How to Cook the Ideal Fourth Date Meal

Pernil!

The first thing that’s going to strike her is the aroma. Your place will be filled with a deep, warm, earthy, intoxicating scent, and it will be so palpable that she’ll want to hug it. This is where you’ll want to interpose yourself, and a glass of Albariño.

This is how a fourth date should begin.

As the poet once said, “the way to make a friend into a lovah is to cook them up a dinner.” And the time to make a friend into a lover is the fourth date.

Presumably, if you’ve gotten to the fourth date, you’ve already done several things well, including mastering the first kiss (and probably first base). You scored those Grizzly Bear tickets for Governor’s Island. You introduced her to your favorite bar. Now it’s time to get cookin’.

I guess what I’m saying is: this Spanish pork roast works wonders.

There are reasons not to trust me when it comes to food-such as my recent episode of “pine mouth.” Well, trust this: I’m half Puerto Rican and half Latvian. That means I’m genetically predisposed to pork.

I dig the pig, I’m fine with the swine. And whatever shortcomings I’ve got, I’ve at least been able to parlay that heritage into being able to cook. My father could too, although he never made the same recipe twice, owing to the fact that he never wrote anything down. (Curiously enough, my wife snagged me with a bottle of Gentleman Jack. But that’s another story.)

So, why waste time trying to impress someone with some snooty restaurant’s food when you can impress them with yours? Here’s a simple plan for the quintessential fourth date: the home-cooked meal.

To Begin

Jamon Serrano
Manchego cheese, 6 or 12 month is fine
Pan con tomate

  • sliced baguette
  • roma tomatoes
  • olive oil

The whole point of the home-cooked meal is comfort: informal setting, relaxed pace, copious amounts of booze, homey atmosphere. When you are comfortable, you are confident. When you are confident, you are fascinating. (This, like all things and all recipes, it goes without saying, is equally true for women!)

But I also want you to feel confident in being able to pull this menu off. I’m a sucker for simple appetizers that can be procured, prepared, and presented easily without resorting to Totino’s® Pizza Rolls®. I generally prefer serrano ham to prosciutto, since it’s got a nuttier flavor from the pigs feeding on acorns. If you’re a Big Deal, try for jamon iberico de bellota-the black pig!-which fetches something insane like $25 for a quarter-pound. But it is amazing, rich and nutty, delicate and slightly more oily than jamon serrano.

Joining the ham should be some nice Manchego cheese and pan con tomate, which is simply sliced bread rubbed with halved tomato and drizzled with olive oil. Cut the baguette of your choosing into rounds, and halve a nice roma tomato. Rub the sliced side of the tomato on the bread, imparting a nice rosy pink color to it. Drizzle a little olive oil-Spanish, naturally, or Croatian if you can get it (and if you can, tell me where!) or of course Frankies, which you should have on-hand anyway-and top with a piece of the ham. Enjoy with a refreshing glass of Albariño.

The Main Event

Pernil, a garlicky pork roast

  • one 3-4 lb. pork roast, preferably a shoulder roast
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 tsp kosher salt per 1/2 lb. of roast, so usually 6 or so
  • 1 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil

Tostones, fried savory plantains

  • 3 green plantains, unripe
  • 1 cup olive oil (or your preferred lighter frying oil)
  • kosher salt to taste

Cuban Beans (should be called Puerto Rican black beans, really)

  • 2 cans of black beans, drained and rinsed (or you can use dried)
  • 1/2 Spanish onion
  • 1/2 green pepper
  • 2 tbsp ground cumin
  • white vinegar
  • olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf

Arroz Con Gandules, rice with pigeon peas

  • 1 cup white or yellow rice (I generally prefer yellow, but white is fine)
  • 1 can Goya pigeon peas
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • tomato paste to taste
  • 1 bay leaf

Sensing a theme? It’s a diasporic menu, “Spanish,” and not one that evokes tapas. A nod to my Puerto Rican abuela, who claims that I’m at least partially of European Spanish descent. My father claims I’m 1/16 cannibal, but I don’t really have any recipes for that.

While some of the ingredients are seemingly exotic, this is still a rustic meal. Forgo the Reidel stems and use simple Italian wine glasses like these awesome ones from Fish’s Eddy. By the fourth date, you’re craving familiarity and a lack of pretense. You probably worked pretty hard to get here. So let’s all relax

You should have the roast in the oven before she arrives. It provides an aphrodisiac room-filling aroma and ensures that you’re not focused on the kitchen (wrong room!). It takes about 90 minutes to cook, so plan accordingly.

The Pernil
....
I’ve recently taken to getting shoulder roasts from Bradley Farm at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket on Saturdays, but feel free to consult your favorite source. The great thing about pork is it doesn’t have to be expensive. Unless you buy organic, where I routinely blow $30 for a roast. Stupid? Genius?

Using a mortar and pestle-oy, you don’t have a mortar and pestle? Bag it and hit it with a hammer-crack the peppercorns and combine the garlic, salt and oregano. Crush the cloves of garlic: you’re going to want nice slivers and chunks, not slices. Add the olive oil once you’ve thoroughly mixed the dry ingredients. The results will be sort of a wet, sandlike paste.

Prepare the roast by patting dry, setting it fat-side down, and cutting a diamond-like pattern in the top with a sharp knife, using crisscrossing diagonal cuts. Since the roast will likely be tied with string, be mindful of the string but don’t sweat it if you cut it. While you’re wielding a knife, make some deep plunging cuts in the roast, creating 1- to 2-inch pockets in the meat.

Take your moist adobo mixture and rub the roast thoroughly. The crisscross cuts will provide some nice crevices for the mixture, so work it into the meat. Remember those deep plunge cuts? Stuff those with slivers of the garlic, or even whole cloves. It is now ready for the oven.

The oven should be at 325 degrees, or 350 if it runs cooler. The pernil will take about 90 minutes- 25-30 minutes per pound. It’s also awesome on the grill over indirect heat, but this is a fourth date, not the Fourth of July.

So, you’ve got your hovel smelling like heaven, ideally when she arrives. Set her upon the appetizers with a glass of wine.

Everything Else

While the pernil is a-roastin’, you can prepare the sides, which should take no more than 20 minutes. But if you prefer to spend more quality time together, rather than you in the kitchen and her admiring your etchings, you can certainly do the beans and rice in advance. Save the plantains to do together: it’ll be a fun, intimate joint exercise. Complete with hot oil!

Throw your beans into a good-sized saucepan and get them going over low-medium heat. You already know this, but you should be using Goya black beans. You know how we feel about substitutes! Since the onions and the peppers take the longest to soften, throw those in next. Eyeball the veggies: you want them to complement the beans, not the other way around. Ideally, a 2/3 beans to 1/3 veggies mix is what you are aiming for, but feel free to adjust to suit your proclivities.

Add the vinegar, olive oil, bay leaf and cumin, then stir the holy heck out of everything for maximum flavor integration. You may also add some Goya Adobo to taste. Lower the heat to simmer, stir occasionally and watch for the beans sticking. Once they are done, you can always remove them and re-heat quickly before serving.

The rice is even easier: make the rice however you normally make rice. I use the old-fashioned method with water and a saucepan, but if you have a rice cooker then by all means indulge. Once the rice is just this side of done, throw in the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. If you used white rice, the tomato paste should result in a nice rosy hue.

So, Mr. Rico Suave, you’ve got a divine-smelling roast in the oven, two burners worth of Spanish food simmering and you’ve been plying her with ham and white wine. You’ve made the meal look effortless so far, so relax together. Rock that vinyl collection you’ve been dying to show off, play some Scrabble. Read some poetry together! (Kidding: don’t.)

The last side requires some participation.

Tostones!
Making tostones is easier with two people, so enlist her help if she’s game. Again, be sure to use green plantains: tostones are savory and starchy, unlike their cousins, maduros, which are made from ripe plantains and are sweet. Remove the plantain skins, and cut each one into about 1-1/2 inch pieces. Pour the olive oil into a shallow skillet or frying pan: you want enough to cover each piece about halfway. Get the oil nice and hot (mm hmm!), and place the plantains into the oil so that they are cooking round side down.

The oil at once becomes a hazard, but have fun with it. (You should warn your date about this! Perhaps let her hold a splatter guard as a fan.) While one side browns in the oil, prepare a hard surface with paper towels: you can use a large butcher block, even a plate will do. Flip the plantains to brown the other side. When they are lightly browned, remove them and cover with additional paper towels. Here’s the fun part: apply pressure on each piece using a rolling pin, cutting board or the heel of your hands. Just be sure to press STRAIGHT DOWN. The result should be a uniform set of plantains about 1/2 inch thick and 2-3 inches across, preserving their rounded tops and bottoms.

Then! Throw these back into the hot oil until they are a golden brown. Drain on paper towels, season with kosher salt-or for a touch of variety add just a touch of granulated sugar as well.

In keeping with the theme, I generally like to accompany all of this awesomeness with a Spanish red wine. Go Priorat if you’re feeling indulgent (and spendy), but remember a couple of things. This is a rustic meal, so a good tempranillo or monastrell will work just fine. Second, there’s plenty going on flavor-wise with the food, so simpler, more earthy wines-Pinots, for example-are a better bet than juicy Zinfandels.

When the peril is done-I am for about 160 degrees internal temperature, and yes, a cooking thermometer costs pennies-remove to a cutting board and let it sit for about 10 minutes to finish cooking. You’ll have a lovely crust on top, and the fat on the bottom should have a nice chicharrón quality, a crispy layer that adds flavor and texture.

Using a sharp knife, slice the beast between the strings, into inch-thick portions. If you did it correctly, you may get cross-sections of the garlic you stuffed into the meat, almost like pistachios in mortadella. That’s a good sign, my friend. Serve a slice of the pernil with portions of the beans, rice, tostones and (more!) wine.

This is meant to be ethnic comfort food for a comfortable occasion. You are both eating garlic, so no one has to worry about the not-so-fresh-breath you worried about on the second date. (Yes, you can keep mints scattered about on various surfaces for later.) And salted meats encourage quenching your thirst, with plenty of Spanish wine within reach. You’re in an environment with familiar things, on your own schedule and outside of prying eyes. A couch is handy.

Also, you’ve successfully proven you can cook-and therefore provide.

As my abuela (may or may not have) said: “If you can’t close the deal with pernil, que sinverguenza!”

Yes, John Ore is Clarence Rosario. He’s 1/16th cannibal, and has a crush on Andres Iniesta.

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