Summit County chefs share tips for making a nice Valentine’s Day dinner at home

Summit County resident Tieghan Gerard teamed up with Breckenridge Brewery to make some creations featuring the brewery’s Vanilla Porter, including this creamy, brown butter mushroom chicken.
Photo by Tieghan Gerard / Half Baked Harvest

For many, Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to make a fancy dinner at home, even when there’s not a pandemic limiting restaurant capacities.

Summit County chefs have a few tips for those looking to create a delicious, home-cooked dinner — and maybe even a dessert.

For Summit County resident Tieghan Gerard, part of the appeal of cooking at home for Valentine’s Day is bringing a couple together in the kitchen.

“Two people working together in the kitchen can be very romantic,” Gerard said. “Whether it’s making red wine cranberry braised short ribs or a simple mac and cheese while sharing beers … it’s all about being together and working toward creating something delicious.”

Gerard is a nationally recognized food blogger and cookbook author who regularly shares her recipes on her blog, Half Baked Harvest. She recently partnered with Breckenridge Brewery to develop a few recipes featuring the brewery’s Vanilla Porter.

Getting people involved in a meal and becoming a part of the creation is a big part of making a meal special, said David Welch, the chef and owner at Food Hedz Catering. When he thinks about making a romantic meal at home, one important aspect for him is the opportunity to spend time together with a special someone.

“You cook it together, you make it together, and you eat it together,” he said. “Grab one of those nice platters you rarely ever use and make it look nice. … No rush, nibble as you go, and enjoy your time together.”

Because not everyone feels comfortable in the kitchen, Gerard said it’s a good idea to stay within your skill level when you’re preparing a meal.

A trap that home cooks can fall into is thinking that a good, romantic meal has to be full of tricky techniques, said Kevin McCombs, the executive chef and owner of House Cured Culinary. He said a good meal for a special occasion shouldn’t require pulling off a difficult cooking technique.

“A lot of cooking is practice and execution,” McCombs said. “Don’t try to pull something off that is way outside your skill set. I’m not going to try to pull something off that’s way outside my comfort zone when I’m working on a big meal.”

He adds that another important consideration for pulling off a successful meal is timing. He cautions people about being overeager and trying to do too much all at once, creating a higher likelihood for a catastrophic meal failure.

Gerard said she doesn’t have a specific meal in mind that says “love” when cooked for her, but she did say that “adding extra homemade steps sure says ‘love.'”

Making something that sounds good to the cook and adding ingredients you love for someone you care about will make the dinner go beyond the ordinary, Gerard said.

Regardless of the recipe, ingredients are what make a dish special, said Andre Hampton, chef and owner of the Black Diamond Gourmet catering service.

“Keep it local, keep it fresh, and you’re going to be great,” Hampton said.

The temptation may be to skip over fresh ingredients, which sometimes come with added costs. Still, McCombs said they really can put a dish over the top, and it’s one thing professionals rely on to make their food stand out.

“One of the biggest things, from a professional standpoint, is that we use fresh herbs to heighten your dishes and add layers of flavor,” he said. “These may be more expensive, but it sets things apart.”

Bringing better-quality or special ingredients to a meal is also a way to show “I went the extra mile for you,” Welch said.

Summit County resident Tieghan Gerard teamed up with Breckenridge Brewery to make creations featuring the brewery’s Vanilla Porter, including this recipe for molten chocolate cake with mascarpone whipped cream.
Photo by Tieghan Gerard / Half Baked Harvest

Whatever someone might make, Hampton said to make sure a Valentine’s meal includes dinner and dessert.

“Something savory, something sweet and don’t go overboard on the cheap chocolates,” Hampton said.

For dessert, instead of chocolate-covered strawberries, Hampton encourages a flourless chocolate cake or a torte. Simple recipes for both are easy to find online and produce decadent dishes that can finish off a meal.

“Flowers always help at the beginning of the meal, and chocolates always help at the end of the meal,” Welch said. “Chocolate seems to really help folks out.”

Gerard said she’s still a fan of conversation hearts and has a new recipe for strawberry conversation heart cupcakes that might help those looking to up their sweets game a little.

She said serving heart-shaped food for a romantic dinner isn’t a bad idea and said several desserts on her blog go in that direction.

For a “fancy” ingredient to enhance a dish’s plate appeal, Gerard recommends adding edible flowers or fresh herbs.

Aside from the food, McCombs said it’s important to be mindful of what’s happening outside of the plate, which can contribute to the overall enjoyment of a meal.

“Beyond the food is attention to detail about other things that are on the table,” he said. “A nice glass of wine, flowers and making sure things are picked up and put together outside of the table.”

Gerard also encourages the food to come with a little ambiance.

“Candles, a pretty place setting and dishes, your favorite music and flowers,” she said. “… I love simple flowers.”

Creamy, brown butter mushroom chicken


• 4 chicken cutlets or 2 boneless chicken breasts, sliced in half horizontally

• Kosher salt and black pepper

• 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

• 1 teaspoon garlic powder

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

• 4 tablespoons salted butter

• 3 cups shiitake or cremini mushrooms, sliced

• 2 shallots, chopped

• 3 cloves garlic, chopped or grated

• 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried thyme)

• 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

• 3/4 cup Breckenridge Brewery Vanilla Porter

• 3/4 cup heavy cream

• 1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes

• 1 pound fettuccine pasta


Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the flour and garlic powder in a shallow bowl and dredge the chicken through the flour mix, pressing to adhere.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the chicken and sear on both sides until golden, about 3-5 minutes per side. Add 1 tablespoon butter, and allow the butter to brown around the chicken, about 2 minutes. Remove the chicken from the skillet.

To the skillet, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the mushrooms. Cook undisturbed for 5 minutes or until golden. Add 3 tablespoons butter, the shallots, garlic, thyme and a pinch each of salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Cook 4-5 minutes, until fragrant. Spoon half the mushrooms out of the skillet and onto the plate with the chicken.

Pour in the beer and broth. Cook 10-15 minutes until reduced slightly, then pour in the cream. Add the chicken to the skillet and simmer for 5-10 minutes or until warmed through and thickened slightly. Spoon the reserved mushrooms over the chicken.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Serve the chicken and sauce over bowls of pasta. Top with fresh thyme or parsley.


Chocolate mousse


• 2 ounces butter

• 8 ounces dark chocolate

• 4 eggs

• 3 tablespoons sugar

• 5 ounces cream


Have eight, 6-ounce serving vessels set and ready for finished mousse. Place a medium pot on the stove with an inch of hot water in the bottom and set it to low heat. Cube the butter and place it in a metal mixing bowl and place the mixing bowl on top of the pot to create a double boiler. Allow the butter to melt for a minute or two, then add the chocolate.

Stir the chocolate frequently with a rubber spatula until it is completely melted and smooth.

While melting the chocolate, separate the egg yolks from the whites, being sure not to get any yolk in with the whites. Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix with a fork until the sugar is well incorporated.

Fold the egg yolks and sugar into the chocolate. In a mixer, whip the egg whites on high speed until they reach medium peaks. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture.

Clean the mixing bowl and whip the cream on medium speed until medium peaks are formed. Fold the cream into the chocolate. Make sure the mousse has no streaks and is completely mixed.

Pour mousse into a piping bag and squeeze into serving vessels. (A Ziploc bag with a small corner cut off works great in a pinch if no piping bag is available.) Allow to chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Serve with fresh fruit, berries, nuts and whipped cream.

Source: Kevin McCombs

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