Hi everyone, This is Essa- Bloomsday Review’s resident foodboy here.
This is going to be something different, so I think I should be a lot more personal than I tend to be with my writing. If you’ve read my previous article about Persian Ice Cream, you may know that I have an interest in how the culinary arts allows us to appreciate flowers in a unique way beyond their looks, and rather than research a topic related to that and write about it or do an interview, I invited some friends over, rolled up my sleeves and cooked a really nice meal with some flowers, and I’d like to share my experience with you.
I think it’s really important to talk about where I’m getting my recipe, because in this instance, that’s as important as the food itself. I made alterations to the Quail in Rose Petal Sauce recipe from Chapter 3 of Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel Like Water for Chocolate.
Like Water for Chocolate is a magical realism novel that follows a woman named Tita as she longs for Pedro, a man she loves, but is forbidden to be with by her mother, who insists the youngest daughter not marry and instead take care of her parents. Each chapter of the novel involves cooking and gives a recipe for the dishes made in that chapter. In the novel, Tita, the main character, receives roses from Pedro, and not wanting them to die, or throw them away, she thinks the following:
[The roses] were beautiful. She couldn’t just throw them in the trash, in the first place, she’d never been given flowers before, and second, they were from Pedro. All at once she seemed to hear [her previous cook’s] voice dictating a recipe, a prehispanic recipe involving rose petals. Tita had nearly forgotten it because it called for pheasants, which they didn’t raise on the ranch. The one bird they did have was quail. She decided to revise the recipe slightly, just so she could use the flowers. (pages 48-9)
12 roses, preferably red
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 drops attar of roses
2 tablespoons anise
2 tablespoons honey
2 cloves garlic
This novel celebrates the tradition and expression that is so deeply embedded in cooking, specifically in Latin American culture, and the way that it applies to a dish that is floral in nature gives valuable insight into how the culinary arts can express beauty. Immediately we see how cooking the roses Pedro gave Tita didn’t destroy their beauty but transformed it, and almost preserved it in a way. Within my own experience, I was dreading the inevitable moment I had to destroy the roses I got, but at no point did it feel as though I had, even as I blended them in my food processor. Their sharp red color stayed the same, and their perfume-like aroma only intensified. There was never a moment in which I felt that the ingredient I had been working with had lost the qualities by which I would call it a rose.
Using Cornish game hen instead of quail for rose petal sauce dish.
The novel intersperses the directions for the recipe among the chapter as the main character cooks them, but compiled, they are as follows:
[Cook the quail in butter]. After the petals are removed from the roses, they are ground with anise in a mortar. Separately brown the chestnuts in a pan, remove the peels and cook them in water. Then, puree them. Mince the garlic and brown slightly in butter, when it is transparent, add it to the chestnut puree, along with the honey, the ground pitaya, and the rose petals, and salt to taste. To thicken the sauce slightly, you may add two teaspoons of cornstarch. Last, strain through a fine sieve and add no more than two drops of attar of roses, since otherwise it might have too strong a flavor and smell. As soon as the seasoning has been added, remove the sauce from the heat. The quail should be immersed in the sauce for ten minutes to infuse them with the flavor, and then removed. (pages 52-3)
A lot of readers of Like Water For Chocolate have attempted the recipes from the novel themselves and had made adjustments corresponding with their ability and the availability of ingredients, it is, after all, important to remember that Tita herself had substituted the pheasant in the original recipe with quail, and I definitely followed in that tradition. I, not having access to quails, used Cornish game hens and substituted raspberries for the pitaya. Additionally I had not used the recommended corn starch, and my sauce was notably thinner than I had seen examples of in other people’s attempts to follow the recipe. In terms of how I deviated from the instructions, I used a food processor rather than a mortar, which saved a lot of time, and decided to season and bake the Cornish game hens, putting some carrots with them as they baked, and, rather than let them sit in the sauce for ten minutes, I poured the sauce directly on the hens -I had also used a bit more garlic than the recipe had asked for, but that wasn’t a conscious choice, I had simply been a bit reckless with my measuring altogether. Though I did deviate from the original recipe, I don’t feel as though I deviated so much as to necessitate saying that I had a completely different experience from the one Esquivel intended.
Rose petals pulverized with raspberries in food processor.
Pairing with the hen, I had also made Jasmine Tea Rice. It’s quite simple and self explanatory, instead of making rice in water, you do it in jasmine tea. I had gone to a local shop that I knew used a good amount of Jasmine blossoms in its mix. I had made this before and knew how beautifully subtle the floral taste of jasmine blossoms takes something as basic as rice and really makes it a transcendent unique and delicious experience. I cannot stress how lovely my apartment smelled as the complementary scents of pulverized roses and jasmine tea floated through it.
The novel, as previously mentioned, is in the magical realism genre, and as such, the food in the novel often has magical effects on people. In the chapter in which the Quail in Rose Petal sauce recipe is featured, the dish works magically as an intense aphrodisiac on the characters who eat it, hinting at not only the romantic and sexual connotations of roses and the act of giving roses to someone you love, but also alluding to the intensity of the sauce itself. After it was put through the food processor and cooked, I had a spoonful of the unsifted rose mixture, and it was deeply intense. Roses are quite intense as they are, but also the anise, garlic, and raspberries I had used gave it a bold sharpness- although as an important note, this intensity does settle somewhat, and becomes much more palatable, after the sauce is put through the sieve.
What I had made was a Cornish Game Hen in Rose Petal Sauce served with Jasmine Tea Rice, and realizing I still had a rose left over and knowing there’s no such thing as too many flowers, I garnished the dish with rose petals.
Cornish Game Hen in Rose Petal Sauce with Jasmine Tea Rice
It’s very difficult to describe how amazing the meal was. As flowers aren’t usually in my daily consumption, it’s hard to describe anything as a point of reference. Also, the only times I have eaten flowers have been as desserts, which channel their aromas into sweetness. It’s rare to have new food experiences, and it’s difficult to explain what’s unfamiliar in food, but the best I can do is say that this dish was intense in a really nice way. When I have described food as intense, it’s usually intensely bitter, or intensely sweet, or intensely salty, etc. The hen was intense but really wasn’t so in the way I had usually had with other food- it was intensely floral and expressed the aroma of the roses it was cooked with in a really unique and delicious way, and that was incredibly beautiful to experience. The Jasmine tea rice I had accompanied the hens with was a really great choice. A degree of florality tied the entire dish together, but they were different enough to make the whole meal interesting and dynamic- there was a light subtley to the rice that terrifically contrasted to the bold intensity of the hens. Though the dish was completely savory, the sweet scent of the flowers added a complexity to the rice and meat that I wasn’t expecting and I really look forward to making this again.
I had originally planned to make a Lavender Mousse for dessert, and was incredibly excited to do so. However, I wasn’t able to find any fresh lavender at the three grocery stores I had visited to prepare for this dinner. So, wanting to still stick to the flower theme, I cheated a little and headed to Saffron and Rose to buy a pint of Faloodeh and a pint of traditional saffron flavored Bastani and then I garnished that with the leftover rose petals I had left. I would talk more about that, but I’ve already talked about my love for Persian Ice cream in my previous article, where I interviewed the manager of Saffron and Rose.
All in all, this experience was incredibly interesting and really allowed me to interact with the beauty of flowers in a way I really didn’t expect; the striking red color of the sauce, and the scent of flowers, and the subtle sweetness of the jasmine rice paired with the bold presence of the roses on the hen, all reinforced the floral presence of the dish and made me reflect on how beauty can be transformative. I was reminded that the beauty I was experiencing didn’t end in the flowers I had bought and that I was exceptionally lucky I got to share this experience not only with my friends whom I shared this meal, but also with you. The beauty of the process didn’t end in the flowers, nor did it end in the food. But rather, the beauty continued with being able to share the experience.
P.S. Even with all the lights on, my apartment is quite dark, so I would like to thank my friends for helping me with the food photography in this article.