PARIS -- With its own "Lover's Bridge," a museum of romance (the Musée de la Vie Romantique) and even a book that chronicles the best places around the city to kiss, Paris would seem to be an endless honeymoon for its residents. Which, of course, it isn't.
But there is something magical that happens every time I return to France from my real home in Texas. As the plane makes its descent north of Paris into Charles de Gaulle, slicing through the gray and onto the tarmac below, my heart thumps a bit faster and I smile as I think to myself, "Woohoo, I'm in Paris!"
Every time, it's like this. After all these years.
I first fell under Paris' spell decades ago, walking hand-in-hand one evening along the quay of the Seine with my then-boyfriend after a dinner of sole meunière in a dimly lit Right Bank bistro. There was a light mist clinging to the air -- bruine, I now know it's called -- and the Eiffel Tower was illuminated with thousands of tiny white lights. He asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Afterward, we found a late-night brasserie on the Champs-Élysées, ordered Champagne and ate crêpes suzette, and drank and ate ourselves silly. A few months later, we returned to France and got hitched in a cathedral called Notre Dame in the tiny town of Senlis, just north of Paris, canonized in Hemingway's A Movable Feast.
As storybook as it sounds, our marriage didn't last. When it ended, I severed ties with Paris, too, because I couldn't think of one without the other. Then, seven years ago, I met a Frenchman who wooed me back to his city.
And I'm so glad he did.
I am in complete, crazy love with this place. Despite its tarnish and grit, cranky Parisians, persistent gray skies, inconvenient hours (nothing is ever open when you really need it to be) and frequent transportation strikes, there is hardly a day that goes by that I don't look up and see something new -- an architectural detail on a building that I have passed a hundred times already -- or at the market, a new cheese to try, a new type of fish, or a new something that I've never tasted before. It is all this that I love, and I love it every day, even when I absolutely hate it and can't take it for one more minute.
Like any relationship, we have had our difficulties, Paris and I. But at this point, I'm in it for the long haul. After all of these years, like my favorite cashmere sweater (or Hermès scarf -- I mean, come on!), it feels comfortable. It feels like home.
Which, to me, is the most romantic idea of all. There's nothing better than finding someone -- or someplace -- that makes you feel like you belong.
So this Valentine's Day, I've written a dinner menu that is French-inspired and easy to make, from my adopted home to yours. Valentine's Day falls in the middle of the week this year, so a teensy bit of advance planning is required; to wit, I've come up with a foolproof, make-ahead menu to ensure maximum fun on the night of, with almost no dishes to wash the next day.
And to stack the deck in the romance department, this dinner is loaded with all sorts of ingredients thought to be aphrodisiacs -- arugula, pears, pomegranate and honey in the salad; red wine in the chicken; and a creamy dessert topped with the sexiest berry of all. And for a little extra something, chocolate-chile meringue kisses, a Franco-Texan treat to nibble on later or send home as a gift. They're perfect for Valentine's Day, because they are a little bit sweet and a little bit spicy ... and that's all I'm going to say about that.
On whatever side of the pond you may find yourself, I hope that your Valentine's Day -- and night -- is filled with lots of kisses.
Arugula, pear and pomegranate salad
1/2 of 1 small pear, such as d'Anjou, cut into thin slices
A few pomegranate seeds
About 1/4 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
2 big handfuls arugula
"I love you, honey!" vinaigrette, recipe follows
1. Toss the pear slices, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, arugula and vinaigrette. Serve immediately.
Nutritional analysis per serving, without vinaigrette: 127 calories, 9 grams fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, no cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 59 percent of calories from fat.
Nutritional analysis per serving, with vinaigrette: 344 calories, 30 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, no cholesterol, 96 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 74 percent of calories from fat.
Chocolate-chile meringue kisses
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 egg whites, at room temperature
A pinch sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2. Sift together the powdered sugar, unsweetened cocoa and cayenne. Set this aside.
3. Whip egg whites with the pinch of salt on medium-high speed and when they begin to hold their shape, add the sugar/cocoa/cayenne mixture about a spoonful at a time -- I usually increase the speed to high at this stage. Don't overdo; turn the mixer off when the dry ingredients are incorporated.
4. Spoon out your meringue cookies onto the parchment, leaving an inch or two between each one, and pop them into the oven. Let bake for 10 minutes at 300 degrees, then reduce the temperature to 200 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until the meringues are firm. Turn off the heat, and let the meringues cool completely in the oven. Store them in an airtight container.
Nutritional analysis per kiss: 9 calories, trace fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 14 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 4 percent of calories from fat.
"I love you, honey!" vinaigrette
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
About 1/4 teaspoon of fresh rosemary, finely chopped
A pinch sea salt and pepper
3 to 4 tablespoons of canola, grapeseed or another neutral oil
1. Put everything but the oil in an old jam jar and give it a shake.
2. Let it rest for 10 minutes; then add the oil and shake again. Taste for seasonings.
Nutritional analysis per 1/6-cup serving: 217 calories, 21 grams fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 91 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 83 percent of calories from fat.
Coffee pots de creme
1 1/2 cups cream
1/4 cup dark roast coffee beans, crushed (see Cowgirl tip)
6 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1 1/4 cups sugar
4 ounces fresh raspberries, for serving
1. Put the cream and crushed coffee beans in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When it reaches a simmer, turn the heat off and let the coffee/cream mixture steep for about a half-hour. After the mixture cools, pour the mixture through a fine mesh colander or cheesecloth set over a colander to catch the coffee pieces. Set the coffee-infused cream aside.
2. Beat the egg yolks with the salt and set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and put 6 half-cup (4-ounce) ramekins in a large roasting pan.
4. Warm the milk over medium heat. When tiny bubbles appear on the side, pour it slowly into the egg yolks, whisking at the same time. Mix in the sugar. Pour this mixture through a colander to catch any eggy bits, then add the coffee-infused cream and whisk to combine. Divide this among the ramekins and fill the pan three-quarters full with water and slide into the oven. Bake until the custard is set at the edges but slightly jiggly in the center, about 1 hour to an 1 hour and 15 minutes. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours, and serve with fresh raspberries on top.
Cowgirl tip: To crush coffee beans, toss them in a heavy plastic bag and whack them a couple of times with a cast-iron skillet.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 450 calories, 23 grams fat, 58 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 268 milligrams cholesterol, 451 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 45 percent of calories from fat.