Enjoying a wonderful meal at home on Valentine's Day needn't mean frustrating hours at the stove or the squalor of dealing with takeaway cartons. The best quick-cook meals for sale offer ease, speed and taste all at once – and we've put them to the test.
Candles, music and a bottle of bubbly – the classic Valentine’s Day recipe that never fails. And while going out on the town is fun, there’s something that much cosier about spending Valentine’s Day with your loved one at home.
There’s just one problem. The food.
You could just order a takeaway, of course. But the presence of piles of foil trays, cardboard sleeves and plastic bags wrecks is a surefire mood-wrecker, not to mention the fact that taking the path of culinary least-resistance is akin to writing ‘I feel “meh” about you’ in your card.
That means you’re going to have to cook. Yet spending an hour or two fretting about the timings and temperatures of a suitably complicated recipe means you’re leaving your beloved on their own to flip mindlessly through Facebook posts, turn to reading their book or start dozing off in front of the TV. That’s not going to put anyone in the mood.
The answer is nab yourself one of the may upmarket meals – either no cooking or minimal cooking, delicious results and your carefully-created atmosphere kept intact. We’ve tested a whole range (yes, it was a dirty job etc) to bring you the best options – dishes which will press your beloved’s buttons, no matter what he or she fancies.
Best for comfort food: Charlie Bigham Steak & Ale Pie
There’s a little line on the side of the packaging of this pie that sums up what we were after for this test: ‘Steal back some time by letting Charlie prepare you a truly delicious meal’. That’s true as far as it goes, but you’ll also have to sort out some mashed potato and a few vegetables to go with this pie.
The effort will be worth it, because the pie is absolutely delicious. The puff pastry lid was perfect – it looked almost as good as the pictures on the packet – and the pie filling soft, perfectly-seasoned and absolutely throbbing with flavour. One of our testers (aged 6) even suggested we might eat one every night.
Ease of cooking: We literally put it in the oven and then took it out again at the appointed time. But you do have to make your own trimmings.
Quality and taste: Even when expecting something good, we were still pleasantly surprised. If a gastropub served you a pie this tasty you’d recommend it to your friends.
Cost: £8 for two (stockists include Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and more)
Best for a classic steak: Waitrose Flat Iron steak in peppercorn butter
A ‘flat iron’ cut – also known as feather steak and butlers’ steak – is an unusual cut from the shoulder, which needs a bit of clever butchery to remove the connective tissue that runs through the middle. Once that’s done, you’re left with a thick, nicely-marbled piece of meat that is fabulously soft and full of flavour. (It’s apparently Jamie Oliver’s favourite cut, for what that’s worth.)
It took a fair bit of cooking (aiming for medium-rare, we just about ended up with rare) but was delicious; the peppercorn butter was interesting and a little different. It’s designed to be melted separately and poured over; interesting and tasty but we’d probably rather have had it with a more standard, creamy peppercorn sauce. That said, it’s a great steak, and the other bits that came as part of the meal deal were excellent – particularly the starter of baked goats’ cheese with blackcherry and port compote.
Ease of cooking: Dead simple – chuck it in a hot pan, five minutes each side, leave it to rest and you’re done. And since it’s a steak you’ll get away with serving it with chips and salad.
Quality and taste: Beautiful piece of meat, peppercorn butter was good but didn’t wow us.
Cost: £8.99 for two, or £20 as part of the Valentine’s Day for Two meal deal, with a baked goats’ cheese starter, chips, mixed salad, raspberry heart mousse and a bottle of Prosecco.
Best for a new twist on a classic: M&S Wrapped beef in prosciutto with horseradish and shallot
Here’s a warning: there is a true art to turning out food onto a plate without making it look like you accidentally slipped and just chucked it onto a plate. The difference between the photo from the M&S public relations machine and what ended up on our plate was, shall we say marked. Very marked:
Thankfully this dish, from M&S’s new ‘Quick to Cook’ range, tasted absolutely magnificent. It was probably the finest piece of meat on this page, and incredibly simple to cook. The pancetta wrap added an irresistible smokey, salty edge and the beef was perfect.
Ease of cooking: Simple to cook, but keeping the prosciutto wrapping in anything approaching photogenic form proved beyond us. You’ll have to sort out your own sides – chips are fine, mash would have been just as good.
Quality and taste: Delivered more than we’d hoped for. Absolutely brilliant.
Cost: £8 for two.
Best if you want to impress: M&S Moroccan spiced lamb steak
We tried a few of Marks & Spencer’s ‘Quick to Cook’ dishes for this test; some were great, some were a little disappointing. We were excited about the Vietnamese sticky caramel pork, for example, but it turned out to be neither as sweet nor as sticky as you’d expect. It wasn’t sweet or sticky at all.
The Moroccan lamb, however, sounded good and tasted even better. The chickpea and red pepper dressing was fine but completely unnecessary, so well-balanced were the spices, and so perfect was the piece of meat.
Ease of cooking: Incredibly simple, but as with the other steaks above, plating it elegantly proved, er, interesting.
Quality and taste: It’s a close-run thing, but if for some reason we were forced to choose one of the dishes on test as our final meal on Death Row, it would be this one.
Cost: £6 for two.
Best option for a vegetarian: Charlie Bigham Fish Pie
Originally we’d planned to include Charlie Bigham’s macaroni cheese as a veggie option. And don’t take its absence to suggest anything is amiss: it is absolutely stunning, if almost absurdly rich. It’s also topped with pancetta, ruling it out of this section of the test.
Veggies aren’t missing out, however, since the fish pie is almost as good. Generous chunks of salmon and cod in a rich sauce that wasn’t overly salted, spinach running through to keep your conscience at bay in the face of all that cheese sauce, and a crunchy topping for added texture. And it looked just as good (if not better) in real life than the pictures would have had you believe:
Great stuff – though we’d say it was the equal of a decent home-made pie, rather than one of those dishes that makes you wonder how they did it. (The mac and cheese, for what it’s worth, really did make us wonder how they did it.)
Ease of cooking: Best on test. Cooked perfectly and evenly despite the vagaries of an overn that is often temperamental, and unlike the steaks and so on above, you could probably eat it unaccompanied (we dished it up with some peas, beans and carrots shoved in the steamer).
Quality and taste: Delivered everything you’d hope for.
Cost: £6.99 for two.
Best for adding a touch of spice: M&S King Prawn Laksa
Malaysian food is often deceptively complicated. A friend of mine once asked his local takeaway how they made their satay sauce, only to be told that it had almost 200 ingredients. It takes real skill to balance that sort of thing, and the result is one of those things that – unlike several of the dishes on test here – you know you’d never have a hope of reproducing yourself.
That’s exactly the case with this fresh, delicious dish, balanced so beautifully between chilli, garlic and lemongrass that every mouthful was a wonder – something only enhanced by the fresh king prawns. The only disappointment was the portion size: it’s more than you’d need for one person, but just felt not quite enough for two. Then again, the price was so reasonable (especially considering that quality of the prawns) that you could probably buy two packets and enjoy the leftovers for lunch the next day. You’ll also then have everyone in the office asking what that amazing smell is.
Ease of cooking: Warm the oil, cook the prawns for a few minutes, add the sauce, cook that for a couple of minutes, toss in the fresh coriander and give it a final minute. Done. Assuming you’re using a pouch for the rice, it doesn’t get much easier than this.
Quality and taste: Just a wonderful, taste-filled and deliciously fragrant dish with brilliant ingredients.
Be sure to win the heart of that special someone this Valentine's Day.
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