Monday, February 13, 2023

The Birth of Aphrodite

Botticelli Birth of Venus 450x230 Botticellis Birth of Venus
Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1484-86
Botticelli's Birth of Venus is my favorite painting from the Italian Renaissance. Venus, in all her naked glory, is depicted riding to shore on a scallop shell and sea foam, being blown by Zephyrus (who is carrying the nymph Chloris) to be greeted by Pomona, the goddess of Spring. Venus's beauty was so great that wherever she stepped flowers would bloom and sand would turn to grass. Impressive! Venus embodies love, beauty, sex, fertility and prosperity in Roman mythology. She is also known as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. But do you know the story of her birth?

According to Hesiod's poem, Theogony, Gaia was the primal Greek Mother Goddess, creator of the Earth and all the Universe. Gaia created and married Uranus (primal Greek God of the sky) and had many children. Some of the children became the Titans, three were cyclopes, and three were monsters known as "hecatonchires" (which had 100 arms and 50 heads each), some became giants, and the youngest child, a Titan, was named Cronus. Uranus could not bear the sight of his hideous children, specifically the cyclopes and hecatonchires, and hid them away in the bowels of the earth. Well, Gaia wasn't too happy with this and set out for revenge. She created a flint sickle and with the help of Cronus set up a trap. As Uranus was coming to join Gaia, Cronos castrated him and threw his "stuff" into the sea. The sea began to bubble and foam "from the immortal flesh" and "with it a girl grew." Yes, it was Aphrodite, whose name means "risen from the foam." Wow and gross! That would make an interesting family tree!

Anyway, it was the birth of Aphrodite/Venus gliding on a scallop shell that has given scallops their aphrodisiac reputation. In fact, scallops are believed to raise sexual hormones in men and women, and have the ability to elevate moods! Check and check! This exquisite recipe, from Chef Eric Brenner, for "Seared Scallops, Saffron Risotto and Beurre Blanc" is the perfect Valentine meal! Luscious sweet scallops, served on a bed of creamy saffron risotto, and a generous drizzle of the best damn beurre blanc I've ever tasted is sexy, elegant, and extremely romantic! In addition, you will need to enlist the help of your mate to stir the risotto while you finish the rest! Cooking together is sexy! So, light the candles, pour some wine, and let the pleasure begin!   

Seared Scallops, Saffron Risotto and Beurre Blanc

Serves 4 (I have halved this recipe with great success, if you prefer dinner for two!)

For the Beurre Blanc
1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons white wine
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 pound (8 tablespoons) butter, softened

For the Saffron Risotto
1 pinch saffron
2 quarts chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup minced shallots
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh peas
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

For the Scallops
12 dry-packed sea scallops
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

Remove and discard the side muscle from the scallops. Set the scallops on a paper towel and allow to come to room temperature while you make the beurre blanc and risotto.

For the Beurre Blanc
Remove the zest from the lemon with a vegetable peeler and place in a small saucepan. Add the juice of the lemon. Place the bay leaf, shallot, wine and vinegar in the saucepan and reduce by half. Add the cream and reduce to less than 1/4 cup. Remove from the heat, strain into another small pan and gradually whisk in the softened butter. Don't let the sauce go over 130 degrees. Do no try to reheat or refrigerate the sauce. (Sounds tricky, but it's not. You can do it!)

For the Saffron Risotto
In a saucepan, combine the saffron and chicken stock and set over low heat until almost simmering. In a medium saucepot, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the shallots and saute until translucent. Add the rice and saute until lightly toasted, but not browned. Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated. Slowly incorporate the chicken stock a few ladles at a time, stirring constantly, until reduced and the rice is tender. (This can take anywhere from 25-40 minutes. Taste, taste, taste!) When tender, fold in the remaining tablespoon of butter with a rubber spatula. Fold in the peas and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve right away.

For the Scallops
Just before you think your risotto is almost ready, lightly season one side of the scallops with the salt. Heat a heavy skillet until it is screaming hot. (I use my cast iron pan!) Add the 3 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil begins to "dance" (just before smoking), place the scallops in the pan salt-side down. Cook until the scallops begin to caramelize, just a couple minutes. Flip the scallops and immediately remove the pan from the heat. The heat of the pan will cook the scallops through in about 3 to 4 minutes. 

To Plate
Place a 1/2-3/4 cup risotto onto each serving plate. Top each with three scallops. Spoon the sauce around the perimeter of each plate.

Recipe slightly adapted from Chef Eric Brenner.

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