"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.