I always repeat Miriam Putnam's favorite thing to make for dinner: reservations.

Lots of reservations will be made Friday for Valentine's Day, but some may prefer to dine at home. I didn't make reservations — I bought tickets. Chris and I will join the Saferites and enjoy The Duke Mason Band at Granny Shaffer's. Great music and great food — a winning combination.

Whether you are dining alone, just the two of you or inviting a group to celebrate, Valentine's Day dinner can be special without being stressful. Lots of great meals can be made in a slow cooker or pressure cooker with a chicken or by making use of a rotisserie chicken.

Let's start at the beginning of our easy home-cooked Valentine's Day dinner. How simple is cheese and crackers with the cheese cut into heart shapes? Or red pepper jelly poured over a block of room-temperature cream cheese and served with crackers. Just the right color for the occasion.

Up next: salad. I think fresh spinach always makes a salad a little more fancy, so pair it with mandarin oranges, strawberries, or pears and some feta cheese. A plain or flavored vinaigrette tops it off for delicious and easy.

Add cheese to some veggies for instant dress-up and load that baked potato with butter, sour cream, bacon and cheese to make it special. Heat a can of sliced carrots, drain, add a little butter and brown sugar, and stir to melt the butter and brown sugar. Makes them a little sweeter for a sweet occasion.

The entrée can be your own personal preference of beef, pork, chicken or seafood. Probably not the best time to try a new recipe, so sticking with favorites will serve you well. Whatever you choose, go for the easiest cleanup possible.

My favorite Valentine's Day dessert, Black Forest cake, is so easy but looks special. For a 9-by-13-inch cake, bake a chocolate cake according to instructions. When cool, spread an even layer of whipped topping over the cake, then add dollops of cherry pie filling.

For a fancier look, bake the cake in two round cake pans. When cool, spread whipped topping and pie filling on one layer, top with the other cake layer and more topping and filling. It's easy to assemble, pretty to look at and yummy to eat.

Buying or making your own chocolate covered strawberries brings a classic to the forefront of Valentine's Day. They always bring out the smiles. Light a candle and your cooked-with-love meal can be memorable without breaking the bank.

Making dinner special doesn't have to be difficult. The Cornish hens can be served over mashed potatoes or noodles and are probably not on your everyday menu so they say fancy without lots of extras. Hazelnuts are a favorite of mine, so the pudding cake stands out in my mind and gives you a little necessary Valentine's chocolate. It's a nice warm dessert worth eating before dinner.

Happy Valentine's Day, and happy eating.


Cornish hens for two

1 head garlic, divided

1 lemon, halved

2 (1-pound) Cornish game hens

Salt and pepper

2 large portobello mushrooms

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

1 can cream of chicken soup

2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, thyme and/or sage

Coat inside of slow cooker with cooking spray or line with liner. Cut garlic in half and separate cloves; reserve half and mince remaining half. Place 1/4 whole reserved garlic and lemon half in each hen; season with salt and pepper. Place mushrooms, stem side up, onions and minced garlic in slow cooker; top with hens, soup and herbs. Cover and cook on low 6 hours or high for 3 hours, turning hens halfway through cooking time. Yields 2 servings.


Chocolate hazelnut pudding cake

1 yellow cake mix

1 cup water

4 eggs

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts

Coat inside of slow cooker with cooking spray or line with liner. Combine first 5 ingredients; stir until smooth. Pour into slow cooker. Cover and cook on high 2 hours or until batter is nearly set. Sprinkle with chocolate chips and hazelnuts.

Cover and cook on high 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean or cake begins to pull away from sides. Turn off heat; let stand until slightly cooled. Slice or spoon out while warm. Yields 10 servings.

Cheryle Finley is a food columnist for The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to Cheryle Finley, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

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