You want to prove you're a romantic this Valentine's Day? Consider feeding your lover one of nature's legendary aphrodisiacs. And when we say "feeding," we mean, of course, feeding.
Consider, for example, strawberries. Dump the shortcake or the ice cream and feed your lover perfect, fragrant, bursting-with-moisture (how's that for a metaphor?) strawberries, one by one.
"With someone feeding you, it's more lusty," said Cindy Rhodes, a Las Vegan known as "The Aphrodisiac Chef."
But is there really such a thing as an aphrodisiac? Well, it hasn't actually been proven -- how do you prove something like that, with variables such as eye-of-the-beholder, for example? -- but Vinoth Kumar's a believer. Kumar is manager of Origin India restaurant, which is about to serve its second aphrodisiac-based Valentine's Day menu.
Aphrodisiacs get their name from Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, beauty and sensuality, and their reputation from eons of tradition in various cultures around the world. But India, Kumar said, has taken the aphrodisiac tradition and mixed it with elements of ayurvedic and unani principles of health and medicine.
"So India has a legendary reputation as a source of aphrodisiac food," he said.
Kumar said five qualities of food are thought to elicit sensuality: smoked, rich, creamy, exotic and spicy.
"When you say spicy, it's not necessarily hot," he said. "But spicy which will give heat to your body," as in chilies, garlic, ginger, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon.
Rhodes noted that chocolate is considered an aphrodisiac because it contains serotonin.
Plus, "anything that comes from the ocean is especially an aphrodisiac," she said. "Anything that resembles male or female genitalia."
Which clearly brings us to oysters. Schuyler Schultz, executive chef of Austin's Steakhouse at Texas Station and former chef of the property's oyster bar, knows quite well the reputation of his favorite bivalve, but he remains somewhat of a skeptic.
"From my own experience, it's more of a psychological association or an emotional one, rather than a physiological one," he said. "There are certainly literary references to that effect."
In addition to the oyster's resemblance to, as Schultz puts it, "parts of the anatomy," he thinks its reputation stems in large part from its sensual nature.
"It tastes like the sea, which is kind of a romantic place," Schultz said.
But he said he likes a theory in Rowan Jacobsen's "A Geography of Oysters" that the sort of people who eat oysters are "self-selected," which is to say that they tend to be adventurous taboo-breakers in the first place.
"They might also be sexually liberated, among other things," Schultz said. "If you're a very conservative eater, you're probably not going to be going for a plate of oysters on the half-shell. If you like things new and sensual and a little exciting, then there you go."
Schultz's favorite oysters include Kumomotos because they're small and sweet, with superlative flavor.
"They're really complex as well as being very approachable," he said, noting that the oysters are native to Japan but now are raised in the United States. About 95 percent of oysters are farm-raised, he added.
Another of his favorites: Canoe Lagoons from Alaska.
"So much of what determines an oyster's flavor is the water where they're from," Schultz said. Canoe Lagoons come from the pristine waters of the Tongass National Forest. As a result, the oysters raised there have "the crispest, freshest cucumber flavor that I can imagine. The water up there is really cold and really clean," he said.
And the best way to eat this most sensual food?
"It depends on the experience you want to have," he said. "If you just want to taste and imagine the ocean waters from which it was pulled, then freshly shucked on the half-shell, with at most a little lemon. Once you've had them a few times, you can supplement them a little if you want to. I think it's important to acquaint yourself with the nature of the oyster itself and then move on from that."
Oysters will play only a small role on the aphrodisiac menu at Origin India, but that won't be a problem.
"Most of the spices and herbs that we use have aphrodisiac value," Kumar said. "We use a lot of saffron, which is a romantic stimulant, and cardamom, which was used by Cleopatra." Cilantro is an appetite stimulant, he said, and fennel a libido enhancement.
And here's a bit of advice:
"When you're making an Indian romantic dinner, never try to make it spicy," Kumar said. "When you make it medium, that will be very good. And rich in cream."
Origin India uses papaya in its lamb patties, both to tenderize and because papaya is known as an aphrodisiac. Rhodes likes to use mango, as in her mango ginger shrimp.
"Once you finish (preparing) the meal, you feed your love, and it's a really nice sensation," she said.
Asparagus, she said, is "nature's answer to Viagra," and she also lists almonds, garlic, honey, figs, tomatoes, raspberries, avocado, bananas, basil and wine in the aphrodisiac category.
"Ginger's really good for the libido as well," she said. "Any kind of hot pepper gets the blood flowing."
Rhodes came by her "Aphrodisiac Chef" moniker by observing couples she served while working as a personal chef, which she has been doing for about 10 years.
"About three or four years ago, I got more into the romantic-type dinners," she said. "With couples working, the romance goes down the tubes."
She said she's most often hired by husbands who have her come in and start cooking before their wives return home. She prepares a four-course meal, plays jazz music and scatters rose petals from the bed to the bathtub and around the bathtub. The evening includes chocolate body frosting, plus massage oils, candles and bubble bath.
For more recipe ideas, visit Rhodes' blog, culinaryeuphoria. blogspot.com, or try one of the recipes that follow.
"At least for one night," Rhodes said, "get that romance back."
MANGO GINGER SHRIMP
2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, grated and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 scallions, thinly sliced
1 Thai chili
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 mangoes, peeled and pitted, sliced into strips
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Hot cooked jasmine rice (optional)
Heat the oil in a wok or heavy-bottomed pan until hot. Add the ginger, garlic, sliced scallions and Thai chili; stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the shrimp, mangoes and soy sauce and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 to 6 minutes. Garnish with basil. Serve with jasmine rice if desired.
-- Recipe from chef Cindy Rhodes
DUET OF SALMON
3 ounces honey
2 ounces ginger juice (squeezed from peeled and minced fresh ginger)
2 ounces mustard oil (see note)
2 ounces mustard paste (see note)
4 ounces hung yogurt (see note) or 3 ounces sour cream
1 ounce lemon juice
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt, to taste
1 pound salmon steaks
3 ounces butter
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped ginger
3 tablespoons onion paste (see note)
3 ounces chopped fresh fennel tops
1 ounce chopped fresh dill
7 ounces heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Additional fresh dill (for garnish)
Fresh hot basmati rice
Place first seven ingredients (honey through turmeric) and salt to taste in a bowl. Mix well and let it rest for one hour to let flavors bloom.
Add the salmon steaks and marinate, refrigerated, for one hour.
Arrange the salmon on a tray and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes.
Heat butter in a pan; add fennel seed and saute until light brown. Add chopped garlic and ginger and saute until they begin to release their moisture. Add onion paste and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add fennel tops and dill and saute for one minute; then add whipping cream and reduce it over low heat until silky. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
To serve, divide the salmon and sauce into two servings. Place the salmon on top of the sauce, then garnish with asparagus and dill and serve with the rice.
Note: Mustard oil and mustard paste are available at Indian markets. To make hung yogurt, place plain yogurt in cheesecloth and suspend it overnight over a bowl or sink to allow moisture to drain. For onion paste, whirl onion in a blender or processor until it forms a paste.
-- Recipe from Origin India
GRILLED OYSTERS WITH MANGO PICO DE GALLO AND RED CHILI HORSERADISH
Mango pico de gallo:
1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted and finely diced
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
1 jalapeno chili, finely diced
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Red chili horseradish:
1/4 cup prepared horseradish, drained
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
32 oysters, such as Blue Point or Malpeque, scrubbed
For mango pico de gallo: Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and as long as 1 hour.
For red chili horseradish: Stir together the ingredients in a small bowl.
For grilled oysters: Heat your grill to high. Place the oysters directly on the grates of the grill, close the cover and cook until all of the oysters have opened, 4 to 5 minutes (discarding any that have not opened).
Top each oyster with 1 teaspoon pico de gallo and 1/4 teaspoon red chili horseradish. Serve hot.
-- Recipe from "Bobby Flay: Grilling for Life"
ISABELLA'S APHRODISIAC ICE CREAM
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup sliced almonds
11/2 cups whole milk
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1 cup peeled and mashed rich ripe figs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the almonds and saute until just golden. Remove the almonds and dry on paper towel. Put aside for later.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
In a stainless steel bowl or double boiler, whisk the yolks with the sugar and salt for 3 minutes, or until pale yellow. Add hot milk slowly while whisking. Place the bowl or pan over a pan of simmering water and cook, whisking constantly, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the custard from the pan of water and stir in the chilled cream, mashed figs and vanilla extract.
Chill the mixture for 30 minutes, then pour into an ice-cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's directions.
Makes about 1 quart.
-- Recipe from www.epicurious.com
KICKED UP BLOODY MARY OYSTER SHOOTERS
23/4 cups tomato juice
4 ounces pepper vodka
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated horseradish, or prepared horseradish, drained
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
2 dozen small-sized shucked oysters
In a container, combine all of the ingredients except the oysters. Pour into an 8-inch metal baking dish and freeze until ice crystals start to form around the sides, about 30 minutes. Stir with a fork, return to the freezer and continue to stir with a fork every 45 minutes until uniform ice crystals have formed, about 3 hours.
To serve, spoon 11/2 to 2 tablespoons of the frozen Bloody Mary mixture into the bottom of 6 tall shot glasses and top with an oyster. Top with frozen Bloody Mary and continue layering for a total of 3 layers of both oysters and Bloody Mary in each glass.
Serve immediately with cocktail forks.
-- Recipe from the Food Network
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or (702) 383-0474.