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Hot Stuff:
Cooking to Seduce

or, Waiter, there's a Spanish fly in my soup!

In all the complicated feints and flailings of the dance known as Human Dating, what -- the Big To Do asks you -- what is a more charged and intimate act than cooking for your paramour? From beginning to end, nothing compares to a splendid meal lovingly crafted for one particular palate.

Feeding someone, of course, is a fundamentally human gesture, the ultimate expression of love. It says, I will give you everything, even life. Why else would mothers throughout history be driven to tell us, in a thousand ways, "Eat! Eat! You're growing thin before my eyes!" It's the first gift we receive, after all; kinda sacred, right?

Ah, but between two people falling in love, dinner becomes an even more intricate affair. It's that impulse brought to life, in the service of love, in the form of a really good bruschetta.

[Loftbuilders take note! This week's column has nothing to do with "friend-baking." Making cookies for someone is not a come on. If you're stuck in a Nice Guy Zone, don't look here for help. Instead, look here.]

Tools of the Trade

To create a seductive dinner, you don't need a kitchen brimming with professional-quality cookware. Neither do you need a handy 17-in-1 gadget from Ronco ("pocket fisherman," indeed.) Find out how to equip your kitchen in the New Basics Cookbook. But you'll need some cash left over for ingredients, so here's a rule of thumb for their list: buy only a) what you can afford, and b) what you recognize from your mom's kitchen.

If you can splurge, though, certain tools will make a huge difference in preparing your seductive meal. Taken in the larger context of falling in love, getting married, and furthering the species, these handy kitchen items are really a bargain:

Cuisinart Hand Blender: Kitchen tools don't get more suggestive than this, but they don't get much more useful either. Soups and sauces become transcendent.

Cuisinart Mini-Prep Processor: Totally effective, without the unspoken "Ready to settle down now!" vibe of the full-sized model.

Two proper knives: Cut corners, but don't compromise on the kitchen knives. The work goes faster, the results are better, and you look like you know what you're doing. Henckels and Chicago Cutlery are top of the line and worth it. One large (8"), one small (4"). Watch your fingers.

For Beginners...

If, when we say appetizers, the thought "aerosol cheese" occurs to you, just stop reading now. There are about a thousand delectable starters to choose from. Have one or two on hand, in modest quantities. And remember: "simple" is good; "straight out of the can" is not.

The most disarming pre-meal gnosh? Fresh, homemade pesto and the best bread you can find. Real pesto is a religion, and you should consider converting. Maligned as cliche in the early 90s, it's really a timeless delight that mustn't be dismissed. And the key ingredients -- basil, olive oil, salt, garlic, cheese -- are seductive essentials:

If at all possible, grow your own basil. (It's cheaper, and the seduction factor is higher.) If you have a green thumb and a back yard -- or even a fair-sized planter box -- you can easily coax a few plants to produce full, fragrant leaves. Trust the Big To Do: growing basil is one of the best things you can do in life.

You'll want a high-quality olive oil. Don't skimp. Buy extra virgin (!) and Italian if you can. Buy in small quantities so it's always fresh. Never use oil that smells stale or rancid. A quarter teaspoon of bad oil can ruin a relationship. Plus, it's unhealthy.

Salt is salt, right? Wrong. Use organic sea salt instead of the regular stuff. The difference is worth the trouble. At least get a salt mill and grind it fresh for optimum flavor.

Garlic. Buy it often; use it without fear. Anything that's been a staple of French, Chinese, and Italian cuisine for a thousand years is going to work for you, not against you.

A little parmesean cheese can turn a simple dish into something sublime. Get the good stuff (you deserve it), and for drama, use thin shavings instead of grated.

Sensual Feast for Two? Right This Way...

Ok, now what? To plan your menu, you'll want to find a good basic cookbook. Italian cuisine is your best bet for fresh, simple, easy to make, and debilitatingly delicious. Unfortunately, the finest cookbook the Big To Do ever found -- Diana Shaw's Sweet Basil, Garlic, Tomatoes, and Chives -- is out of print. Rise up and demand it. Find it on eBay. Steal someone else's copy if you must.

A few tips on putting together the seductive dinner:

Start late, but not too late. It is foreplay, after all. Find the romantic, dreamy space in between "evening" and "night," but don't fall asleep before dessert. A quick espresso can banish the sleepies; but fight the urge to offer decaf and then slip your guest a regular shot.

Simpler is better. No standing rib roasts. This doesn't mean you can't be fancy; do handmade pasta the day before (it's easy!) or deep freeze some spectacular dessert. But once your guest arrives, be ready to move from hot stove to hottie. Bonus tip: have some garlic or onion sauteing in the skillet when they arrive. Even if you don't use it, you'll invariably hear, "Wow! Smells great in here!"

Know your recipes. Don't try anything brand new on date night! Bonus tip: Keep your friends happy by practicing recipes on them, then maybe they won't be grouchy when you disappear into a new relationship for a while!

BG's romantic dinner -- from her own recipe files!

Cocktails - mojitos

Appetizer - Many, many oysters*

Entree - Lobster, grilled with fresh herb butter (white burgundy)

Salad - Baby greens, grilled pears, roasted pecans, and Cabrales or Pecorino

Bread - Focaccia with fresh sage

Dessert - Vanilla ice cream topped with a sauce made of figs and rose petal jam (Sauternes)

* Or steamed mussels if Breakup Mom finds out and freaks out about the raw fish factor.

Know your seductee. Do they simply melt for prosciutto and melon? Do they flee in mortal fear of dairy? As with other acts of affection, talking first is recommended.

Learn a couple of good wines and stick to them. Do a little comparison shopping (again, racking up points with the friends). Up to a certain dollar amount, you get what you pay for, but you don't need to spend $40 to get something tasty.

Find yourself an excellent bakery and patronize it (in the good way). If you didn't have a grandmother from the old country handing down family secrets, find the guy who did. Remember: "French bread" in the supermarket is neither.

So you've set the stage, you have tasty apps, a simple but swellegant meal, a nice boutaille du vin, and some excellent bread. The lights: low; the music: groovy. Time for the crucial transitional moment.

Give Them Their Just Desserts

Played right, your finale will carry your prey over the sensual threshold. Again: simple, simple, simple. No pie. (Yet. That's for later in the relationship.) Work at the extremes: think hot versus cold, sweet versus tart; think textures.

How about pomegranate seeds, kiwi, and peach slices in a wine glass? Or a scoop of good vanilla ice cream, perhaps, with espresso drizzled over it? (See, you worked in that caffeine after all, didn't you?) Whatever you decide, you should be able to put it together in just a minute or two, so you don't lose the momentum of the evening. And, FYI, sharing a spoon is your first tip that you've done your job well.

Oh, and one last bit of advice: use your nice but inexpensive plates. You never know when you might have to clear off the table... in a hurry.

Colin Lingle is getting awfully tired of take-out. Regular BTD readers might have come across his recent analysis of opening lines.

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