By Carolyn Bahm

Daily Journal

An elegant meal just for two: It can be the perfect romance setting for Valentine’s Day. Who needs candy, flowers, sweet scents, soft lighting, gourmet cooking and your loved one’s attention reserved only for you?

Who doesn’t?

Being thoughtful and paying attention to such details are the keys to a romantic, memorable Valentine’s Day celebration this year, according to Kim Head. She owns Special Occasions, a catering company in Tupelo.

She said, “It doesn’t matter what your schedule or your budget is by keeping those keys in mind when planning your celebration, it will be a success.”

Valentine’s Day is dedicated to pleasing that special someone in your life. First, consider his or her needs, likes and schedule, Head said. Then compare them to your own, and see what can be done. Do you want a homemade meal, a privately catered dinner, an exclusive restaurant experience, a dreamy bed-and-breakfast weekend or some other option?

“Think, ‘What’s going to make us both happy?’ ” she said.

Plan early and plan well, she advised. “I do recommend that all preparations like flowers, balloons, dinner reservations, etc. be made as early as possible.”

This year, Valentine’s Day will appear in the middle of the week, a less practical time for many couples to dine out. Particularly since Feb. 14 falls squarely on Wednesday night for 1996, this means a possible time conflict with church services vs. romantic dinners out.

Never fear: You can still celebrate the day properly with a variety of special meal ideas.

Romance trouble-shooting

Head solved a few common Valentine’s Day problems:

-Have you waited too late to make dinner reservations at your favorite restaurant? See if an “off-peak” time is still available. Share a lunch instead of dinner, Head said. That also solves time conflicts with Wednesday night church services.

Alternately, you can slate a late-evening dinner. Have appetizers at home, then dine out around 8:30 p.m. Also look at newspaper ads for advertised Valentine’s specials at area restaurants. Hint: Unless you don’t mind long waits, avoid restaurants that don’t take reservations.

– What if you love the food at a restaurant but want to enhance the atmosphere? Deliver balloons earlier in the day, and hire a violinist to come in for a song or two as you dine. Most restaurant owners don’t mind, Head said.

– Don’t you have the necessary table settings for a fancy home meal? Rent them, Head advised. Tablecloths, china, flatware and crystal for two can be rented for about $25 to $30. Even chairs and table are available for the right price.

– Does your loved one have simple menu preferences? Punch up a home-cooked meal with an elegant presentation. You can even order take-out from a favorite restaurant, then bring it home to serve on your finest china, Head said.

– Are you rich in love but low on funds? Votive candles from a discount store are an inexpensive way to add romantic home lighting, Head said. Home cooking also can reduce the cost of a Valentine’s Day meal to about $20 to $25, depending on the menu.

“Put a little effort into it, going the extra mile,” Head said. “Buy those early strawberries the first of the year for Valentine’s Day.”

– Has every holiday become just the same old thing? For a surprise, first take your mate shopping; when you return, you can be greeted at your door by your server for the evening. Your privately catered meal will already be simmering in your kitchen, and appetizers can be waiting. Meals will be served by a professional who doesn’t linger at the table, who whisks away each course and who brings in coffee and desserts to cap the special meal. Best of all: You won’t have to wash the dishes later that night.

Head said a drop-off catered meal starts around $65, and a full-service meal will start around $100.

– Are you not much of a baker? Improvise with generous pre-made desserts. Buy a heart-shaped ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins, Head suggested. Cuddle up with your sweetheart and a romantic movie, and share tidbits of the tasty cake and ice cream combination. In Tupelo, a spokesman for Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt priced the cakes at $11.45 for a small cake (feeds six) to $18.45 for a large cake (feeds 12), plus tax.

Breakfast in bed

Does a romantic Valentine’s meal have to be a candlelit dinner for two? How about a morning sunshine-bright breakfast?

Head suggested cooking up a romantic brunch for two after the children have gone off to school, complete with flowers, fresh-squeezed juice, assorted muffins and croissants served with honey, preserves and real butter. Try sliced fruit. Splurge on those early season strawberries, and go for Canadian bacon instead of the regular slices. Bring out the good china.

“It’s all in the selection of the food,” she said. “Your normal coffee on the run and a breakfast bar is not romantic.”

She suggests even surprising your loved one with breakfast in bed. Food preparation time can be minimal by buying the muffins and croissants from local markets.

Presentation also counts, Head said. “Remember flowers. Remember to smile. Remember to say, ‘I love you.’ “

Bed & breakfast bounty

A fancy breakfast is the grace note for some Feb. 14 celebrations. The Mockingbird Inn Bed and Breakfast in Tupelo offers special “romance packages” year-round, but they’re especially popular among Valentine’s couples and spring honeymooners.

Sandy Gilmer, who co-owns the inn with her husband, Jim, said the packages include sterling silver champagne buckets filled with iced sparkling juice, a long-stemmed red rose on the pillows, candles lit around the room just before arrival and a “sweetheart gift package.”

The gift packages vary, but one typically includes a gold cherub picture frame, a massage kit with lotions, a miniature book on love with a gold heart-shaped bookmark, bath items (such as a loofah sponge and shower gel), a floating gardenia-scented bath candle and made-in-Mississippi candy, all tucked in a wicker basket and wrapped with cellophane and gold and white ribbon.

Regular room rates include a hearty sit-down breakfast, the night’s stay, access to the guest refrigerator for juices and soft drinks, an evening snack and freshly ground coffee brewing all day. A gourmet breakfast caps off a romantic night’s stay with a full morning meal, including a fresh fruit plate, a fresh potato dish, an entreŽ and either bacon, ham or sausage. The entreŽ varies but may feature puff pancakes, French pancakes and other specialities such as a sausage-cheese-and-egg casserole.

Romance packages cost an additional $55 above the room rates (alternately, $35 for just the gift basket, or just $20 if everything in the romance package but the gift basket is desired). An overnight stay in any of the inn’s seven themed rooms costs $65 to $95 on weeknights or $75 to $125 on weekends.

Mid-day romance

Clear out your lunch-time calendar and plan a special mid-day Valentine’s meal with your partner. Head said she plans romantic lunches with her husband every once in a blue moon, just for the fun of it.

“I get to take him to one of those neat little places that I love downtown. I have had the opportunity to meet several of the owners/managers, and they can be most accomodating. Call them up and see what can be pre-arranged. Remember flowers; they can be delivered ahead of time. A special dessert for two and take time out for that extra cup of coffee sends you both back out into your day with a smile and love in your heart.”

Serve me, please

A dimly lit restaurant, soft music and classic food favorites are ideal for a romantic meal that pampers both men and women, according to Carmita West. She and her husband, Michael West, own and operate Rankin House/Carmita’s, Of Course! in Tupelo. The company is a combination catering firm, coffee house and wedding consulting business.

Although her business is normally not open for dinner, she plans to open for Valentine’s Day dinners this year, by reservation only. The dinner will cost $39.95 for two and will include fish and beef specials, as well as a little take-home surprise for each couple.

“It’s traditional, but by the same token, special,” West said. “It’s something you don’t eat every day. … Even the plate is decorated beautifully.”

She believes such romantic meals nourish new loves and rekindle the flame of courting days in older relationships.

Flirting by candelight

Evening celebrations are the classic celebration for the holiday, whether it is a favorite homecooked meal prepared and served by the person’s spouse, a home-catered gourmet dinner or a feast for restaurant diners.

As a caterer, Head has prepared and served romantic meals at the homes of several area couples. “It’s like I am the hired cook for the day,” she said. “On some occasions, there was a staff of more than just me. Yeah, just like in the movies.”

Atmosphere at catered meals gets those special touches: Rose petals scattered on the table will add romance. Head said she even can hire a violinist who serenades the twosome for a very affordable price, sometimes as low as $25 for a couple of songs. In other cases, Head can provide a CD of Victorian music for a low-key backdrop.

Menus are as individual as the couples themselves, but Head suggested a few favorites: Crab-stuffed mushrooms are favorite appetizers. For the meal, try marinated asparagus tips as a side dish for a shrimp scampi entreŽ. An equally tasty alternative main dish might be chicken morsels with mushrooms and onions, served over rice with a side dish of broccoli in lemon-butter sauce. For dessert, serve coffee with flavored cream and a slice of cheesecake and strawberries.

“When working with a client, we try to choose a menu with several courses and something a bit out of the ordinary,” Head said. “I do make a wonderful meatloaf, but it isn’t very romantic.”

For cooks who don’t mind taking the extra steps themselves to create a romantic home meal, Head advised going all-out with the setting.

“My idea of a romantic dinner is going out to eat and being catered to, but my husband likes to eat at home. He is so good to plan wonderful anniversaries that I treat him on Valentine’s Day,” she said. “I bring out all of the good dishes. I wear an outfit that he likes and wear his favorite perfume. I make one of his favorite dishes as a main course, but I add a spinach and bacon salad garnished beautifully with toasted and cheesed French bread. His beverage of choice is iced tea. I serve everything in courses at the dining room table set for two.”

With candles all around, soft music playing and good food waiting, the couple sit down to enjoy a meal and to talk. Then, Head said, “I have something very special for dessert, and you know the dirty dishes wait.”

Romance chilled by children?

The presence of little ones in the home doesn’t have to mean the death of courting. Send them to grandmother’s house, the home of a friend or a babysitter’s residence.

“Can you loan them out for a few hours?” Head said. “If they are older, say, ‘Here’s $20. Go to the movies.’ “

Sending them out so you can have a few precious hours of wooing your partner alone isn’t the only option, either. Head said, “If they are younger, feed them at your normal dinner time, and prepare some appetizers for you and your mate: Crab-stuffed mushrooms, warmed cheese with hot bread, nachos. Be creative! This will tide you over until they go to bed. And then, dinner time.”

Traditional charm

When you’re stalled for creative meal ideas, fall back on the classics to captivate your sweetheart. The traditional items are a good start: Cards, flowers, chocolates and balloons are all beloved choices; they can dress up any Valentine’s celebration.

“Send something to their workplace if you can,” Head said. “Shower them with love from the time they wake up til the time they lay their lovely head down to sleep.”

Venice, Rome and Paris are model cities for romance, but the two hearts involved will matter more than the place does. Head said, “Why not Tupelo, the city of love?”

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