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Foodies recall how they turned up romantic heat

Randy Wayne White, writer, restaurateur and chili pepper fan, advises would-be lovers: “Don’t be shy in the kitchen.”

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2007)

Randy Wayne White, writer, restaurateur and chili pepper fan, advises would-be lovers: “Don’t be shy in the kitchen.”

Women have for ages been subjected to the anatomically perplexing expression about the way to a man's heart. Share a fine meal and — cue the harp, please — romance blooms. Food writer M.F.K. Fisher devoted countless pages to the gastronomy of love, or "the almost vascular connection between love and lobster pate, between eating and romance."

Thing is, Cupid is in the details. Aim for lobster pate and sometimes you just end up with cold fish. We spoke with foodies about their earliest memories of cooking for a significant other — both the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat.

Novelist and Gulf Coast resident Randy Wayne White is also a restaurateur and cookbook author, so perhaps the deck was stacked in his favor. In courting his now-wife, a California native who wasn't much taken with Florida, he knew what to do. He got up early one morning and headed out to the docks and bagged himself a nice snook. From there, he stole over to the neighbor's yard and grabbed a couple of avocados from a tree. Add some local key limes and chili peppers from his own yard (he used to grow 27 varieties), and you have, as he said, "a hunted and gathered breakfast," which he presented on banana leaves.

"I wanted her to love Florida as much as I did. I don't know if it was that breakfast that won her, but it certainly didn't hurt."

His advice for would-be lovers?

"Take chances and don't be shy in the kitchen. Also, chili peppers can cover many sins."

Long before fellow restaurateur and vineyard owner Joe Bastianich, son of Lidia, started winning all those plaudits from the New York Times (Babbo, Esca and others), he was a guy trying to get the girl. He took chances.

"We'd just gotten back from Paris, where we'd eaten a lot of white truffles. I had access to a lot of ingredients, so I tried to re-create a dish we'd had with duck eggs poached with heavy cream in a double boiler and topped with white truffle."

The results, he says, were clumsy, buttery and heavy.

"I was young and it was my best attempt. Now it's 20 years and three kids later, and I'm not making many truffle dinners anymore."

Like Bastianich, Rick Martinez, founder and executive director of Sweetwater Farms in Tampa, has access to ingredients. A vegetarian for 32 years, his idea of wooing is to head out to the garden and pluck this or that for an all-organic and freshly harvested meal.

"In February, our crops include carrots, cabbages and root vegetables, and gourmet lettuces. And we have citrus this time of year. So, I'd make a big root bake with carrots, turnips, onions and beets, with fresh rosemary sprinkled on top. And a tremendous salad with arugula and fresh radishes."

Did his root bake do the trick (wink, wink)? He demurred, but he did say, "Making a meal from things you've grown has special significance."

Sometimes efforts in the kitchen can take the form of liquid refreshment. Tampa resident Paul Abercrombie, author of Organic Shaken and Stirred, remembers the first grownup drink he ever made for his now-wife, Gail. (The first nongrownup drink? He thinks it was a beer with a shot dropped into it.)

"Twelve years ago we were in Florence and were at the beautiful lobby of the Grand hotel. After tromping all over the city, we stopped in there and asked the bartender for a cocktail and he brought us a pair of negronis. Turns out, it was invented by Count Negroni in Florence at that very hotel. That first sip we were totally hooked. It was a booze epiphany. As soon as we got home I made them for her. It was our drink. But this will sound like the Elisabeth Shue/Nicolas Cage kind of romance."

Hey, whatever works.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.

Foodies recall how they turned up romantic heat 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 3:30am]

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