Thursday, June 19, 2008

in search of a wild rosebush in the middle of boston

"Barefoot. And with rose petals in your hair. You look like something conceived under a mushroom."

Meet Rois Melior, narrator and protagonist of Winter Rose. Written by Patricia McKillip, Winter Rose is loosely based on the ballad of Tam Lin, and rife with echoes of fairy tales. It's a gorgeous, eerie story, and my inspiration for the 2008 summer edition of Novel Food.

Though most of the book's events take place during the winter, the story begins in the summer. Rois spends her time in the woods, exploring and foraging:

"I had learned where to find wild ginger, and what tree bled a crust of honey out of a split in the wood, and where the blackberries would ripen."

Rois lives with Laurel, her father, and their cook in an lovely old farmhouse with worn flagstones and tilting doorframes. Her father's farm is prosperous, with fields of wheat and an apple orchard. Beda, the cook, prepares dishes that use both the products of the farm and the fruits of Rois' foraging: roast chicken with wild herbs, raisins and nuts in a sweet, sticky sauce, mushroom soup, and blackberry pies flavored with a nip of apple brandy.

I decided to prepare a dish using ingredients mentioned in the book: chicken, apple cider, honey, and rose petals, because roses, as you might guess from the title, are a major theme. Getting all the ingredients was a piece of cake... with the exception of the rose petals.

Most florists will look at you oddly if you ask for pesticide-free flowers, and they'll look at you really oddly if you tell them you're looking for roses you can eat, so I went looking for an unsprayed rosebush from which I could snag a bloom or two.

Rois might find a profusion of wild rosebushes in her wood, but I can tell you that they're a lot more difficult to find in the middle of Boston. Just about every rosebush I saw was safely ensconced behind a fence - and most looked well-groomed, which suggested that they'd been sprayed with pesticides, anyway.

I was saved from having to resort to trespassing and petty theft by the discovery of a large, unkempt rosebush outside an unspecified apartment building in Brookline. I clipped three roses and took them home, flush with victory, and carefully washed and dried them before adding them to the chicken.

Where they added nothing to the flavor or aroma.

I don't know if I used the wrong variety of rose, or if they were past their prime, but the rose petals were completely tasteless. Fortunately, I think the chicken was fine without the additional flavor, and I admit, they did make for an attractive garnish.

Braised Chicken with Apple Cider, Honey, and Rose Petals

Cooking onions in a dry pan may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it's actually a neat little trick I read about in the New York Times. Something about the dry heat makes the sugars caramelize faster.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take two small white onions, or four shallots, and slice them up finely. Put them in a dry pot - no oil - over low heat. Season with a sprinkling of salt and a dash of nutmeg, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and start to caramelize.

Brown two chicken breasts, or two thighs, or four drumsticks, and add them to the pot with the onions. Cover with hard apple cider (I used a variety called Newton's Folly, from Vermont) and bring the mixture to a boil, before turning the heat down to a low simmer.

When the chicken is tender and close to falling off the bone, stir in a generous drizzling of honey and the petals from two or three small, pesticide-free red roses. Check for salt; adjust to taste. Remove from heat and serve over rice, with a green salad on the side.

Blackberries with honeyed whipped cream and candied ginger would make for a nice dessert.

Note: Leftovers can be shredded and used to make chicken and apple risotto.


Simona said...

Beautiful! Another book I must add to my to-read list. If we lived closer, I would offer you my rose bushes for further experiments with your chicken dish, which sounds delicious. Thanks for contributing to our event!

Ann said...

Lovely literary dish! Too bad about the rose petals, though...

Cakelaw said...

The rose petals might not have tasted much, but they make this dish look enchanting. Savoury dishes often don't photograph well, but this looks wonderful. The book sounds very interesting too - thanks for drawing it to my attention!

Karyn said...

Next time I would visit an Asian or Middle Eastern grocery for rose water or rose syrup. But I am lazy and unpoetic. :-)

Lisa said...

Adele, that looks and sounds heavenly. Thank you so much for taking part in this edition of Novel Food. I'm intrigued by the apple risotto idea as well, and I hope to see it here sometime! The novel was not familiar to me, so I'm also happy to have learned about it. Happy reading and cooking!

mickey said...

Romantic idea-it may show up on my nex Valentine's menu-perhaps some rose water would add some "rose depth" to the dish. Thanks for the idea.

adele said...

Simona - It's a lovely book, well worth reading.

Ann - Well, it was an experiment and an adventure. :)

Cakelaw - I think I got lucky with the camera this time. Most of the decent photos that show up on this blog are taken by my long-suffering guinea pigs. :P

Karyn - I thought about rosewater, but it's tricky to calculate the quantities. One drop too many, and you end up with something that tastes like it's been doused in granny perfume.

Lisa - The chicken and apple risotto will probably make an appearance on a rainy day.

Mickey - That's an idea. I suppose it would be a fitting Valentine's Day meal.

Julie said...

That sounds lovely (as does the book) but how disappointing about the rose petals. I just acquired a copy of Feast and I was intrigued by a recipe for a pavlova that is strewn with rose petals. It's such a pretty and romantic idea although I wondered about how much flavor they added.

Alex said...

I'm enjoying my tasty suffering.

- Guinea Pig

adele said...

Julie - I think it depends on the variety of rose. The ones I snagged had a light perfume. You probably need the ones that are really rich and heady - cabbage roses, I think.

librariane said...

This book sounds like my kind of tale--I love modern retellings (like Beauty by Robin McKinley)!

I also like the small portions you present. So many recipes serve six, and it's just hubby and I at home...neither with a penchant for leftovers...

adele said...

It's definitely in that vein (Have you read Rose Daughter, too? I hope she does a third retelling - it's fascinating to see how many different ways it can be told.)

I like having plenty of leftovers to freeze, (makes it easier to bring lunch) but it seems more sensible to do meat dishes in small portions. :)

Kim said...

I am headed to the book store this morning and will check out the book. Is is great to be inspired by a story isn't it? Nice post, Adele.

adele said...

Thank you! :)

Lisa Cornelius said...

That is a beautiful dish.

adele said...

Thank you!