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Seeing Red

A colorful guide to Valentine's Day dining.

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There are few things I wish I could un-see as much as a recent selection of potential Valentine's Day menus that showed up in my inbox, sent by a well-meaning but entirely misguided friend who knows I like to cook. For the most part, all the recipes were normal and tasty-sounding, but each entrée was accompanied by — and this is the disgusting part — a side of mashed potatoes dyed red and molded into the shape of a heart.

Maybe it's because I'm a purist and think potatoes should be potato-colored. Maybe I'm a little squeamish and put off because I know that the best red-food colorings contain some weird chemical or are produced from ground-up beetle wings. But for some reason I find the very notion of artificially red potatoes unappealing, un-sexy, and downright revolting. It's certainly not the sort of dish I could ever recommend as a Valentine's Day treat, except for someone struggling to come up with a way of telling their partner it's time to start seeing other people. This is made doubly true by the fact that there are so many delicious foods that are naturally or traditionally pink or red and full of healthy goodness.

Red meats are protein-rich, and red veggies are cram-packed with vitamin C and super-powered antioxidants such as lycopene. Presenting a loved one with a plate full of naturally red food is like saying, "I want you to live a long, strong, and healthy life."

So, as we prepare to celebrate the season of amore here's a list of red foods to consider whether you're dining out or bringing it all back home:

Beets: This food comes with a reading assignment. On top of being the sweet, wonderfully meaty vegetable that most closely resembles a human heart, the perfectly roasted beet produces a fragrance more intoxicating than the fanciest French perfume. In Jitterbug Perfume, an epic story about pagan love, pagan sex, magnificent smells, and vegetable worship, author Tom Robbins immortalized this humble root vegetable with its seductive aroma. Read the funny parts (which are often also the dirty parts) aloud while hand-feeding beets to your partner until you're both purple.

Salmon: When cooked to pink perfection, this delicately flavored red fish is a little too flaky for making the perfect romantic metaphor. Of course, not every relationship is perfect.

Tandoori chicken: Ideally, this succulent yogurt-marinated Indian barbecue gets its rosy hue from cayenne pepper or some other powdered chili. All too often, I'm sorry to say, it's helped along with food coloring. No matter, because at its spicier extreme, this traditional Punjabi dish tastes simply red.

Tartare: Few foods are sexier than raw meat. It's fleshy, pink as the pinkest lips, and a little bit taboo. For sheer Freudian naughtiness, it's hard to go wrong with a fresh and tangy tuna tartare, shot through with shallots and capers and served in a cucumber boat topped with black caviar. But more parochial lovers who want to mold something in the shape of a valentine might want to think about chopped, wine- or citrus-marinated strip steak, spiced to perfection. It's a delicious way to get in touch with your inner cave dweller. Who gets clubed on the head can be negotiated beforehand.

Pomegranate: Nothing speaks to unconventional love like the pomegranate. According to myth, Hades, the terrifying god of the underworld, kidnapped the Greek goddess Persephone and tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds and becoming his wife. The thick, sweet pomegranate syrup, which is available at most Mediterranean markets, is wonderful in mixed drinks and as a dessert topping. When combined with ground, roasted walnuts, the dark sweet-and-sour syrup makes a great topping for roast pork or game birds such as duck or Cornish hen.

Rose syrup: This sweet, heavily rose-scented syrup also can be found at local Mediterranean markets and is supposed to be used as a flavoring for carbonated water. Forget that. Instead, drizzle it over chocolate cake and ice cream. It smells like romance and tastes like it too.

Berries: Strawberries are too sweet, and raspberries are too sour. But the dark red cherry balances the two extremes perfectly. There are reasons why it's an adjective for perfection and a euphemism for virginity.

Tomatoes: These plump, tart, healthy red staples are sometimes called "love apples." What else do you need to know?

Chilis: Toast a few fresh red chilies in a pan then blanch them in enough vegetable stock to cover and blend. Used as a dip for chips or, better yet, radish slices, this firecracker salsa will have you singing Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" all night long.

Wine: The beautiful burgundy fruit of the vine has been making love more interesting since 7000 BC. It is the original aphrodisiac and the perfect complement for everything on this list — even dyed-red potatoes, if you simply must go there.

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