If you’ve got a special someone to impress, Valentine’s Day really does take things to a whole new level.  Sure, we all talk a good game about what a made-up, commercialized holiday it is, and how we really don’t even understand what all the fuss is about in the first place.  But even couples who make a pact to ignore the day are loath to tempt the fates and skip the romance altogether.

Seems like a perfect opportunity to celebrate with a nice meal, right?  Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day ranks right up there with New Year’s Eve on the Capital Spice “worst times to dine out” list.  Prix fixe menus (often at inflated prices), crowds of diners and a general lack of inventiveness mean your meal is unlikely to deliver the romantic message you wanted it to.

A better – if not always safer – option is to take what you know about your Valentine’s likes and translate them into a home-cooked meal.  This year , I took the chance to cook up a three-course dinner for Elizabeth, with the goal of putting together a restaurant-quality meal in our new kitchen.

Along the way, I came across a couple of recipes that are likely to make future appearances in my cooking repertoire – a bright, citrus salad from Jose Andres, a savory duck breast/pear combination and a pie that would bring tears to Mrs. Fields’ eyes.

Colors, flavors and peanut butter cookie pie after the jump.

I wanted a trio of dishes that would encompass some of Elizabeth’s favorites without going completely overboard with rich, decadent flavors.  And I wanted it to feel like the kind of thing she’d be drawn to in a restaurant.  In short, I wanted to impress her.  So I went to the internets to find a few dishes that would do the trick.

I started with the main course.  There’s something about duck breast that draws my attention whenever I’m looking for something impressive.  It’s a relatively easy protein to work with, carrying all the fat you need for your dish just beneath the skin.  Just pay attention to it and you’ll end up with delicious medium-rare meat every time.  Even so, it’s not exactly an everyday item, so its appearance on the menu signals ‘special occasion.’

I looked through a few recipes before finding one from Emeril Lagasse that had a lot of elements I really liked.  Even so, it didn’t quite fit the concept I had in my head.  I thought I was going to have to wing it, until I went to print out the recipe a few days before Valentine’s Day.  At that point a new recipe showed up in my search.  It came from a site called Blue Kitchen, and it was exactly what I had in mind.  Many of the key ingredients were similar, so I made the switch without hesitation.

For dessert, I wanted to do something with chocolate and peanut butter – one of Elizabeth’s favorite combinations.  I didn’t want to go overboard with a rich, creamy peanut butter pie; I was looking for something more subtle than that.  What I found was something that I can best describe as “chocolate chip peanut butter cookie pie.”

About.com offered up a great recipe that took all of the ingredients I was thinking about and turned them into a dessert that was as much like a giant cookie as it was a pie.  Sure, the finished product wouldn’t look as gourmet as the entree did, but I had a pretty good feeling it was going to be a great way to cap off the meal.  It also had the added benefit of being a relatively easy recipe – a big selling point considering my limited experience with baking and dessert-craft in general.  My only tweak: I swapped regular roasted peanuts for the honey roasted ones recommended in the recipe.

The final piece to the puzzle proved to be the most elusive.  I knew I was dealing with a pair of heavier dishes for my entree and dessert, so I wanted to find an appetizer that would be lighter to offset that.  Even so, I knew it would have to be a big flavor to avoid being overwhelmed by what was to follow.  Citrus was the solution…but what was the dish?

The answer came from Gabrielle, one of my coworkers and a fellow foodie.  She had recently served a citrus salad from Jose Andres’ tapas book, a recipe she found in an online transcript of an old NPR segment.  The combination of the tart oranges, the sweet pomegranate seeds and the astringent sherry vinegar looked like it would be exactly what I needed.  And it turns out the addition of black olives (just regular old canned olives, believe it or not) added a welcome note of brine that brought all the other flavors together nicely.

Even though none of my ingredients were especially rare, I found myself visiting a number of shops to collect everything I needed.  The basics came from Harris Teeter and Trader Joe’s, including three different kinds of oranges for added color (navel, cara cara and blood oranges).  I knew I wanted to get my duck breasts from Robert Wiedmaier’s Butcher’s Block on King Street in Alexandria – their D’Artagnan duck breasts are surprisingly reasonable at $8.99 a pound.

The biggest challenge was tracking down a pomegranate, as their season tapers off toward the end of January.  I managed to find a few that had been used in a cookbook display at Whole Foods, and I bought one in the hope that its seeds were still good.  I got it home and used the “removal in water” method to seed the fruit without staining my hands, towels or countertop.  After picking through and discarding some seeds that seemed a bit past their prime, I was pleased to see that most were still vibrant and sweet.

As comfortable with the recipes as I was, I was still pleasantly surprised that the meal went off without a hitch.  One course flowed smoothly into the next, and the flavors were all as big and bold as I had hoped.  Each dish earned high marks, with the salad the surprise hit of the evening.

I suspect we’ll be making similar reservations for next year…after all, Elizabeth’s got an in with the chef.