A year ago, I caught up with an old friend whose daughter was just married. She told me that the newlyweds were recent graduates with modest internship incomes and tons of student debt. But they were madly in love, and would go to the moon for each other.
Last Valentine's Day, each separately planned an intimate surprise dinner for the other. Her daughter was a lobster lover, while her son-in-law a diehard carnivore. Their cramped apartment was packed to the rafters with wedding gifts, including a lobster kit with an array of silver-plated seafood tools to enjoy a crustaceous feast, and a set of gold-plated steak knives.
Unbeknownst to the other, she returned the lobster kit and used the money to buy the fixings for a gourmet steak-and-caviar dinner, while he returned the knives to buy a live lobster with Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Alas, my friend's daughter was lovingly presented with her favorite food, but deprived of the proper tools to fully indulge, while her son-in-law was served a juicy T-bone steak without the appropriate cutting utensils.
This sweet love story of comedic irony reminded me of O. Henry's classic "The Gift of the Magi." Although a traditional Christmas tale of devotion, the theme is a universal one that fittingly pays homage to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia (a precursor to St. Valentine's Day) to ensure the fertility of the people, the fields and the flocks. Foods that were by nature representative of "seeds" (like bulbs and eggs) were thought to be endowed with sexual powers, while those that resembled male and female reproductive parts were also considered libido-enhancing and in great demand.
The long, lusty food list started with the almond as a fertility symbol back in Biblical times as its heady aroma was believed to elicit passion in the woman. Arugula, a sexy little aromatic salad green nicknamed "rocket," "roquette" or "rucola," tossed with orchid bulbs and parsnips made an aphrodisiac antipasto for Roman gourmets, while the phallic-shaped asparagus spears were considered highly titillating when finger-fed to a lover. The Aztecs recognized the sensuous texture of the avocado fruit, and its erotic appearance as they hung in pairs on the tree. They also revered chocolate as "nourishment of the gods," and it has since been found to contain a substance that affects the romantic wiring in the brain. Bananas, along with their obvious seductive shape are loaded with potassium and Vitamin B to jump start sex hormone production, while fennel, a phytoestrogen was used by the ancient Egyptians as a female libido booster. Figs, ginger, honey, licorice, nutmeg, vanilla, truffles, raspberries and oysters, of course, also made the A-(phrodisiac) list.
For now, let's honor the newlyweds with an intoxicating lobster "martini," using only the tail meat since that part of the crustacean is easy to extricate from the shell without special tools, and a roasted filet of beef that'll melt in your mouth like "buddah," so tender it can probably be cut with a sharp glance.
•••• As promised: Here are the answers to last week's mystery foods quiz: 1) Buddha's hand 2) Fiddleheads 3) Cherimoya 4) Fennel 5) Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke.
•••• Recipe: Lobster Martini Valentine (for her)
10 ounces lobster tail meat (cooked, chopped)
6 jumbo shrimps (cooked and peeled, tails remaining)
1 cup vegetable cocktail juice
1/3 cup tomato juice
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon shallots (minced)
2 tablespoons Persian cucumber (minced)
12 green pimento-stuffed olives (halved)
1 teaspoon fresh Italian parsley (minced)
1 Roma tomato (minced)
1/4-cup vermouth or white wine,
lemon twists or Italian parsley sprigs for garnish
Method: In a medium size glass bowl, combine all the ingredients for the sauce. Add the lobster to the sauce and toss gently. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours. Evenly distribute the mixture into 2 cocktail glasses. Add 3 jumbo shrimps to the rim of each glass, and garnish with lemon twists or parsley sprigs. Serves 2.
•••• Recipe: Filet of Beef Valentine (for him)
1 filet of beef (2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon stone ground mustard
2 garlic cloves (minced)
1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
Method: Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Place filet in a roasting pan lined with parchment paper. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together Worcestershire, oil, garlic, mustard and rosemary. Rub meat with salt, then pour mixture over filet. Coat with black pepper. Roast till desired doneness, about 25 minutes for rare, 30 for medium rare, depending on filet size. Serves 4.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org