The most amazing variety of foods are considered aphrodisiac: almonds, anchovies, anise, asparagus and artichokes, to start with the A's. Chocolate arouses the senses but cocoa, mark well, has the opposite effect. Delicacies such as caviar and truffles are an obvious enticement, but who would have thought of camel's milk with honey (an Arab elixer), or castor oil, favored by certain Indian tribes?
Happily, all are agreed on the amorous qualities of oysters, so I've structured this Valentine's Day menu for two around an old Maryland recipe for oyster pie. Instead of being baked in pastry, the "crust" is made of crackers flavored with onion and celery.
The oysters are piquant with a few dashes of traditional southern hot pepper sauce (raise the degree of heat to your taste, by all means).
Lacking oysters, the same pie can be made with bay scallops, or with crab meat, though crab is improved with a generous moistening of butter. For simplicity, baking is done in individual dishes and a layer of spinach has been added for a touch of green.
Supper for two must not be rushed, so the menu opens with two classics to nibble with a glass of wine. Almonds are roasted with spice and the olives (another reputed aphrodisiac) are marinated with herbs in the Mediterranean manner. If you are looking for a Valentine gift, jars of both are an asset on any kitchen counter.
Dessert is a minor culinary joke -- little iced chocolate souffle's that rise, not in the oven, but by being molded with a collar above the edge of the dish, then frozen until set. Like the nuts and olives, souffle's are a boon to have in the freezer for they keep at least a month, needing only a modest decoration of chopped green pistachios before serving.
Pistachios are listed in my "Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs" (by Harry E. Wedeck, published by Philosophical Library Inc. in 1961) but I couldn't find pousse-cafe' (literally a coffee chaser). The pride of professional bartenders, pousse-cafe's are made with several liqueurs, presented as multicolored layers in a tall glass. The trick is to add the heaviest liqueur first so the next, poured carefully over a coffee spoon, will float on top without mingling. And if that doesn't conquer your favorite partner, I don't know what will. Timetable
Sit down and relax with your companion for you need only to light the oven to complete this menu.
Up to one month ahead: Make marinated olives and refrigerate. Toast spiced nuts and keep in airtight container. Make and freeze iced coffee souffle'.
In the morning: Prepare oyster pies and refrigerate.
Set the table. Chill the wine.
1 hour before serving: Drain olives, reserving oil to use again; pile olives and nuts on serving dishes. Decorate souffle's and keep in refrigerator. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
25 minutes before serving: Bake oyster pies.
After serving souffle's: Make pousse-cafe's and keep at room temperature. MARINATED OLIVES (Makes 1 pint jar olives)
After serving the olives, keep oil from marinating to use for salad dressings or for basting broiled meat and fish.
*3/4 pound black or green olives
6 bay leaves
2 dried chili peppers
1 tablespoon fennel seed
2 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary
1 tablespoon peppercorns
1 1/4 cups olive oil, more if needed
To prepare olives: Combine oil with flavorings in a saucepan and heat gently until very hot. Cover and leave in a warm place until cool. Pack olives with seasonings in jar, pour over oil and cover. Store at room temperature.
To prepare olives at least 1 week ahead: Drain and rinse them. In a 1-pint jar with lid, pack the olives in layers with bay leaves, chili pepper, fennel seed, thyme, rosemary and peppercorns. Pour over enough olive oil to cover olives completely. Add lid and leave at room temperature for at least 1 and up to 4 weeks. Olives can be stored up to 3 months in refrigerator. SPICED ALMONDS (Makes 1 cup nuts)
* Try this recipe with shelled, raw peanuts, or with shelled walnuts or pecans.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup (7 ounces) whole blanched almonds
1 teaspoon salt
Put oil in a skillet, add worcestershire sauce, allspice, nutmeg and cayenne and heat gently, stirring, 2 minutes. Add nuts and stir until well coated.
Cook in a 425-degree oven, stirring occasionally, until nuts are brown and start to pop, showing they are toasted inside, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels, let cool, then sprinkle with salt. Nuts can be stored up to 1 month in an airtight container.
recipe OYSTER PIE WITH SPINACH (2 servings) A traditional Maryland "pie" with a crust of cracker crumbs.
1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach or 10-ounce package frozen spinach
2 tablespoons butter plus extra to grease baking dishes
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch grated nutmeg
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cups coarsely crushed cracker crumbs
1 pint shucked oysters, with their liquor
3 to 4 tablespoon whipping cream
Few drops hot pepper sauce
Wash fresh spinach thoroughly in several changes of water. Discard stems. Cook spinach in a large pan of boiling water until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Cook frozen spinach according to package direction. Drain cooked spinach thoroughly, squeezing it dry with your fist, then coarsely chop it. Heat half butter in pan and saute' spinach, stirring, until dry. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Melt remaining butter and fry onion with celery until soft but not brown. Take from heat and stir in cracker crumbs with salt and pepper.
Butter baking dishes and spread half cracker mixture in the bottom. Cover with a layer of spinach and spread oysters on top. Mix oyster liquor with cream and season quite highly to taste with hot pepper sauce, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Spoon cream over oysters and cover with remaining cracker mixture. Provided that spinach and cracker mixture are cold before combining with oysters, pies can be prepared up to 8 hours ahead and kept in refrigerator.
To finish: Bake pies in a 400-degree oven until hot and browned, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve at once. ICED CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE' (2 servings)
An easy recipe to double or triple for more guests.
3 ounces dark dessert chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
2 egg whites
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons blanched pistachios, finely chopped
*Wrap strips of foil or waxed paper around 2 individual ( 3/4-cup capacity) souffle' dishes to form a collar extending 1 to 2 inches above edge; fasten with adhesive tape. Melt chocolate on a heatproof plate over a pan of hot water; leave to cool.
In a small pan heat sugar with water until dissolved. Boil without stirring until syrup forms a soft ball when a little is dropped into a cup of cold water (239 degrees on a candy thermometer). Meanwhile whip egg whites until stiff. Let syrup bubbles subside, then pour hot syrup into whites, beating constantly. Continue beating until this meringue is cool.
Whip cream until it holds a soft shape. Fold half cream into meringue. Note: Meringue must be cold, or cream will melt. Fold in cool chocolate and spoon mixture into prepared dishes. It should rise 1/2 to 1 inch above edge.
Freeze souffle's at least 4 hours. They can be prepared up to 1 month ahead and kept covered in the freezer.
To finish: Not more than 2 hours before serving, remove collar from souffle's and press chopped pistachios around the edge. If texture is fairly soft, keep souffle's in freezer until serving, but if very stiff, leave to soften slightly in refrigerator. POUSSE-CAFE' (1 serving)
The professional barman's pride!
1 tablespoon raspberry liqueur
1 tablespoon maraschino
1 tablespoon blue curacao 1 tablespoon yellow chartreuse 1 tablespoon cognac
Pour raspberry liqueur into a tall stemmed glass ( 1/3 cup capacity). Hold a teaspoon upside down in glass and gently pour maraschino over back of spoon so it floats on raspberry liqueur.
Repeat with curacao, chartreuse and lastly with cognac. Serve chilled or at room temperature.