" ...the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms have been ransacked for the purpose of discovering remedies capable for strengthening the genital apparatus, and exciting it to action." John Davenport Aphrodisiacs & Anti-Aphordisiacs, quoted in Schott's Food & Drink Miscellany
Once a year, Hallmark and other corporations call upon us to be sentimental for a day. We are asked to buy roses and chocolate hearts and to suffer the chalky taste of those terrible little candies with cheeky sayings. And, perhaps most important, we are called upon to feed our lovers, exciting them into the romantic fervor required for a memorable Valentine's evening.
The most common practice is to reserve a table at that cute little restaurant with overpriced entrées and average wines that cost $40. This routine provides agreeable atmosphere and shows that you've planned ahead and are willing to spend a princely sum for the one you love.
The other option is to trade money for time and effort, and cook at home. But for the undiscerning, rare racks of lamb and expensive Champagnes can make a home cooked meal explode over budget. How to combine cheap and sensual?
Enter a Google search for "cheap aphro-disiac," and your screen will flood with spam: Viagra, of course, but also appetite-suppressing phentermine, anxiety-reducing Xanax, and insomnia-killing Ambienall for the side effect of increased libido.
We're here to offer a safer alternative, something you don't need shipped from a shady address in Canada. This is your guide to real food aphrodisiacs, and a suggestion for how to put together a compelling menu without breaking the bank.
Unfortunately, we ran into something of a problem right off the bat. Your laundry list of aphrodisiacs from ancient times includes powdered rhinoceros horn, Spanish fly (the skin of a beetle that can cause kidney failure), whirtleberries, sea hedgehogs, partridge brains, cuttlefish, and other ingredients only available online with a platinum MasterCard.
The cardinal rule of aphrodisiacs is rarityingredients like truffles are immediately elevated to lofty sexual positions, not to mention prices. So the idea of a "cheap aphrodisiac" is in itself a contradiction.
Since no scientific study has ever proven that any food will ever give you the physiological effect of itchy loins, and because we had no idea how to cook with rhinoceros horn, we spent our time on a menu of mood, shared experience, and a balance of rich pleasure with lightness of touch.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN: The Drinks Unless you're a pair of teetotalers, having a Valentine's meal without some bubbly drinks will quash the romantic vibe before the main course even arrives. Champagne might say "I love you," but cava, Prosecco, sparkling Shiraz, and sparkling rosé will say "I respect you as a person enough not to blow the lease on the apartment."
FIRST COURSE: The Oyster Alternative
But again, whose idea was it to price these things at $1 a piece? We no longer live in Dickensian times, when a man very poor "rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in regular desperation." Oh, the fun those nineteenth century paupers had. These days, it's going to take a lot of pasta and bread to make sure you don't leave the table hungry.
Though lacking the mystic properties of oysters, mussels hold a close second place in the eating-as-sex awards. Equally slippery and flavorful, they also allow more creativity in your recipe. We seized the opportunity to make a broth using fennel, another supposed ingredient with sexual potency.
The recipe is quite simple: 2 tablespoons butter melted over medium heat, then half a sliced bulb of fennel (you don't need the stalks) and one small on-ion, added once the butter foams. Season with salt and pepper, and then add 1 1/2 cups white wine and one pound of mussels. Raise the heat to high, and cover. Once have mussels opened, about five minutes, remove from the broth (discarding any that have failed to open), and add 1/2 cup heavy cream and the zest one half lemon. Let the broth simmer for five minutes while you plate the mussels in a shallow bowl; top mussels with broth. Throw some fennel fronds on top as a garnish, and serve with crusty bread and a cold sparkling white.
SECOND COURSE: Poultry for Two
We decided to investigate the Cornish hen, a flavorful, succulent, two-person-sized alternative to big, bland chicken. Since they're priced between $2.50 and $5 a pound at everyday grocery stores, you'll escape the meat section for less than $10. A quick Google search revealed a strawberry glaze recipe, which we adapted from, incidentally, a cookbook about aphrodisiacs called Intercourses. (Full disclosure: the co-author, Martha Hopkins, is a friend.) The sauce, a balsamic-based concoction, can be thrown together with pantry staples.
We paired the hen with some frozen haricots vert (Trader Joe's sells them for unbelievable prices) tossed with garlic and grated ginger sautéed in olive oil. Before you cook the mussels, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove any organs that may be inside the small bird. Rinse the hen in cold water, and pat dry. Rub it down with about one tablespoon olive oil, and sprinkle generously inside and out with salt and pepper. When you're ready to throw the mussels into the pot, also place the hen on a baking sheet in the oven. Cook until the breast hits 160 degrees, about 35 to 40 minutes, which is about the time you'll be done eating the mussels. When the bird comes out, combine 1/4 cup strawberry jam, with 3/4 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, a half tablespoon of white wine, and a pinch of salt and pepper, in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Add a chile pepper or some red pepper flakes to give it a little heat.
Brush the sauce on the hen, which should rest for about 5 minutes out of the oven. Using a large knife, cut the hen in half. We also removed the leg for a better presentation. Serve atop the haricots vert.
FINALLY: Dessert! Dessert is the pinnacle of the romantic meal. Serve something forgettableor worse, inedibleand all that slaving in the kitchen for your special someone ac-counts for exactly zero. Kisses will not be returned. You will not be invited upstairs. Dessert should not be taken lightly.
We momentarily flirted with fresh fruit, such as nipply strawberries, which is of course far out of season. But in the end, we were just kidding ourselves. Your date wants only one thing: chocolate. The more sinful the chocolate, the naughtier the night will be. Imported ounces of precious European varieties lurk behind golden wrappers waiting to gobble up your budget, but a few tricks and a few hours can transform cheaper domes-tic brands into decadent truffles.
First, melt two ounces bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler, stirring occasionally. In a separate saucepan, combine 2 tablespoons heavy cream, with 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter and 3/4 teaspoon light corn syrup, bring-ing to a simmer over low heat. Once at a simmer, remove and let cool for 5 minutes, then whisk into chocolate. Add ½ tablespoon Cognac if you have it, or stir in zest from half a lemon. Place the mixture in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Attach the whisk to an electric mixer, and whip the hardened chocolate until it resembles cake frosting. Cover a small baking sheet with waxed paper, and, using a melon baller or small spoon, divide mixture into six pretty balls. Refrigerate, uncovered, for an hour.
Next, melt another 2 tablespoons chocolate as above, and remove refrigerated chocolate balls. Dip your left fingertips into the melted chocolate, picking up one of the balls with the messy hand and rolling it in the melted chocolate bowl until it is covered. Use a fork to remove the ball, and place it on a fresh plate, using your clean hand to sprinkle with cocoa powder and/or powdered sugar. Once finished, place back in fridge to harden (at least 30 minutes). Truffles will keep, covered, in the fridge for five daysbut we dare you to wait that long.
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