In Date Night In, blogger and former pastry chef Ashley Rodriguez shares her secret for a happy marriage: once a week, she and her husband Gabe put their three children to bed early and enjoy a leisurely dinner together at home. Rodriguez meticulously plans these date nights, from pre-dinner cocktail to dessert, and uses these meals to reconnect with her partner and luxuriate in some adult time together. The cookbook is a collection of twenty-five of these special evening menus, organized by season. Each date is accompanied by a short essay about Ashley and Gabe’s relationship and meaningful meals in their courtship and marriage. Large, attractive photos of dishes and ingredients help to whet the appetite.
As someone much more likely to read a cookbook than an advice book about “nourishing my relationship,” I must admit that my first reaction to reading the “date night in” concept was pretty negative. “Oh great,” I thought. “We finally got that whole family dinner thing under control and now I have another thing to feel guilty about not doing properly. Who has time to prepare an elaborate meal for two each week, between working, running errands and just ensuring the kids don’t starve to death?” I also found the descriptions of Rodriguez and Gabe’s evolving relationship to be rather cloying. From their matching tattoos to his “artistically crafted facial hair,” to the beautifully lit photos of them gazing lovingly at each other, I was a little underwhelmed. Rodriguez’s propensity to say things like “Perhaps he was just loving me well by letting me make him this cake” didn’t help matters much. At one point she chases down an older couple (friends of friends that they had never met previously) to invite for dinner so that she can grill them about how they achieved “a marriage that had maintained joy.” I am all for working on one’s relationship, but Rodriguez seems to take this to another level. She describes how thrilled she is when Gabe surprises her with a Enneagram personality test, so that they can spend the evening filling out a questionnaire and further analyzing their innermost thoughts.
But enough about the relationship therapy, how is the food? Rodriguez does a good job of outlining the steps required to pull off an entire meal, providing a shopping list, timeline for completing some steps up to a few days in advance, and outline of common pantry items required to complete the date. Each recipe usually makes two generous servings, occasionally with leftovers. Her background as a pastry chef shines in some very nice desserts: the chocolate chip cookies finished with sea salt have already made the rounds of the internet (Rodriguez’s blog is called “Not Without Salt”) and are fantastic, chewy and salty and irresistible. Salt also plays a prominent role in a dark chocolate brownie with peanut butter frosting, which is rich and turned out perfectly. I also liked the simple but effective appetizer of heated dates, warmed in olive oil and again finished with sea salt.
These are painstaking meals, with few corners cut. Thai vegetable curry features homemade green curry paste with over a dozen ingredients. The evening meal of hamburgers requires baking homemade buns the day before. The “movie night” date involves drizzling a maple and brown sugar toffee over peanuts and fresh popcorn. A from-scratch version of confetti birthday cake (a gourmet version of the kind that comes from a mix with multicolour chips) requires melting and colouring white chocolate to make the rainbow chips to be included in the icing and batter. The cake was quite delicious, with a sturdy crumb, but I had less luck with the icing, which seemed to have odd proportions and was far too soft to effectively ice a layer cake. For the most part, however, the recipes are clearly described and not daunting, even for less experienced cooks. Rodriguez breaks down even complex tasks like making caramel (for a fantastic tropical-inspired sundae with toasted coconut and caramelized pineapple over vanilla ice cream). I broke the rules of date night in and served this to our whole family, and the kids have demanded it ever since. Rodriguez also has some clever tricks up her sleeve: the recipe for homemade cream soda is dead simple but devastatingly good. As she notes, “this is the sort of recipe that does wonders for your kitchen cred.”
On the savoury side, the honey and sriracha chicken wings were top notch, spicy and sweet and hard to resist. Rodriguez also carefully considers the side dishes and garnishes for each meal. The wings are paired with a wedge salad with bacon blue cheese dressing. Fried chicken is paired with a salad of pickled vegetables and goat cheese. The quick pickle of beets and carrots, made the day before, gave this salad a vibrant crunch and acidic bite to nicely balance fried food. Rodriguez wields a large cast-iron skillet very effectively, making everything from braised citrus pork chilaquiles (sort of like a decadent version of nachos covered in shredded pork and tomatillo salsa) to chicken roasted in butter and herbs.
So in the end, I was won over by the recipes. The seasonal menus are a nice touch, from the meal of fontina and tomatoes roasted over an open fire in summer to the hot milk punch of cream and bourbon to sip in winter. The “theme” nights like breakfast for dinner featuring orange screwdriver to drink and sausage patties with eggs, or the Flemish Feast of Belgian fries and beef stew with waffles for dessert, are a fun way to elevate everyday cooking with just a bit of extra effort. And despite my initial misgivings and perennial sarcasm, Rodriguez’s assertion that we should make time to regularly celebrate the ones we love over a good meal is a good one. These are tempting and thoughtful menus that may just inspire you to enjoy a date night at home once in a while.