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Wednesday
Apr272005

Lavender and Roses

rose&lavender.jpg

Last week, as you may remember, I treated myself to two new cookbooks, both of which showcase some of the more unusual gastronomic treasures to be found around the Mediterranean's far-flung shores. The recipes are so tempting that I started planning a long to-cook list, but I hadn't gotten very far when something perturbed me: at least *three* of the herbs and spices called for in these recipes were nowhere to be found in my spice bowl. This scenario really flusters me, for reasons of pride I probably shouldn't probe into here, but the upshot is that my spice collection grows a little with each new cookbook I acquire, because I do whatever is needed to track down the spices in question. One of the missing spices, fennel seeds, was easy to obtain, its absence from my bowl simply the result of forgetting to replenish a depleted supply. The remaining two, however, proved to be a bit more elusive: dried edible lavender buds and rose petals.

After unsuccessfully perusing the spice shelves of all the major supermarkets and ethnic grocers in town, I reluctantly turned to the internet as a last resort. Normally I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to spending money at the click of a mouse, but I've never really liked ordering edible things online. I would never consider ordering my groceries over the internet, for example, though I know a lot of people who swear by its convenience.  I simply don't trust someone else to pick the ripest fruit and the freshest-looking meat, and I like knowing I can change my dinner plans on a whim if something else just looks better. There's something about food's subjectivity and fragility that just makes it better to buy when you can hold it in your hand, see its color and smell its perfume. There's also the impatience factor: when I have a craving for something, I want to make it now, not next week when the ingredients arrive. In any case, it was either brave the internet or go without, so of course I braved the internet, and I'm so happy I did because I've come up with a fantastic find, a UK-based supplier of organic herbs and spices, and yes, even edible dried flowers. I placed my order on Friday, and on Monday morning, a box had already arrived containing these oh-so-chic little stainless steel canisters with glass lids, that when opened billowingly exude a breath of intense lavender and roses.

Thus armed and ready, I was highly dismayed to discover that there are actually very few recipes in these two books that call for my new acquisitions. The lavender makes an appearance in a cake, chocolate truffles and roast duck, while the rose petals are actually only used as a garnish for dishes that incorporate rosewater. I spent a frantic hour rifling through the other books on my shelf only to find the same thing. It seemed like if I stuck to my cookbooks I would barely break the crust of possibility of what can be done with these new additions to my culinary arsenal. So, like any self-respecting cook, I went back to the internet...

...and after hours of research, have assembled a by-no-means-definitive digital guide to show off some of the more interesting things you can do with dried lavender and roses. Just in case you ever find yourself in possession of either and have no idea what to cook :)

Lavender is very popular in sweet-and-savory dishes, such as Barbecued Lamb Kebabs with Honey and Lavender, Lavender Honey and Mustard Pork Tenderloin, Salmon Filet with Lavender Honey and Tamari, Lavender-Glazed Meatballs, Lavender Pistachio Lamb Chops, and Lavender Cream Chicken. It can show up in soups: Lavender Leek and Potato Soup, Cold Melon Soup with Lavender; and in salads: Ojai Orange Salad with Lavender Vinaigrette and Lavender Chicken Salad. It can grace pizza: Lavender Pizza; cheese: Chevre Marinated in Lavender and Fresh Herbs; and nuts: Lavender and Orange-Glazed Pecans. It apparently takes well to baking: Lavender and Hazelnut Bread and Lavender Shortbread; frying: Lavender Ricotta Fritters; and freezing: Lavender Ice Cream. It can quench your thirst on a hot day: Lavender Limeade, Lavender Margaritas, and Lavender Kir, and satisfy even the sweetest sweet tooth: Pear and Lavender Clafoutis, Lavender-Raspberry White Chocolate Cheesecake, and Chocolate-Hazelnut Baklava with Lavender Cream and Hazelnut Bark.

Rose Petals, especially the dried kind, are a little more enigmatic. Most recipes that want to incorporate rose flavor opt for rose water or rose essence, both readily available in Indian and Middle Eastern shops. A little more sleuthing was involved in finding recipes to use the petals, but the ones I found are wonderfully exotic, indulgent and sensual. I've included recipes here that use both fresh and dried petals. Recipes I came across included Rhubarb and Rose Petal Jam, Damavand Yogurt and Cucumber Cold Soup with Walnuts and Rose Petals, Chicken with Honey and Rose Petals, Quail in Rose Petal Sauce (from Like Water for Chocolate), Pullum Frontonianum (Apicus Chicken), Maraqat al-Safarjal (Sweet Ragout of Quince and Lamb), Grilled Chicken with Rose Petal-Mango Sauce, Cherry and Rose Petal Soup, Almond Pestinos in Rose Petal Syrup, Champagne and Rose Petal Sorbet, Rose Lassis, and a fabulous collection of rosy recipes at The Joy of Soup, including Rose Petal Omelettes, Rose Petal Drop Scones, Linguine with Rose Petal Pesto and Green Tea and Rose Petal Popsicles.


Sunday
Apr242005

IMBB #14: Orange You Hungry?

pannacotta.jpg


My first entry for the monthly Is My Blog Burning?, and the category is orange. Hmm... now that's a challenge, not because there are no interesting orange foods, but because there are so many! Carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, oranges, mandarins, peaches, nectarines, mango, apricots... When I started thinking about fruits and vegetables that are naturally orange in color, I realized that they all have inherent sweetness in common. Some orange vegetables (like pumpkin and sweet potato) are used unashamedly in sweet desserts; others like carrots often have their natural sweetness subtly enhanced by glazing before being served as a savory side dish. The orange fruits, similarly, represent some of the most chin-drippingly juicy, sweet and succulent of all fruits. In fact three of them - mangoes, peaches and apricots - make it into my top-ten list of would-even-sell-my-mother-for-them favorite foods. There are of course other things that are orange, like Irn Bru, salmon eggs and Cheez-its, but somehow these don't seem to strike to the heart of the orange matter like fruits and vegetables do. So that part decided, I had the difficult task of choosing which orange-hued fruit or vegetable to showcase. I wanted to do something local and seasonal, but a quick trip to the supermarket confirmed that there is nothing local and seasonal here in Scotland, apart from a few stalks of rhubarb, which most definitely aren't orange. So that idea out the window, and spying a little packet of dried apricots florescently beckoning to me from the baking aisle, I decided to go for the anthithesis of local, and create escape food. So here it is, as exotic and as orange as I could make it:

Cardamom and Honey Stewed Apricots with Buttermilk-Rosewater Panna Cotta
Serves 6

1 lb dried apricots
10 cardamom pods
2 cups orange juice
1 cup water
1 cup mild floral honey, preferably orange-blossom
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 packet (2 1/2 teaspoons or 11.7 grams) powdered gelatine
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon rosewater

Combine the apricots, cardamom, orange juice and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, shaking the pan instead of stirring, for 25-30 minutes, or until the apricots are swollen and plump and the liquid is greatly reduced. Add the honey and continue to cook until the liquid bubbles thickly, about 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, pour the cream into a pot and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Allow it to soften for about 10 minutes, then add the sugar and heat on medium until both the gelatin and the sugar have dissolved. Remove from the heat, stir in the buttermilk and the rosewater, and pour into 6 oiled small bowls or ramekins. Put these in the fridge and allow to chill until completely set, about 3 hours.

To serve, unmold a panna cotta onto a plate, coaxing it with a spoon if it stubbornly refuses, and spoon some room-temperature apricots and honey over the top. You can either remove the cardamom pods or leave them in for visual appeal. Although this is very sweet and creamy, something about the tanginess of the buttermilk and fruit leaves you feeling quite refreshed, so it would be a good dessert to end a heavy meal. Me, of course, I've been eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Note: I think this would take very well to alterations. You could no doubt substitute another spice like ginger or cinnamon for the cardamom, apricot nectar for the orange juice, yogurt for the buttermilk, vanilla for the rosewater, splenda for the sugar... you get the picture.

Saturday
Apr232005

A Handful of Saffron

saffron.jpg

I love to play word association with food. We have so many images in our subconscious that actually have very little to do with the food itself, but rather with a place we ate it, an emotion we experienced at the time, the feel and scent of the air during an unforgettable meal, or a person we shared the taste with. Basil, for me, brings up fragments of memory that include an intensely hot summer day, my bare feet on the kitchen floor, stained fingernails and a spicy cinnamon-like fragrance filling my nostrils as I tore up handfuls of green one long-ago afternoon when I learned how to make pesto from the abundant crop of basil in our backyard. When I think of soft buttery croissants I am sitting at the window of an old shepherd's cottage we rented once in southern France, turning my head one way to take in the aroma of yeasty, buttery pastry heating in the oven and turning the other to smell the cool, herb-soaked morning breeze softly wafting up from the fields below.

When I think of saffron, however, my head is filled with vivid images that have nothing to do with actual experience. I close my eyes and I can see dimly glowing lanterns, mud-brick walls and shadowy figures melting into dark doorways; I can feel warm breezes carrying the scent of night-blooming jasmine and incense, I can almost taste silver platters of food piled with spicy, syrupy tagines, baskets of oranges and walnuts and pomegranates, and bowls of rose-scented finger water. I have never witnessed anything like this, yet it is so evocative I can almost feel I was once there. The only way I can explain it is that saffron is one food so steeped in the myth and legend of the places it is used, places like Persia, Morocco, and Moorish Spain, that everything I have ever heard, read or imagined about these places comes together to create an impression so strong it rivals memory.

Saffron is an enigmatic spice. Use too much of it and it becomes acrid and bitter, overpowering all the other flavors it comes into contact with. Use too little, and its perfume is wasted. Saffron is at its best when it just haunts your senses; like a whisper on your tongue, it leaves you wanting more but knowing it would never be the same if you had it. I know many people who have never tasted saffron, not being willing to spend those sums of money on a pinch of red dust. I had never bought it myself, still being on the fence about whether or not I even liked it, when about five years ago I was given an unexpected gift. Neighbors of Manuel's mother had been to Iran and brought her back a jar of saffron as a present, and knowing how much I liked to cook she passed it on to me. I was astounded; inside the delicately engraved container was easily an ounce of blood-red, unbroken crocuses - the most expensive saffron money can buy. When it was opened the first time, the wave of scent was intoxicating. I was bewitched.

I have learned a lot from that bounty of saffron (the remnants of which are still in my spice bowl, by the way). I have learned, for example, that kept safely tucked away from both light and moisture, those little strands lose none of their seductive power; I have learned that it's better to keep them whole, rather than crumbling them, so that their vivid, serpentine forms can be fully appreciated in finished dishes; I have learned that a long, slow soak in just-warm water helps preserve their fragrance more than a boiling bath; I have learned that certain ingredients seem to have been invented solely for the purpose of combining them with saffron: garlic, lemon, wine, lamb, honey, orange, apricot, rosewater, almond, chicken, cinnamon...

In honor of my recent obsession with Spanish food (see here, here and here), I created this dessert, in which saffron gives a touch of sophistication and exoticness to the most quintessential of Spanish sweets.

flan.jpgSaffron and Sherry Flan
Serves 4-6

1/4 cup water
15-20 saffron threads, or a good pinch of powdered saffron
2 cups evaporated milk (alternatively try one cup milk and one cup cream)
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
3 eggs
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup fino or amontillado Sherry

Start by warming the water so it's just hot to the touch. Add the saffron and let it soak for as long as you can, preferably about an hour. Preheat the oven to about 325F/160C. Heat the milk, sugar and lemon rind together until the sugar melts and the mixture just begins to simmer. Take it off the heat and let it sit 25-30 minutes to infuse. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and yolks. When the milk has cooled, beat in the eggs, then strain the mixture through a fine sieve. Add the saffron water and sherry.

Pour this mixture into 4 or 6 (depending on their size) oiled, oven-proof ramekins, and set them in a deep baking dish. Pour hot water so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then cover the whole thing with foil. Bake until the flan mixture is set and jiggles uniformly (i.e. the center doesn't jiggle more than the rest), which will take about 30-40 minutes. I actually never time these things, I just eyeball, so don't take these times as the gospel! Let them cool until lukewarm on the countertop, then chill until cold. To unmold, run a knife around the inside and invert onto a plate.

To make the flans even more exotic, mix a little more sherry with some mild honey and a squeeze of lemon, and drizzle over the top. Then sit back and imagine yourself in a sultan's palace, listening to a distant melody on the breeze and gazing up at the brilliant stars above...