Seductive and healthy foods

Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (, which is reprinted here. This week, Mindy Athas weighs in on aphrodisiacs.

It's that time of year when love is in the air and the kitchen. Whether you bake a bevy of bites for your better half or are planning a special dinner, here's the lowdown on which romantic foods may actually rev you up — and add some nutrition, too.

Aphrodisiacs are foods used historically to get blood flowing, stimulate hormones or affection, promote fertility, raise body temperature or just be psychologically suggestive. Whether they really work is subjective, but you can bet your libido on this list of healthful picks. Many foods are considered aphrodisiacs, but those noted here are rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, healthful fats and antioxidants.

Sassy Sweets Dark chocolate is higher in cocoa and lower in sugar than milk chocolate. Try it melted or as a fondue with fresh pineapple and watermelon. Rally around some raspberries with slivers of fresh aromatic mint leaves. Get your endorphins going with honey: Try drizzling it on fresh fruit, like grapes or bananas. Fit figs into your festivities or pop pomegranate seeds for pleasure. And consider champagne, which in moderation can be enjoyed with some strawberries. End the meal with a stimulating demitasse of coffee stirred with cinnamon.

Savory & Sensual Looking to add some zest to dishes? Try some red spices and capsaicin-rich hot chili peppers. An asparagus appetizer can be served cold with a citrus dipping sauce. Or try avocado mixed with olive oil, tomatoes, onion and garlic as guacamole, served with carrots, celery, radish and red peppers. Herbs like basil, rosemary and sage add bright color and flavor with minimal effort. Increase excitement with ginger, nutmeg, saffron and mustard. Up the satisfaction of salad with arugula, and increase virility with bites of broccoli rabe and other bitter mustard greens. Steam up attraction with artichokes. Red wine can be stirred into stews or used as a marinade (the alcohol burns off as the food cooks).

Powerful Protein Looking for love? Try oysters, but cook before eating as a safety precaution. Nuts seduce in many ways, so sprinkle pine nuts into a white bean chili or top off a meal with fragrant almonds, pistachios or licorice-flavored fennel, coriander and anise seeds. Toss your salad with walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds. Get big flavor in a small package with musky truffles (the mushroom, not the candy). Get euphoric with eggs: consider a frittata built with black beans to offer a high-fiber expression of desire. Seductive salmon should be coho, Pacific or wild Alaskan — top it with a small dollop of caviar.

Adding aphrodisiacs can be fun and nutritious. Gustatory stimulation starts in the nose and the eye, so allow aromas to waft in the air and serve passionate colors on a beautifully prepared plate to tempt all the senses. When in doubt, use heart-shaped cookie cutters, and set the table with a bouquet of roses. For more tips and tidbits, see "Inter Courses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook," by Martha Hopkins Hopkins and Randall Lockridge.

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