NPR

Love Bites: A Valentine's Dinner

Try asparagus, figs, morel mushrooms — or the old standby, roses — to induce romantic feelings this Valentine's Day.

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.

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.

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.

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