This is the first of a four-part series by Ro Howe (chef and owner of Barraud Caterers Limited, a full-service catering company in New York City) on how to conjure up a bewitching Valentine’s Day dinner that’s simple enough to keep you out of the kitchen for most of the night.—Ed. When it comes to Valentine’s Day, we’re all princesses in our hearts—but not necessarily in the kitchen. Few of us command a royal brigade of chefs capable of turning out an exquisitely romantic meal. Still, for many, the pleasures of an intimate Valentine’s Day celebration make dining out on that evening less than appealing.On the other hand, there’s nothing quite as unattractive as a princess who gets flustered on this of all days. Fluster may work in the movies—Katharine Hepburn flustered memorably in Bringing Up Baby—but in real life, it’s usually a distraction. Consider the possibilities. You’re planning a lovely evening with your paramour. Do you really want to splatter your alluring outfit with stovetop sauté, or end up dunking your pearls in the daube? As with all entertaining, the salient word is planning—ruthlessly. So out goes the showoff soufflé. And extravaganzas like Roger Vergé’s recipe for whole fish baked in salt with three turned vegetables and beurre rouge monté aux caviar—why court a salt-dome disaster? And you probably don’t want to try replicating your lover’s favorite childhood dish, just like Mom used to make. Rest assured, even if you’re a better cook than dear Mama, your dish won’t taste the same—taste is emotional and cultural attachment as well as flavor.

Pleasing your paramour. Having listened over time to your sweetie’s ramblings about favorite foods, you’ll cunningly devise a menu that features at least some of them. Include those dishes that you like too, and that you’re used to making. Follow the usual nutritional-balance advice, and try not to repeat food types—for instance, don’t use carrots in one dish and parsnips in another, since they’re both high-sugar root vegetables, and don’t use smoked trout in an hors d’oeuvre if your appetizer is gravlax. And even if you’re both committed carnivores, don’t serve more than one kind of red meat.

Planning the menu.

This, of course, is the all-important structure of the evening.  It’s the framework that ensures a smooth progression of tastes and the fullest enjoyment of the food. Decide the main course first, then the appetizer. If you’re following the main meal with a salad or cheese course, that should get your attention next, followed by deciding on the dessert. After all that is set, think about nibbles—what I like to call the enticements—before the meal. These should be light and flighty and flavored assertively, though not enough to numb the palate.

Keep it simple. Eliminate dishes that require serious last-minute handling. Discard any recipe that calls for you to whip and fold in egg whites or unmold and slice a foie gras terrine. Make only one dish that has to be served hot—most likely the main course—and devise the menu around cold or room-temperature nibbles, appetizer, and dessert. This will ensure that only one dish requires oven attention.

Make it light. Even if your honey normally eats like a truck driver—or for that matter, is one—don’t overload on starch, heavy carbohydrates, or too much meat. You don’t seriously want the light of your life to flump down on the sofa after dinner and fall asleep, do you?

Give yourself a chance for romance. Select dishes with easy serving and plating—as simple as pulling them out of the fridge or the oven— so you can quickly get back to the most important aspect of the evening: entertaining your partner with your own irresistibly compelling presence and the perceived magic you’ve conjured by producing this wonderful, delightful, delectable, delicious, fabulous . . .well, you get the picture.

Sustain the illusion. Finally (and this harkens back to the “ruthless” admonition), after you’ve completed all your prep—but before you’ve set the table and chilled the bubbly—take the time to organize the kitchen, no matter how tiny it may be. Set up areas to accommodate food scrapings, dirty plates, silverware, and oven dishes. Have food-storage bags or plastic containers ready to easily refrigerate leftovers. This, you understand, will be your task while the object of your affection is programming iTunes. The magic can be totally obliterated by a shambles of dirty dishes that have to be hovered over while opening another bottle of something, or confronted the next morning when stumbling in to make coffee.

Next: Ro’s Valentine’s Day menu and a recipe for nibbles. Coming soon: shopping and prep lists, and, of course, the recipes.