In her 1989 book, Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel created a heroine whose emotions transferred into the food she cooked. The book contained recipes for various interesting Mexican dishes. The most intriguing of these, to the 16 year old me who first encountered the book, was Quail in Rose Petal Sauce. In the story, if I remember correctly (it has been many years since I read it), she and the great love of her life had just consummated their love (illegally since he was, or was going to be, married to her sister). The result of this frame of mind while cooking the dish meant that her (other) sister found herself overheating and ended up riding off naked on the horse of a passing soldier. My details may be wrong, since I am recalling this from a great distance of years, but the general impression remained. Since reading the book, which was my gateway into other magic realist writers like Garcia Marquez, Allende and Rushdie, I have always wanted to make this provocative and exotic dish.
Recipes for it can be found all over the web. A quick google of the name of the dish will provide you with countless variations. I ended up making it totally differently to every variation I could find, for the simple reason that I couldn't get hold of some of the ingredients. All the recipes I found required chestnuts as a base for the sauce, but you try finding chestnuts in a New Zealand supermarket. I have no doubt you can get them somewhere, but I couldn't, and I had a small time-frame!
So what follows is how I did it - I broke many rules, and I am sure the dish that resulted was, while not dissimilar to the original, probably not suitable for purists. It was, however, incredibly delicious.
The first challenge was finding the quail. I was happy to settle for any kind of small bird, but I wandered the aisles of the supermarket in vain. Eventually, I went and asked the nice butcher man. And he said, "Yeah. I think we have those. Hang on a minute." He led me to the frozen food section, and sure enough, hiding under the duck, were four little quails, all nicely vacuum packed. I thanked him profusely, and with great glee. For, you see, it was in honour of our second wedding anniversary that I had decided to make this exotically exciting dish, and plan B was just not as cool.
I gathered up the rest of the ingredients, which were less difficult to find (with the exception of the elusive chestnuts, but I made a New Plan) and headed off home.
On the selected day, I defrosted my precious little quail, rinsed them and patted them dry. I had, that morning, picked six roses out of my garden. (A note: if you make this, make sure you use roses that you are sure haven't been sprayed with pesticide. Poison has been known to ruin the romantic mood!) I picked the petals off, and washed them carefully, making sure to take any critters (one little caterpillar and two incy wincy spiders) back into the garden. (Luckily I am not one of those women who go hysterical at the sight of bugs - they are evidence that the roses were not sprayed!)
I tore up a few of the petals and mixed them in with some olive oil, which I left to stand until it was time to cook. They probably stood for about four hours, for those who care about these things, but I imagine if you really wanted to make proper rose oil you'd need to leave it for several days. I just liked the concept. *grin*
Then I made the dessert. I had, while looking online for the quail recipe, come across several other recipes involving rose petals. The dessert I made was one of these. Scoops of cream cheese placed inside rose petals and dribbled with chocolate. The recipe said white chocolate, but I am afraid I am enormously prejudiced when it comes to chocolate, believing beyond rational explanation that the darker the chocolate, the better. So I used dark cooking chocolate instead. They were actually really quite lovely - the tartness of the cream cheese combining with the sweetness of the chocolate delightfully. I imagine, for those with a sweet tooth, that it would work really well with little scoops of icecream or yoghurt too!
Anyway, that done and put in the fridge, I set the scene. I laid a couple of blankets down in front of the fireplace, and placed a bunch of candles around the lounge. When my man came home from work, I set him to making a fire in said fireplace while I cooked the food. He had strict instructions he was not to come peeking around the kitchen.
I threw the rose-petal oil into a saucepan with a good dollop of butter for good measure, and browned the quail in that. Then I added a good measure of red wine (the original recipe called for sherry, but I didn't have any, so red wine it was) and some salt and pepper and some garlic, covered the saucepan and let it simmer on a medium heat for about fifteen minutes. Then I turned them (spitting and spattering oil and red wine all over me!) and cooked them covered for another ten minutes. While they were bubbling away merrily a got out a plate and liberally covered it with rose petals. When the ten minutes had passed, I took the quail out, plonked them on the rose petals and stuck them in the oven to keep warm.
To the pan juices I added some more torn up petals, some honey, some anise seed and two plums, cut up into small pieces. (The recipe says you should blend this all together with the cooked chestnuts I didn't have, in the blender I don't own due to the whole moving continents thing. Blender must be bought sometime, but at this point, I don't own one. So I didn't. Didn't seem to harm the outcome though, so there you go.) I added some water cos there wasn't much liquid going on, and a touch of cornflour to thicken it and left it simmering away merrily while I quickly made the starter (fried prawns in garlic and chilli).
We ate the prawns while the sauce thickened, and then I presented my masterpiece. I took the quail out of the oven, poured the sauce over it, threw some slivered almonds over them and a few more rose petals for good measure (six roses was really more than I needed. I would have had enough with four).
We ate with our fingers (quail are fiddly), sauce dripping from them. We scooped up rose petals drenched in this sinfully delicious sweet, aniseedy sauce studded with almonds, and stuck them into our mouths, giggling the whole time. It was, truly, gorgeous. Tasty, rich without being too rich. The flavours married really well, the liquoricey tang of the anise seed with the sweetness of the honey and plums, and the dark rich undertone of the red wine.
Plus, in my not-so-humble opinion, eating with your fingers always makes food taste better - adds an extra sensory layer to it all. We ate the whole meal with our fingers - the cutlery lay untouched.
Following this with the lightness of the cream cheese dessert worked really well too. We had some strawberries and cream too (they were my backup in case the cream cheese thing was awful). All in all, a *very* successful meal, eaten by fire light and candle-light, making for a wonderfully romantic evening.
I recommend it the next time you really want to wow your loved one. :)