Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Edible Flowers and Recipes


Beautiful flowers growing in the garden are a miracle of wonder. Gathered flowers arranged in a vase are luxuriant. A floral corsage for the shoulder or wrist given by a young suitor to his date to wear at graduation prom or an old suitor to glorify another anniversary celebration says, “You’re special”. Flowers in the hair create a romantic, youthful aura. Flowers are never out of style, never out of vogue, always acceptable as gifts for any occasion.

Flowers in the stomach? Whoa, wait a minute! Herbs that produce flowers are good. Aromatic buds that will become citrus make lovely decorations. Candied violets on wedding cakes are traditional. But, Tulips stuffed with tuna or chicken salad? Lilacs mixed with cream cheese on white bread? Fried dandelions? Chopped daylilies in buttermilk pancakes? Whoa, wait a minute!

In 1787, a Frenchman named Parmentier purchased fifty acres of poor farm land to grow potatoes in hopes his thesis listing the potato as an edible vegetable in times of food shortage might convince his countrymen to accept the cheap food used on ships because of its long storage properties and ascorbic acid that kept sailors from getting scurvy. However, the French refused to accept this anomaly under any circumstances, convinced that the vegetable was dangerous because of its ‘weakening properties’ and unfit for human consumption. However, the purple and white flower became a popular inedible ornament on the dinner plate of the upper class. No one ever considered tasting the flower.

Throughout the ages, flowers have been associated with magic. The rose, in particular, was used in ‘Love Spells’. People wore fresh pink roses on their lapels to attract friends and red to encourage romance. Rose petals were used in ‘dream pillows’, in oils and candle wax in the belief they attracted friends and brought love. They were added to bath water to become attractive to the opposite sex and rubbed on the forehead to radiate charisma.

Mint is referred to in the Bible as a tithe to be used in place of money. Nineteenth century Victorians considered it a symbol of virtue and warmth. Mint leaves have been employed medicinally since the first century A.D. for upset stomachs and flu and as a cure for hiccups. Inhalation of the leaves in boiling water is still recommended for head colds and asthma. People drink mint tea instead of aspirin to relieve premenstrual headaches.

Fried zucchini blossoms are considered a delicacy in fine restaurants in Italy served as an antipasto, or eaten with the entrée. The flower is delicately seasoned, lightly battered, gently fried to a golden color of crisp perfection and piled high on platters set in the center of the table. Some restaurants stuff them with light herbs and bread crumbs, or even bits of prosciutto, but no embellishments are necessary. Of all the edible blossoms, this is the sweetest. Anyone who has been privileged to eat them recounts the experience as memorable. Easy to grow, but difficult to snatch the open flowers at precisely the right time, they should be picked in the morning when the sun is high in the sky and the day is still cool. The female flower is more desirable than the male because it has the tiny edible beginnings of the courgette (squash) at the top of its stem.

Another favorite mild blossom is the nasturtium. Easily grown in large pots, the nasturtium, zucchini, pansy and many varieties of violets are easiest and most prolific to grow. The borage plant also grows quickly and to great heights, but, although its little purple flower tastes like a cucumber, its leaves, when touched, are prickly and sting the skin – not a user-friendly plant.

If you collect and dry a combination of rose petals, white jasmine, lime, marigold and chamomile flowers, one tablespoon infused in a cup of boiling water will provide outstanding aromatic tea.

The Dandelion flower makes a delicious wine but is best known for its cleansing property as a diuretic and relief for common stomach problems. Combine 1 pint water that has been brought almost to the boiling point with a handful of flower tops. Allow the mixture to steep (soak together) ten minutes. Strain and drink. The bitter dandelion leaves and petals give an interesting zing when added sparingly to salads with other greens.

Marigold flowers, infused in water brought almost to the boiling point, are recommended for early symptoms of the flu, fever, rheumatism, jaundice, and painful menstruation.

Basil leaves may be added to practically everything, from salads and meats to soups and gravies. Most people discard the white cone of flowers. More potent than the leaves, they add marvelous flavor during the cooking process and beautiful decoration on the plate. The green cone with its tiny white flowers that will become new seeds to dry and plant are more potent than the leaves and add marvelous flavor during the cooking process as well as a beautiful decoration on the plate.

The anise flavor of the uncooked Tarragon leaf is my favorite dynamite enhancement to vegetables, fish, poultry, and a variety of salads. Its tiny, yellow flowers are precious as a decoration on any plate. Set on top of cold soups, such as cucumber and potato, they provide the perfect touch of extra flavor. When tarragon is added during the cooking process, it is most important to add at the end. If it is added too early, it will impart a bitter taste to a sauce rather than the sweet, delectable licorice flavor.

Roses and violets are the most romantic of all the edible flowers. Pink roses were worn to attract friends, while red brought romance. The ancient Greeks and Romans employed violets to cure everything from insomnia and gout to headaches. The color of the violet was most important during Victorian times. Blue symbolized faithfulness, purple for thoughts everlasting, white for constraint or modesty, and white for pastoral happiness. The flowers make delicious tea and flavoring for salads. A member of the pansy family, they decorate any plate with a kaleidoscope of colors. The flavor of these flowers is sweet with a slightly tingly aftertaste.

Sage, known as the herb of wisdom and magic, has a particularly beautiful flower. Many people in the middle ages carried a charm with sage to disarm evil and clear the environment of adverse influences.

Hard and fast rules govern the culinary use of flowers. First of all, some flowers are poisonous and must never, no matter how lovely to observe, be placed near food. Secondly, just because a flower is not poisonous, doesn’t mean it’s edible. And, third, some flowers considered edible cause severe allergic reactions in some people. One of these is the tulip. Never eat flowers purchased from florists, nurseries or garden centers. Usually they have been treated with pesticides. Never eat flowers picked from the side of the road. They may be contaminated with herbicides or exhaust fumes from automobiles. Eat only flowers grown organically or from your own garden where you know they have been protected from foreign matter. Remove pistils and stamens from all flowers before eating. Eat only the petals (and courgette from female squash flowers). If you have hay fever, asthma or allergies, stay away from all flowers. If you unknowingly eat food containing flowers and have difficulty breathing, change in heartbeat, nausea, or any other toxic reaction, seek medical help immediately, bringing the flower with you.

If you plant edible flowers, you must follow certain safety rules. Do not use pesticides unless they are specifically labeled for use on edible crops. Do not eat flowers picked from the side of the road. Do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers.

Yield: 4 Servings
Serve hot or cold

10 ounce can condensed tomato soup
½ cup finely chopped fresh fennel bulb
2 cups half and half (or milk, or 2% milk for diet restrictions)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon leaves
1/3 cup basil flowers, reserving some for garnish
Optional: 2-3 tablespoons Pernod brandy

1. In a saucepan, stir fennel into the condensed tomato soup. Over low heat, slowly stir in half and half and sugar. Raise heat to medium and continue stirring until smooth and very hot. Add sugar and minced tarragon. Stir in basil flowers, leaving some for garnish. Do not allow mixture to boil.
2. Portion into soup bowls and garnish with reserved basil flowers. To serve chilled, refrigerate several hours.

Yield: 4 Servings

4 boneless, skinned chicken breast halves
Salt and pepper
Unflavored fine bread crumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or butter substitute
2 tablespoons rosemary flowers, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon (1 ½ tablespoon)

1. Pound chicken breasts to one-quarter inch thickness. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and coat lightly with bread crumbs.
2. Melt butter in a non-stick skillet and add chicken breasts. Add rosemary flowers. Cover skillet and cook on one side 5 minutes. Remove cover. Turn breasts and cook on the other side until browned.
3. Sprinkle with lemon juice and spoon pan juices over to serve.

Yield: 6 Servings
2 ½ cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 ½ cups water
2 potatoes, skinned and sliced
1 large clove garlic
1 onion or 2 white leek bulbs
½ teaspoon salt, or, to taste
½ teaspoon black pepper, or, to taste
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves or ½ teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon dill
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 large or 2 medium cucumbers
Fresh chives or scallion greens
Handful of purple borage flowers

1. Bring all ingredients to a boil, reserving the cucumbers, scallion greens and borage flowers for later. Cover and reduce heat to medium. Boil gently 45 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Cool. Remove bay leaf.
2. Pour the cooled mixture into a blender in batches to purée. Remove to a large bowl or jar. Refrigerate until very cold.
3. Skin, seed and chop cucumbers into small pieces. Chop scallions or chives. Stir into soup. Ladle into bowls. Top with borage flowers.
NOTE: If you like it creamy, stir in ¼ cup yogurt, sour cream or heavy cream before ladling into bowls.

FIORI FRITTI (Fried Flowers)
8 fresh female zucchini flowers, open
¾ cup self-rising flour
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 extra large egg, separated
3 tablespoons ex virgin olive oil
4 or more tablespoons water
Optional: A tiny piece of anchovy for the centers
Canola or vegetable oil to deep fry

1. Wash flowers under cool, running water. Remove the internal pistils. Set stems in cold water until ready to fix.
2. Combine flour with the salt, white pepper and nutmeg. Mix the egg yolk with the olive oil. Stir into the flour mixture. Stir the water in by tablespoons until batter is quite thin. Let stand 45 minutes.
3. Beat the egg yolk until it reaches the thick frothy stage, but not stiff. Stir it into the flour mixture.
4. Dry the flowers gently with paper toweling. Remove the stems, leaving the courgette in place. Remove any green leaves. If desired, push a tiny piece of anchovy into the centers of the flowers where the pistils were removed.
5. Heat enough oil in a pot to deep fry. Stir the batter. Dip the flowers in. Shake off excess. Deep fry until golden. Serve hot and crunchy.

Softened cream cheese mixed with chopped scallion greens or chives, and/or chopped basil with a touch of black pepper or lemon pepper. Carefully fill the flower heads. Close a few petals over, leaving the rest open. Refrigerate. Serve cold.

Make rose vinegar: Place a handful of washed and dried rose petals in several cups white balsamic vinegar. Let mixture stand at least 3 days. Remove flowers.
Make dressing: Combine 1 cup rose wine vinegar, 1 cup sunflower oil and 1 tablespoon sugar with petals from 4 large pink roses. Mix well. Toss with baby greens and orange segments. Divide onto salad plates. Place a rose on the side of each to decorate.

Yield: 4 Servings

1 pound small narrow Ziti
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup), or more, extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 sweet orange pepper
1 sweet red pepper
1 fennel bulb
6-8 different colored pansies

1. Cook Ziti al dente. Drain and toss with oil, salt and pepper.
2. Cut out the center core and seed the peppers. Place them on a piece of foil under the broiler. Brown on all sides, turning with tongs after each side has browned. Close the foil around the peppers so no air escapes for 5 minutes. Remove foil and peel off the skins. Slice the peppers into very thin strips. Toss with the Ziti.
3. Slice the fennel bulb into very thin strips. Toss with the Ziti.
4. Serve with pansy petals over the top.

Tune in Comcast Channels 22 & 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens in "The Back of The House"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Amuse What?


Ah, yes, Amuse Bouche, the French teaser that translates as “mouth amuser” or “pleaser”. In France, These bite-sized hors d’oeuvres are also called Amuse-gueule. But, gueule is actually slang, and translates literally as an animal’s mouth. So, you will not find this written on menus of fine restaurants. In fact, you probably would not find either written on a fine menu in France, because they began as gifts of the chef to special patrons, leaving others at adjacent tables most curious and, sometimes, infuriated at not receiving the same amenity. But, in order to understand Amuse Bouche and its predecessor, Tapis, one must explore a short history of food trends that have taken place in our own time.

In response to the exorbitant portions of food served in the 1950s, there came a movement known as Nouvelle Cuisine. The revolution began in the early 1960s from within the Michelin-starred restaurants in France with a group of young chefs attempting to lighten established heavy sauces of elaborate haute cuisine. Among these novices who had been trained in the traditional, painstaking method of French cookery were Alain Senderens, Jean and Pierre Troigros, and Alain Chapel Michel Guerard, led by Paul Bocuse, a legend in his own time who might well go down in history above Carême and Escoffier as the world’s greatest chef. The first characteristic of Nouvelle Cuisine was the rejection of excessive complication in cooking. Secondly, the cooking time for most foods was reduced to preserve natural flavors. Paramount to the movement was the emphasis on absolutely fresh ingredients. This metamorphoses was immediately embraced by upcoming chefs in the United States looking to distinguish themselves.
But, like so many revolutions throughout history, by the time it caught on in the big cities of America in the late ‘70s, something had gone wrong. Upscale restaurants had expurgated the food as well as the sauces while, at the same time, increasing their prices two-fold for the privilege of dining in elegance to “see and be seen” by their social compatriots. The emphasis then shifted from décor of ingredients to the décor of the establishment. During this time, I was writing for a national magazine that requested an article about Nouvelle Cuisine. We went to a newly acclaimed posh Florida/French Bistro in Coral Gables. We were a party of six. With reservations secured, we were ushered through gargantuan arrangements of fresh flowers and velvet opulence to our table, where each of us was rewarded with more velvet in the form of little stools on which to raise our feet while reclining in oversized chairs fitted with luxuriant cushions. I ordered our local fish, Red Snapper, which at that time was abundant and also less pricy as compared to other selections on the menu. It arrived a meager repast, alone and lonely on octagonal ceramic ware, sans vegetable or potato or garnish. The industrious owner, ever mindful of the comfort of his patrons, asked, “Are you enjoying yourselves?” Before I could stop myself, the words were already formed, “Couldn’t the chef have put a sprig of parsley on the plate”, to which he replied in a manner that clearly indicated I was Bourgeoisie, “Madame, this is Nouvelle Cuisine. It is not the quantity, but the quality that we stress in this restaurant”. As we departed, each of the three ladies was presented with a long-stemmed red rose that mimed the velvet décor. Still hungry and substantially poorer, we walked two blocks to the newly opened trattoria, Baci (Translated as “kisses”. Its marvelous counterpart, Caffe Abbracci, “hugs”, remains one of our favorites) We ordered giant plates of pasta that we divided and affordable wine that we devoured. The demise of Nouvelle Cuisine and the restaurants that did not understand the concept coincided with the early 1980s commercial for Wendy’s®, “Where’s the Beef”.
As Nouvelle Cuisine in America wilted with the roses, a phoenix called Tapas rose from the ashes. According to legend, the tapa tradition began in Seville, Spain, when Castile’s 13th century king, Alfonso the Wise, recovered from a grave illness by drinking wine while nibbling small amounts of food between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered the taverns to serve food with their wine. However, Tapas actually translates as the word, “cover” and , according to The Joy of Cooking, the original tapas were slices of bread or meat that sherry drinkers in the taverns in Andalusia covered their glasses with between sips to prevent fruit flies from falling into the sweet wine. Clever bartenders offered salty ham or chorizo as a gift for this purpose, knowing it would increase their patrons’ thirst. But, Tapas is essentially a style of eating rather than a reaction. The very word denotes sociability with friends and family while drinking and nibbling on lovely little bites of delicious tidbits.
In Spain, dinner is usually served between 9:00 and 11:00 pm, and sometimes as late as midnight. The expanse between lunch and dinner necessitates a snack. And, naturally, a snack in Spain is always accompanied by drink. It became common for a bar or small local restaurants to have 8 to 12 different kinds of tapas in warming trays to please the men on their journey home from work. The choices included seafood (mariscos), anchovies, sardines, a selection of olives, and fresh breads. In northern Spain, these tapas were also called pinchos (spelled pintxos in Basque) because there was a toothpick through them to keep the bread attached. Hispanics living in Miami in the 1980s embraced Tapas, making it their own innovation, with confidence it would never become a “trendy” fad soon to be replaced and forgotten. There are innumerable restaurants and bars in the Miami area to choose from: Calle Ocho, the Grove, Coral Way, and, on out to Bird Road. And, oh yes, SoBe on Miami Beach. And, would you believe, Aventura? Tapas is Fun. Tapas is In. Tapas is everywhere.
Where did we begin? I remember: It was Amuse Bouche, the elegant offerings of great chefs who are expressing their newest, big ideas in small bites as offerings to those who will appreciate de rigueur (current fashion). Are we having fun? Absolutely, because Amuse Bouche is the latest –newest generic of our gourmet vocabulary. And, it may just last because it requires imagination, intensity, and inspiration. And, in order for the restauateur and chef not to be boiled in their own oil, Amuse Bouche must also be prepared in sufficient quantities to be offered to all their guests, rather than a chosen few. Watch for it to be listed on the menus – with a price attached.

Tune in Comcast Channels 22 & 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens in "The Back of The House"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Baked Cranberries with Splenda®

Yield: 4-6 Servings

12 ounces fresh cranberries (usually 1 bag)
4 packets Splenda®
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
8 inch X 3 7/8 inch X 2 inch loaf pan (This is the exact size of the disposable pan found in supermarkets)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Wash and pick over the cranberries. Discard any that are soft or blemished.
3. Toss the berries with the Splenda and orange juice and fill the loaf pan.
4. Bake 30 minutes, or until soft and bubbly.

Tune in Comcast Channels 22, Brighthouse 199, Florida Cable 4, to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens in "The Back of The House"


Have you ever spent an entire day preparing a meal for company that satisfied you in the kitchen but didn’t seem to taste the same when served? Everyone else said it was delicious, but you were disappointed. Then, the following day the ‘left-overs’ tasted better. You might have explained this phenomenon as “The flavors settled”, or “It tastes better because I’m more relaxed”. Although both may hold some truth, studies have shown that the improved flavor is not due to what we term our “taste buds”, but to our sense of smell. When you have been inundated with different odors for a period of time, your ability to detect distinct smells deteriorates, thus deteriorating your sense of taste. This sensory adaptation from an over- stimulus creates a decrease in sensitivity. When this decrease in sensitivity occurs in the kitchen, the cook may fall prey to adding too much salt and pepper or spice at the last minute.

When someone suffers from a cold, he will state that he has “lost his taste buds”. What has diminished is his sense of smell. Age also affects our ability to smell. After the age of forty, most people experience a decreased sensitivity to odors. Many elderly folk lose their appetites because they have lost the sensitivity of smell. Medication and state of physical health also play an important role. When food doesn’t taste good, they conquer hunger with canned soups that emit hot, breathable fumes but lack necessary nutrition, and satisfy their taste buds with empty calories from sweets.

There are three separate memory distinctions: Episodic, Semantic and Subjective. Most of us remember where we were the day the World Trade Center was struck because we relate facts or episodes to an experience. We remember by semantics the name of the first President of the United States and that a Robin is a bird. Associating a distinct odor is more difficult. Pleasant and unpleasant odors are subjective. The smell of mushrooms and truffles is unpleasant to some, but not to others. And, many people are not aware of any odor at all. Cheese is one of the easiest to measure in terms of pleasant and unpleasant reaction. Children choose mild yellow and white cheeses. The sophisticated cheese connoisseur confronted with the odorous German (Belgian) Limburger variety will sniff in appreciation while searching for an equally pungent onion to accompany it between two slices of rye bread. If he’s lucky, he’ll also find a bit of liverwurst and a good dark beer. Place that same cheese close to a child (and most Americans) and watch the thumb and forefinger pinch off nostrils while emitting a sound that sounds like “Yuck”!

Perfume chemists profess their capability to create a scent in their heads. Knowledge of odor and taste also creates recipes in the mind of the cook. It is said that odor sensitivity is inherited. However, it’s possible to develop higher levels of distinctions through exposure. Professional chefs, serious home cooks and restaurant critics continually train their senses to detect positive and negative food combinations through their senses. Because odor is the best barometer of freshness, this Foodie smells everything before cooking or ingesting, and refuses to go near anything suspect.

Foods or spices used together often confuse the senses. Garlic and onions meld into each other during the cooking process. The aroma and flavor of Jamaica’s Allspice berry resembles a blend of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Cumin, a prevalent ingredient in chili-based sauces, is often mistaken for chili powder when sniffed. And, milk chocolate has been mistaken for vanilla because of its high vanilla content. It is this same association through the memory of smell that causes us to accept or reject a food perceived as “different” than before. For instance, when McDonald’s removed real lard from their fryer for health concerns, customers with no knowledge of the change complained their French fries were no longer good. McDonald’s solved the problem by adding the odor of lard into their vegetable oil. The guise worked. People commented they were happy McDonald’s had returned to its original recipe.

Taste qualities fall into four categories: Sweet, Sour, Bitter and Salty. What you taste or feel in the back of the tongue and throat is actually a skin sensation, not taste. Certain foods, such as smoked cheese and pineapple may create chemical irritations in some people with sensitive mouths. And, then, there’s the fifth sense perception labeled “Umami”, which has neither taste nor smell. Umami is the sensation elicited by glutamate, one of the twenty amino acids that make up the proteins in meat, fish and vegetables. Although it is found naturally in cured meats and fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, as well as carrots and aged cheeses, this sodium salt of glutamic acid is best known as a flavor enhancement in the form of the additive, monosodium glutamate (MSG). It is the ingredient responsible for what we call the Chinese Food Syndrome. Reaction is usually moderate and includes flushed skin, tightening of the jaw and upper chest muscles, numbness at the back of the neck and arms, headaches and palpitation shortly after eating. Some report aggravation of asthma. Advocates of MSG claim the reaction is due to undiagnosed food allergies. Oriental cooks twelve hundred years ago knew that certain foods tasted better when prepared with a soup stock made from a type of seaweed. It wasn’t until after the turn of the last century, however, that scientists isolated the ingredient that enhanced flavor. Most Chinese restaurants claim they no longer add MSG. They don’t tell you that soy sauce is a free glutamate hydrolyzed protein or that they have increased the amount of salt to add flavor. It is the abundance of salt that holds water in the system, creating that bloated feeling and unquenchable thirst.

Powdered MSG is hydrolyzed vegetable protein made from boiling corn, wheat, soybeans, beets and sugar cane or molasses in vats of sulfuric acid and then neutralizing them with caustic soda. The sludge that remains is scraped off and dried to form the powder. On its own, hydrolyzed proteins generally have an MSG content of approximately 12-20 percent. However, some flavoring manufacturers add pure monosodium glutamate to the hydrolyzed protein, increasing the content to 40-50 percent. The law only requires labeling when it is added as a direct ingredient. Ingredients listed on the back of products are written in chronological order in ratio to their amount. MSG is almost always listed directly after Salt. Most canned soups, gravies and sauces contain high amounts to enhance flavor. Clear broths and bouillon cubes have exceptionally high amounts. The amount of added MSG has more than doubled since the 1960s. From processed foods, such as chicken nuggets and hot dogs, to flavored crackers and chips, Americans rely on glutamate to satisfy their taste buds. Any product that has “glutamate” written in its ingredients is a form of MSG. Read the label before you buy. If you have any concerns, switch to products that contain fresh herbs and Jalapeño or chili peppers. Recondition your senses to enjoy natural flavors.

Today’s recipes all include aromatic ingredients. Close your eyes and sniff each one before adding it to test your sensitivity. If you have children, label each herb for them to sniff and then remove the labels and ask them to remember which is which. For friends in the kitchen, number each herb without labels to create a fun quiz.

Tune in Comcast Channels 22 & 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens in "The Back of The House"