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Of Game Hens and Turtledoves

These little birds make a perfect romantic dinner, but it's up to you to set the scene

For most of us, Valentine's Day is a time to express love to someone special. This expression may fall somewhere between sending just a card or flowers, to going all out and preparing a cozy or elaborate romantic meal for two.

Although Valentine's Day goes back to the time of the Roman Empire, our present day celebration is geared to present day lovers and friends. When the Beatles wrote "All you need is love," when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, or when Robert Browning penned the poem "Love Among the Ruins" - one central theme was ever present.

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Romance is easy when it's new and fresh - how to keep it that way can be a challenge. Let Valentine's Day be the start of a "new love" - whether it is a new relationship or an old relationship that needs a jump start. Develop a theme for a romantic rendezvous - it could be a picnic, a candle-lit dinner, or a romantically themed evening.

When my husband, David, and I were dating, there was one date he planned that was probably the most memorable - a picnic lunch.

Granted, he is an artist and probably more creative than some, (rose-colored glasses and all) I was enthralled with the romance of his ingenuity. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, so we had our picnic indoors.

The setting was the kitchen of his historic home. On a small early tap table was a red- checkered cloth, and on top, a beautiful antique picnic basket. The table was set with Bybee blue-and-white spongeware pottery, cut glassware filled with mineral water and a slice of lemon, and cloth napkins. Under my plate was a handwritten love note. Who could resist?

At this point, it really didn't matter what was for lunch. But almost 18 years later, I still remember.

In that wicker basket were a French baguette, chilled shrimp cocktail, sliced fresh fruit, and a chocolate torte. None of this was prepared by David's hands, but it didn't matter. It couldn't have been more perfect.

A picnic for two sets the stage for romance - take this idea and expand on it, make it specifically "yours." Picnics don't have to be outside in beautiful weather, or even at lunch time. Try setting a special Valentine's Day picnic indoors in front of a crackling fire, or candle-lit midnight picnic.

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Keep in mind the aspect of romance; David's little note was the perfect final touch!

If a picnic is not your idea of romance, perhaps opera could be your "operative" theme.

Verdi's "La Traviata" is a wonderful romantic tragedy set in Paris in the mid-1800s. Envision Violetta and Germont in the grand ballroom, a setting that is filled with grandeur and formality.

Translate this mood and elegance into white linens, lace, gold-rimmed china, polished silver, crystal, and candlesticks - elaborate and ornate.

Serve curried duck, Berber Stuffed Cornish Hens (left) or a stuffed chicken breast. The pastries should be French and the salad well-chilled and tossed with a light vinaigrette. There is a video of this opera starring Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas; show it during the evening, but make sure you have an ample supply of tissues. It's a beautifully done tear-jerker! There are many other operas to consider - choose a romantic one (or a favorite one) and pick up the music to accompany your dinner.

Set your dinner table to accompany the opera you've chosen; a fan and a piece of lace, for "Carmen"; a single rose for "Der Rosenkavalier"; a bonnet, a single candle, and a key, for "La Bohme".

A romantic rendezvous at home can be a perfect time to snuggle up together and share the sparks of a fire and the sparks on the screen. Rent a video of your (or your beloved's) favorite romantic film.

If an intimate dinner for two (sans theatrics) seems to be the right rendezvous - prepare the setting the way an artist would paint a canvas - a lovely linen tablecloth strewn with rose petals, candles, fragrant flowers, soft background music, the telephone and fax machine off the hook, and the cell-phone checked at the door.

Instead of the clich heart-shaped box of chocolates, cover a plain box with beautiful fabric or wrapping paper. Hot-glue gilded leaves or freeze-dried roses to the top of the box. Prepare wonderful homemade chocolate treats; homemade fudge, huge chocolate-chip cookies, chocolate-dipped pretzels, or huge carameled apples you can share.

This is your day of romance, so it's up to you to personalize it and make it unforgettable.

Some sweet Valentine indulgences

* Dip your favorite cookies in high-quality melted chocolate.

* Soften vanilla ice cream and blend in bits of high quality chocolate or small candies and use as a fill for pre-made rolled cookies, or topping for cake or pie.

* Dip angel food, or pound cake into melted caramel then roll cake in crushed nuts and a final drizzle of chocolate.

* For those huge caramel apples - make sure your apples are washed and thoroughly dry. Push a popsicle stick into core and dip in melted caramel. Place on waxed paper to set. Once caramel sets, dip apples in melted chocolate, or drizzle with chocolate.

* Make sweet and salty dipped pretzels by dipping in chocolate and sprinkles, or dip pretzels in caramel, then in chocolate.

* Dip fruit such as apricots, strawberries with stems, or clementine wedges into white or dark chocolate.

The following was adapted from a recipe from Jenny Drilon, owner/proprietor of Jenny's Restaurant in Indiana. It is a relatively simple with sunny North African flavors. This recipe can be multiplied for less romantic occasions. Figure one hen - if under 1-1/4 pounds - per person. (Larger hens may serve two people.)

Berber Stuffed Game Hens

2 Cornish hens, about 1-1/4 pounds each

1 cup plain couscous, uncooked

1/2 cup currants or raisins, plumped in hot water

1/2 medium onion, diced

Olive oil for sauting

Pinch of turmeric or saffron for color

1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ginger powder

1/3 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare couscous according to directions on box. Set aside to cool. Drain raisins or currants.

In large saucepan on medium heat, saut onion with olive oil until onion is limp and semi-transparent. Add turmeric or saffron and stir. Add remaining ingredients except chicken stock and honey. When well sauted, add chicken stock; bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Break up couscous into hot mixture. Add honey, salt and pepper and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings. It should have a sweet/savory flavor. Set aside to cool before stuffing hens. Reserve excess, if any.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

For the Glaze

1/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Place hens side by side on a rack, in a baking dish. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and stir in honey, cumin, and cinnamon. Brush about half the butter-honey glaze over the hens. Form a tent of aluminum foil and place loosely over birds.

Roast 35 to 40 minutes. Check to make sure birds are nearly cooked. Remove foil and brush again with glaze.

Roast uncovered for another 10 minutes, or until juices run clear when pierced with fork and hens are golden in color.

Serve with remaining stuffing and glaze, and a simple tossed salad.

Serves 2.

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