asparagus.

"We have such a wide assortment," says sous chef Ian Carroll, who honed his skills at culinary school and restaurant kitchens before joining Wegmans' culinary team about six years ago. "Between our bakery and buffet, there are hundreds of items."

While noting that steaks and seafood with a sweet chocolate finale make for a fine Valentine's Day meal, he suggested a less traditional take on the day: the store's heart-shaped sushi tray.  

"It has everything from spicy tuna to California rolls," he said of the platter, which has 91 pieces for $55. "Call up your friends and have a Valentine's Day party."


Call ahead

Depending on the type of meal you desire on Valentine's Day, some stores suggest that customers order some items in advance, while other offerings will be on display and ready to grab and go. Some grocers need 48 hours, while others need a day. Call ahead or check websites for details.