T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is The Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
Is there really a "food of love"? Music has been called that. Power, said Henry Kissinger, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Wealth, while we're being honest, has stirred the loins since long before diamonds became a girl's best friend. In our house, the ultimate aphrodisiac — a rare one — is getting a babysitter.
Let's propose, however, that the food of love is actually food.
Foodstuffs that actually increase sexual desire are limited to a debatable few, and you wouldn't necessarily want to eat them. Apart from maybe yohimbe (a West African evergreen) and Spanish fly (a toxic beetle) — neither of which would succeed on a plate — the only actual aphrodisiacs come in pill form. (Note: Viagra will keep roses from wilting. True fact.) Pay no attention to the erotomaniac bloggers who swear by the zinc in oysters and the capsaicin in chili peppers. Forget the rhino horns.
Still, every year about this time, we spend ourselves silly on caviar, champagne and chocolate; oysters, lobsters and truffles. Despite having zero secret sex-crazed chemical power, they work. Aphrodisiacs are a lie — but a lie that has its cake and eats it, too.
Edible aphrodisiacs may do nothing for the body, but they sure do work on the mind. After all, it's said the brain is the biggest sex organ.
Curvaceous, smooth-skinned pears? Firm, scented bananas? Ripe figs dripping with sweet juice? Under the right circumstances, it doesn't take more than a well-endowed fruit basket to awaken the coiled snake of lust.
But let's cast how and why aside for the moment and just accept that so-called aphrodisiac foods do what they're supposed to do. A realm of suggestive ingredients, historically guaranteed to drive humans to the very limits of need, hovers within reach.
I have a couple of suggestions to help narrow the options.
First, don't choose anything that demands conversation-stopping skill to disassemble. Whole lobsters — along with that unrivaled buzz kill, the lobster bib — are out. The most unintentionally unromantic dinner I've ever had starred a 5-inch-thick Chateaubriand steak, to "share." One plate, two sharp knives? Bad idea. My memory of that meal, and whoever it was I shared it with, has been reduced to a haze of speed and strategy.
Second, if at all possible, make most of it ahead of time. Because while we may question whether any given food really is an aphrodisiac, I can promise you that sweating over the stove for two hours in a soiled apron definitely is not.
With this in mind, I offer some options drawn from a promiscuous multitude.
Asparagus. Early botanists swore by the "doctrine of signatures," the idea that useful plants looked like the body parts they were purported to enhance. Seducers then and now have embraced the unapologetically phallic asparagus, particularly since the U.S. Vegetarian Society reportedly recommended eating it for three days "for the most powerful effect." Best of all, there's no need to go crazy preparing it. Steam gently and serve bare, or with a thin negligee of first-rate olive oil.
Morel risotto cake. Morel mushrooms, with their spongy, tapered caps, enjoy the same notoriety as asparagus, for much the same reason. You could just make a bed of risotto for asparagus and fish. But if you make the risotto a day ahead and chill a couple of palm-sized rounds, all you have to do is sear them on the day, which leaves you with a pair of dangerously idle hands.
Roasted monkfish. Yes, monkfish. The ugliest delicacy in the sea is also called "poor man's lobster." Its thick, succulent "loins" (actually tail meat) have a buttery sweetness that delivers all the luxe of the lobster with a fraction of the fuss. You do have to remove the loin's pearly membrane before cooking it, which may make you blush.
Fresh fig tart. If this meal seems excessively male oriented, fear not. For its sweetness, its shape, its juiciness, its wanton, seed-strewn advertisement of the reproductive motive, the fig has been a totem of female sexuality for centuries. In concentric cross section, it makes a tantalizing, glistening mosaic of a tart. Whether you will be able to stop looking at it — and what you will do when you stop — are open questions: Does he? Doesn't he? Will she? Won't she?
However, as surely as the ripened, reddened mango plunges from the tree, likelihood eventually tumbles into certainty. The engines of thought break free from the harness of protocol: The dishes are forgotten, the table abandoned.
If you're the kind of person who has to have a love potion, there's always this medieval recipe: dried, powdered stag penis mixed with black pepper in a dose of Madeira.
If you prefer culinary sorcery to the conventional sort, enjoy a more delectable table for two — fired by the suspicion that someone has devoted restless nights planning to drive you mad with desire. Now that — and maybe a fruit basket — ought to leave anyone weak at the knees.
Leaves stripped from two generous sprigs of thyme, finely chopped
5 or 6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1 cup arborio, carnaroli or other risotto rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon olive oil (for finishing the cakes)
Soak the morels in 1 cup boiling water until they soften, about 15 minutes. Drain over a small bowl and set aside, reserving the soaking water. Chop any fragments or imperfect morel pieces, reserving a few perfect morels for garnish.
In a 9- or 10-inch skillet, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat until the butter foam subsides. Add the minced shallot and thyme, sweat for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped shiitakes and the chopped morels; stir and cook, covered, over low heat, for 15 minutes.
While the shiitakes are cooking, heat the chicken stock in a saucepan (it needs to be hot, but doesn't have to boil). When the shiitakes are done, uncover their pan and add the rice. Raise the heat to medium and stir, until all the rice is coated and the pan begins to dry out.
Add the wine and simmer briefly until the pan dries again. Add the reserved morel soaking liquid and stir, over low heat, until absorbed. Continue cooking over low heat, adding hot chicken stock little by little, until the rice grains start to become tender and the risotto is developing a creamy texture, about 25 minutes.
Stir in the Parmigiano and remove from heat.
Scrape the risotto into a flat-bottomed dish or tray and smooth it out. It should form a layer about a half-inch thick. Refrigerate overnight.
To shape and finish the risotto cakes the next day, use a 3 1/2- to 4-inch round cutter to cut cakes out of the risotto layer. (You should be able to make 4.) Carefully remove the cakes with a spatula and set aside on a plate.
Heat a heavy skillet over a high flame until a drop of water dances on its surface. Add the oil and sear the cakes until golden brown on each side, 1 to 2 minutes per side (if the oil starts to smoke, turn the flame down to medium). At the last moment, toss in the reserved morels for garnish. Remove the cakes to a plate and serve immediately.
If your fishmonger has not removed the membrane of the monkfish, do so: Slip a sharp knife under the membrane; hold the film away from the fish with your other hand as you cut it away. Sometimes it's helpful to slip a chopstick underneath the membrane to keep it detached as you work, and to keep a paper towel close at hand. If you don't get every last bit, don't worry. The membrane tastes fine, it just doesn't look great when cooked.
Place the flour in a shallow dish and season with salt and pepper to taste. Dredge the monkfish in the flour, tapping it to let the excess fall back in the dish.
Preheat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and melt the butter. When the foam has subsided and the butter is starting to brown, add the monkfish loins. Sear them well, so they develop a bit of a golden crust.
If your skillet isn't ovenproof, transfer the monkfish loins to a baking sheet lined with foil. Roast for 5 to 7 minutes, until the loin is just cooked through. Serve immediately.
*Ask for the thickest part of the loin, and ask the fishmonger to remove the membrane.
Gina de Palma makes this lovely tart with quartered figs (Dolce Italiano, by Gina DePalma, Norton 2007). I prefer to slice the figs into 1/8-inch slices, because they make such a hypnotically gorgeous pattern. If you use thin slices, as I do, just squeeze the lemon and sprinkle the sugar over them at the last minute rather than trying to toss them in the lemon and sugar. The tart is wonderful served warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of mascarpone, if desired. Wrapped in plastic, it will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.
Makes one 10-inch tart (8 to 10 servings)
Sweet Tart Crust (see below)
1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted and finely ground
12 to 15 medium fresh black mission figs or brown, green or purple Turkish figs
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup granulated sugar
On a floured surface, roll the tart dough into an 11-inch circle 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a 10-inch tart pan with fluted sides and a removable bottom by rolling the dough onto the pin like a carpet and then unrolling it onto the pan. Press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan, then trim it so it is flush with the top of the pan. Chill the tart shell while you make the filling.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the paddle attachment on medium speed to cream together the butter and confectioners' sugar. Beat in the egg yolk, followed by the honey, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat in the ground almonds. Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator and spread the filling evenly on the bottom with a spatula or the back of a large spoon.
Trim the stems off the figs and cut the figs into lengthwise quarters (or thinner slices). Place them in a large bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice and granulated sugar over them, tossing to coat the figs evenly.
Arrange the figs on top of the tart filling, skin side down, flesh side up, in a circular pattern.
Bake 35 to 40 minutes, rotating tart after about 15 minutes to ensure even browning. The figs should be soft and collapsing, and the filling should be lightly golden brown.
Allow the tart to cool for at least 30 minutes on a rack before carefully removing the sides of the pan.
Sweet Tart Crust
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon or 1 small orange
3/4 cup (6 ounces) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream
A few drops ice water, if necessary
Place the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and citrus zest in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to combine the dry ingredients. Add all of the cold, cubed butter to the bowl and pulse to process the mixture until it is sandy and there are no visible lumps of butter.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and heavy cream. Add the wet ingredients to the food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times, or until the dough comes together. If necessary, add some ice water, a few drops at a time, to make the dough come together.
Remove the dough from the food processor and work it with your hands to even out any dry and wet spots. Form the dough into a ball, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill until firm, 1 to 2 hours, before rolling it out. You can also freeze the dough, well wrapped, for up to 2 months.