(Most of the photos in this blog appear courtesy of the incredibly talented Piya Trepetch, who flew in from the Bay Area to dine at FRANK with us. Check out his amazing website and Facebook page, chock full of spectacular images!)
At FRANK, we love our holiday themes. For several months, Jennie and I have been contemplating doing an Aphrodisiac theme for this year’s Valentine’s dinners. Last year, our dinner was all about chocolate, which was featured in every course. And while we could repeat that theme for all of eternity and never run out of creative uses for chocolate in savory dishes…we thought the fun and whimsy of a menu themed around historical aphrodisiacs was just too good to pass up.
Aphrodisiacs are foods revered in different cultures for arousing passion, inspiring lust and/or love, and enhancing the performance and experiential aspects of the act of love…and as long as humans have been capable of rational thought, we were associating foods with sex and love. From the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible, we see a clear story of seduction associated with the Tree of Knowledge, when the serpent tempts Eve with the fruit, and she, in turn, tempts Adam. Early Asian literature references lusty foods, and the ancient Egyptians recorded the use of foods in fertility rituals.
The word “aphrodisiac” derives from the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, and it’s our modern term for sexy foods, though the concept is far older than the Greek gods. And when we began to fantasize the menu, there was no shortage of aphros to choose from. So we tried going with aphros that were identified by more than one culture, as well as those than had some actual scientific (not just legendary) basis for inspiring or enhancing the act of love.
While oysters (one of the most familiar aphrodisiacs to us in modern times) seemed like a logical choice for the amuse bouche, we decided to move the oyster to a more creative spot later in the menu, and spin a few aphros into the amuse. We had some bourbon-preserved figs put up from last season, and figs are widely respected as an aphro…probably because its sliced-open shape is thought to resemble a particularly coveted part of the female anatomy. Cleopatra, the most beautiful woman in the ancient world, loved figs above all other foods. According to legend, the single most erotic act in the world is for a man to sit naked and eat a fig in front of a woman. So we have these lovely figs that have been soaking in bourbon for months, and we knew it was the perfect time to use them. (Bourboned figs are a perfect way to use somewhat green figs, check my recipe here.)
Figs and…why, foie gras, naturally! The French love foie so much it’s definitely an aphrodisiac there, and as it’s one of the costliest meats in the world, it’s the aphrodisiac equivalent of diamonds. If you’re not familiar with foie gras, it’s the fatty liver of a goose or duck. In ancient times, it was noticed that the liver of migratory birds was exceptionally fatty and delicious during the fall when the birds were gorging on foods to store up fat for the long flight south for the winter. As the taste for this seasonal fatty liver grew more popular, ancient farmers discovered they could enjoy this year round by trapping wild birds and force feeding them…the Egyptians were doing it thousands of years before the French. Foie has run aground of a volatile reputation in modern times, as some critics decry the technique of force-feeding. (Though wild migratory birds have a natural drive to do this seasonally, anyway, and a life in domestication, free of predators, and being stuffed full of yummy food every day might cause the rare rational-thinking goose to prefer life as a domesticated foie bird rather than the rigors of migration fraught with danger from predators, climate, etc.) Because of its increasingly bad reputation, many farms outside France have stopped the act of force-feeding and simply provide these birds with all the food they want in the fall, and nature produces old-fashioned foie by instinct. Because of its fat content, foie behaves very much like butter…it melts when you heat it…so we churned some lightly poached foie with our homemade cultured butter to make foie butter, and thought that would pair nicely with the fig.
But we needed some texture, and we figured a crisp “cracker” of roasted prosciutto would be just the ticket…also contributing salt and flavor and its own unique richness to this tiny bite that would welcome our guests. Ingredients this rich, in this combination, should definitely be used with reserve, as in a bite-sized amuse bouche. And more than ANY other amuse in FRANK history, this one was the runaway hit, with many guests mentioning it was their favorite course of the entire night. (One guest joked that if we ever decided to stop doing FRANK, we could make a killing by producing and marketing our foie butter…just not in California, thank you!) We served this perfect little bite with champagne and pomegranate, which has been worshiped as an aphrodisiac by many cultures, certainly not because of it’s shape:
Next up was a salad course, and this is where we put the oyster. Oysters are probably the classic savory aphrodisiac in our culture, handed directly to us from European culture. Casanova, the legendary Latin lover, ate 50 oysters a day to keep up his prowess and stamina. Speculation tells us that oysters were equated with sex because their shape reminded men of certain parts of the female anatomy, and their texture and flavor reminded women of a certain male byproduct…but when it was discovered that oysters were high in zinc, a necessary nutrient for the male reproductive system…people began to think there might be something to Casanova’s claims. More recent research has discovered that oysters are a rich source of 2 rare amino acids: D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate, two of the critical base components for the creation of testosterone in men, and progesterone in women. Further, during early spring breeding time (ie…around Valentine’s Day), these amino acids are most concentrated in oysters, making them a ideal meal for this romantic day. Click Here to read all sorts of fascinating scientific discoveries about why oysters, in fact, ARE an actual, functional aphrodisiac…probably far more effective than those unregulated vitamin supplements that claim to do so much for Bob.
So we had these beautiful fresh oysters flown in from Martha’s Vineyard, and we served them on the half shell, topped with a mignonette (min-yuh-NET), a dressing of shallots, vinegar, and champagne, and homemade bread crumbs…sitting atop a salad chock full of aphrodisiacs. Asparagus, believe it or not, was revered by the French, who, during the 1800s, would feed the bride and groom 3 full courses of asparagus on the wedding night…but its history as an aphro is far older than that, tracing back at least to the 1400s and an Arabic sex manual, the al-Nafzawi. Also on the plate was arugula, which the ancient Greeks considered an aphrodisiac, probably because its spicy affect tingled the tongue. (Spicy foods have always been revered as aphros.) We rounded the salad out with our famous confit tomatoes…in the winter when it’s impossible to get delicious fresh tomatoes, we take ordinary Romas, drizzle them with olive oil and season them with black pepper, salt, and thyme, and we cook them low and slow in the oven overnight to concentrate their juices. What you get is nothing like a sun-dried tomato…those sickly-sweet, tough monstrosities. Instead, you get a juicy, tender tomato, exploding with perfectly balanced acidity and sweetness. It’s like 20 tomatoes in your mouth at once. A truly beautiful salad, and a downright sexy presentation, if I do say so myself!
Next up was my favorite course of the menu, a Mexican-inspired dish starting with a crispy corn cake (ie…polenta, but flavored with cumin and chile), topped with our legendary mole sauce, which is packed full of aphrodisiacs, primarily spicy chiles. Most cultures have revered hot peppers as aphros because they stimulate the circulation, make you feel hot, and make your lips and mouth tingle. Chocolate, probably the supreme aphrodisiac in our culture, also makes a prominent appearance in this sauce which has more than 50 ingredients (from avocado leaves to coffee, from red wine to tequila, from cranberries to bananas, and much, much more) and takes 2 full days of hard work to make. All the time we hear “I don’t really like mole, but yours is amazing, is there any left?” Mole can be an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, a good mole is like a perfect red wine…rich, earthy, dark, tart, slightly bitter, spicy, faintly sweet, and endlessly complex. On top of the mole was a slab of Hampshire pork belly from local Heritage Farms, cured with coffee and chiles, smoked over wild grape wood, and seared until crispy. Think of it like a steak made of bacon, if you like. Doesn’t sound good at all, huh? *grin* While there’s not much reference to bacon as an aphrodisiac, it certainly is sexy in my book. Very few smells lure people to a kitchen like bacon frying. Jennie calls bacon “the vegetarian’s gateway drug,” because many die-hard vegetarians will give in a for a bit of bacon every once in awhile!
Perched atop the bacon was a tiny little fried quail egg. Eggs, of course, are held as aphrodisiacs by most cultures, simply because the egg is the source of life for all living creatures on the planet. Sprinkled on the egg are our home-grown microgreens, just a few days old, exploding with flavor and nutrients. And around the plate was a puree of avocado. The word “avocado” comes from the Aztec word “ahuacatl” which means “testicle tree.” After the Spanish explored what is now Latin America, began colonizing it, and brought back its unique foods, the Catholic Church considered the fruit so dangerous that anyone who ate it might immediately collapse into sexual debauchery, so the eating of avocados was widely banned for Catholic parishioners. One of our FRANK guests told us a story about how his grandparents in Latin America were forbidden from eating them because they were too seductive.
After such a sinful and rich course, we had to give our diner’s palates a break, so we offered up a sorbet of passion fruit (no need to explain that passion fruit is an aphrodisiac!) topped with a watermelon rind pickle. Researchers at Texas A&M recently discovered a compound called citrulline that exists in many fruits and vegetables, but in particularly high concentrations in watermelon rind, that has the same vascular dilation affect on the body that Viagra has. Click here for more information on the research. Our watermelon pickles were sweet and spicy, with fennel seed, pink peppercorn, and a hint of sriracha.
Next up was the feature of the evening…beef heart with risotto. Organ meats, particularly the heart, have been a popular aphrodisiac in Europe for centuries. Many Americans are squeamish when it comes to offal, but heart is really one of the most accessible organ meats. It’s delicious. Most chefs tend to serve heart rare or raw (as in a tartare) because the heart muscle is the toughest muscle in the body. It never relaxes from birth to death! So it tends to be VERY lean with tight fibers. We get around this by brining the heart for 24 hours, and then vacuum sealing it with lots of duck and pork fat and cooking it in the immersion circulator at 174F for 24 hours. Then we chill it and trim it, and cut it into slices which we sear in the braising fat to get it crisp on both sides before serving. We had lots of folks who were tasting heart for the very first time, often with apprehension, but on our last few nights, it was the runaway favorite of the evening. One guest said, “I admit, I was really scared to taste this, but it’s incredible, and I want to know why more Dallas restaurants aren’t serving heart!”
We had an answer for him. Because FRANK had all the heart in the metroplex! We called our specialty meat supplier, Clark at Arrowhead Meats (who does sell the general public, as well as supplying most of Dallas’s finer restaurants with their premium meat), two weeks before Valentine’s and told him we wanted all the beef hearts he had, so he placed them on hold for us. A week before FRANK when I went to pick them up, he laughed and said, “You guys are really ahead of the curve…a few days after you called me, practically every chef in Dallas called wanting beef heart for Valentines, but I had to tell them that FRANK had reserved them all!”
The risotto was scented with black truffle, which, although it “smells like-a dirt and tastes like-a ass” (according to my Italian friend who can’t get enough of them), is considered by many cultures to be a potent aphrodisiac. The ancient way of hunting truffles involved the use of female pigs, which would avidly root around for the little black nuggets. Strangely, male pigs showed no interest in truffles, which may have been the original source of it’s legendary aphro properties…it drives the ladies crazy. The legendary French food philosopher Brillant-Savarin stated, “Truffle. As soon as the word is spoken, it awakens lustful and erotic memories among the skirt-wearing sex and erotic and lustful memories among the beard-wearing sex. This honorable parallelism comes not only from the fact that this esteemed tuber is delicious, but also because it is still believed to bring about potency, the exercise of which brings sweet pleasure.” Scientists tell us that among the many aroma compounds in truffles can be found androstenone, a compound also found in prolific quantities in male sweat. Maybe that’s why the lady pigs love them so much.
The feature aphrodisiac on the plate was garlic. And while most of us don’t think of garlic breath as very sexy, practically every culture in history has revered garlic as an aphro. Priestesses of Aphrodite prepared love potions with it. Indian monks were forbidden from eating it because it would arouse the passions. Jewish tradition holds that garlic awakens sexual desires. But moderating garlic’s intensity was important for us, because we didn’t want it to overwhelm the heart and risotto…so we offered it up in 2 forms: confit cloves and sauteed blossoms. We love making confit garlic at FRANK, it’s one of the most delicious things you can imagine. You cover a bunch of garlic cloves with olive oil, season with pepper and salt, and cook low and slow for hours and hours, until all the many complex sugars in garlic have caramelized and turned dark brown. At this point, the cloves are soft, rich, and impossibly sweet. (You can even make ice cream with them!) We served them whole for our diners to pop, but you can easily puree them into a smooth paste that is divine on toast. We also served up sauteed garlic blossoms…these lovely unopened buds are easy to pick wild all over the country in the spring, and they are beyond delicious.
Last, but never least, dessert. You may have noticed the absence of soup on the menu thus far…it’s because we were saving it for dessert! Chocolate soup. We served a savory chocolate and hazelnut soup at last Valentine’s FRANK, but this year we wanted to serve a sweet soup. Several different types of chocolate were melted carefully into heavy cream, and infused with espresso, vanilla, and a hint of cinnamon, and finished with an absolutely irresponsible about of citrus-y Grand Marnier. Chocolate is the king of all aphrodisiacs. For many, many reasons. It has that sensual quality of being cool and firm in your hand, but meltingly smooth in your mouth. It’s rich and sweet, but exotic and bitter at the same time. It contains two stimulants, caffeine and theobromine, as well as 2 chemicals directly related to love and excitement in the brain, tryptophan and phenylethylamine. But when it comes down to it…it’s just yummy.
Melting slowly into the chocolate soup was a fresh buttermilk and honey ice cream…honey being a famous aphrodisiac, probably because of the way bees are said to “make love” to the flower as it gathers its sweet nectar. Into the ice cream we folded toasted almonds. Almonds were considered aphros in the ancient world, particularly by the ancient Egyptians and their contemporary cultures. In the Bible, Sampson woos Delilah with almond branches. (It didn’t turn out very well for him, though.) We drizzled more honey on top of the ice cream, and I just love what happens when honey or maple syrup hits ice cream…it thickens into an almost taffy-like treat.
Perched alongside the ice cream was a bruleed banana, and many tropical cultures have considered bananas as an aphrodisiac, probably because of their…ahem…shape. We used the little microbananas that are so intensely sweet-tart and delicious, and sprinkled raw sugar on them, torching the sugar until it made a delicious glassy surface across the banana. It was a rich dessert, to say the least, but more than a few ladies finished their husbands’ chocolate soup. Jennie and I quipped to our guests, “If any children are conceived after such a long night of indulging in so many aphrodisiacs…we require that they be named Frank. Or…Francesca. Or Francine. Or Frankie.” Only 9 months’ time will tell whether there’ll be any rugrats named after our little underground experiment.
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One last shout-out…our flowers at FRANK are done by our dear friend Miriana, at Flower Power Nation (who occasionally serves at FRANK, as well!) She always makes stunning arrangements, but she out-did herself this time. Miriana has the same philosophy about flowers as we do about food…she uses local and seasonal items, as well as foraged ones, too! These were the first big fat asparagus spears from her garden, which she sacrificed to make our table gorgeous. If you’re in the Dallas area and need something truly unique, check out her website and Facebook, or if you’re not in the area but love clever and crafty items, check out her Etsy store. And THANK YOU, Miriana, for always making our table so special!!