Cozying up to a Valentine's Day dinner at home

The Baltimore Sun

If there is an upside to the downturn in the economy, it might lie in the fact that we're being forced to go back to basics. We're eating out less, spending more time at home entertaining ourselves, and figuring out what's really important when it comes to material things.

Valentine's Day might be a challenge if you're used to splurging on your special one (or the one you're hoping will be your special one!).

A dozen roses in a vase delivered to the office could set you back about $100. But if your sweetheart loves roses, why not get creative? How about a box of faux-rose petals to sprinkle on the dinner table, on the bed or anywhere else that your two hearts desire? Target sells a box of 200 artificial red rose petals for less than $15.

Or maybe your love adores chocolate. Instead of dropping a lot of cash for a giant, heart-shaped box from a commercial chocolate maker, why not go for quality over quantity? A 4-ounce box of scrumptious chocolates from Kirchmayr Chocolatier - on Deereco Road in Timonium - is about $10. Take it from me, this is some of the best chocolate on the planet.

Then there's Valentine's Day dinner. Most restaurants raise their prices, and with wine and the inevitable heart-shaped raspberry-dribbled confection afterward - let's just say that if you go that route, your wallet doesn't stand a chance. And if you're wondering how you're going to come up with next month's car payment instead of how much you love your love, that's less than romantic, isn't it?

What is romantic is a private dinner for two at home.

Here's the plan: First, the wine. Yellowtail still produces some of the tastiest merlot and cabernet bargains around; at about $7 a bottle, they can't be beat. You can find them at most wine stores.

Next, pull out the candles - the more the better. Choose red or white votives, pillars, or candlesticks. Everything and everyone looks better in candlelight.

Don't forget to get out the good china, because fall-off-the-bone short ribs are on the menu. For dessert, what could tantalize your valentine more than rich, moist chocolate cupcakes. The frosting is made with instant pudding and Cool Whip. You can cut calories by using low-fat or sugar-free brands. In that way, you can satisfy your sweetie's sweet tooth while helping him watch his waistline at the same time.

Before your valentine arrives, make sure your CDs are loaded in the player. Don't forget some old-school tunes like the Etta James standard "At Last," anything by Isaac Hayes, Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, Sade ... just remember that the music you select will set the mood for the evening.

I'll leave the rest up to you. Happy Valentine's Day.

Sandra Pinckney, a former host of "Food Finds" on the Food Network, is now a contributor to "Daily Cafe" on Retirement Living TV, a Comcast Network channel for baby boomers.

fall-off-the-bone short ribs

(serves 4 to 6)

olive oil (about 2 tablespoons, divided use)

4 pounds beef short ribs

flour for dusting

1 medium onion, sliced

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 (15-ounce) can tomato paste

low-sodium beef broth, enough to cover ribs

1 cup red wine

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

salt and black pepper

Cover the bottom of a large Dutch oven with a thin layer of olive oil. Lightly dust the ribs with flour and brown them on all sides. (Do not crowd the ribs; brown in batches.)

Remove the ribs. Pour off the grease. Add a bit more olive oil and add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic. Continue to cook for about 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring slowly for about 3 more minutes.

Add the broth and wine and bring to a boil, scraping up the bits from the bottom of pot. Turn the heat to medium. Add spices. Return the ribs to the pot. Cover and cook for at least 2 hours on low heat or until the meat falls away from the bone.

When the meat is done, remove it and the vegetables from the pot and keep warm. Remove bay leaf. Skim as much oil as you can from the gravy and correct the seasonings, then pour over the ribs and veggies and serve.

Per serving (based on 6 servings): : 846 calories, 38 grams protein, 67 grams fat, 27 grams saturated fat, 25 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 137 milligrams cholesterol, 1,215 milligrams sodium

yummy chocolate cupcakes

(makes 12 to 14)

1 stick butter, room temperature

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

3/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (the best you can afford)

1/2 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Turn down to 350 just before baking.

Beat the butter with an electric mixer until softened, then add sugar. Beat about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until they are well combined. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients.

Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar and beat just to combine. Then add 1/2 of the liquids (milk and vanilla), scrape down bowl and beat to combine. Continue alternating the addition of the dry and wet ingredients, making sure you end with the dry.

Fill greased muffin tins (or ungreased tins lined with cupcake liner) 2/3 full. Bake for about 20-25 minutes. Cool, then frost.

Per cupcake (based on 14 cupcakes):: 170 calories, 3 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 24 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 83 milligrams sodium

Recipe analyses by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.

easy frosting

(makes 4 cups)

1 cup milk

1 (3 1/2 ounce) package instant pudding mix, any flavor you like

1/4 cup powdered sugar

8 ounces Cool Whip topping

Pour milk into bowl. Add pudding mix and sugar. Beat with a wire whisk for about 2 minutes. Gently fold in whipped topping. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Per tablespoon: : 19 calories, 0 grams protein, 1 gram fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 3 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium

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