It was the recipe that sent people swooning in the movie theatres and in the pages of Like Water for Chocolate as Tita worked her culinary magic, and it was the recipe that inspired our cookbook project: Quail in Rose Petal Sauce.
The book and movie depict the sauce as an aphrodisiac the likes of which most of us have never experienced, the kind that caused Tita’s sister Gertrudis’ body to exude the scent of roses for miles and attract one of Pancho Villa’s men, who swooped her bare body onto his horse where they made love at full gallop, the rhythm of the horse and their bodies meshing perfectly. With such romantic powers at play, we will revisit this dish again at Valentine’s Day when we will make the authentic recipe. For Thanksgiving, however, we couldn’t resist offering a winter-friendly version of this Mexican delicacy of antiquity for those that want a break from turkey. Wouldn’t this make a great dinner for a husband and wife with an empty nest, or a couple that plans to become engaged on Thanksgiving or during the holiday season?
At first, I wanted to make rose petal sauce. I began researching and found out that while flowers have been used since ancient times in Rome, Greece and the Middle East to flavor exquisite recipes, our modern cultivation methods make most flowers highly toxic because they are genetically infused with pesticides. Even if you decided to take the chance just once and eat them, it wouldn’t be worthwhile because most modern hybrid roses don’t share the tantalizing flavors that their heirloom predecessors possessed. Some are bland while others are downright tasteless.
I thought for sure, since I live in L.A., the land of strange and über healthy foods, that someone in some posh celebrity-laden neighborhood would be selling organic rose petals to the rich and wannabe famous. A quick google search told me I was wrong. It seems that while organic flowers are hard to locate in general, organic roses are even trickier to find. Plus, roses tend to have less flavor than normal in the colder months. Has it been cold in L.A. yet? I guess that’s not the point. People who’ve never read the book or seen the movie appear perplexed that anyone would desire to eat rose petals. Since I didn’t want to spend weeks combing the farmers’ markets, or asking my neighbors with beautiful rose bushes if they’ve ever used Roundup, I began thinking of alternatives.
When I walked through the produce section of my favorite neighborhood carnicería, Luis Market, the ripe redness of pomegranates was bursting before me. I decided to experiment, mixing two traditional November ingredients, chestnuts and pomegranate seeds. Yet, I wanted to keep all the sexy flavor that rose petals suggest, so I kept the rest of the recipe intact.
Before I stepped into the kitchen, I read many recipes and watched videos of people making quail and game hens covered in rose petal sauce. That was when I discovered where some of the magic really stemmed from (no rose pun intended.) Now, you can make this recipe totally in the food processor, and that’s fine, but if you own a seasoned molcajete, you know, the Mexican stone mortar and pestle that many restaurants have bastardized into guacamole holders, get it out and grind the passion into this recipe. Use whole star anise instead of seeds. Combine the anise and garlic and coax the natural oils and essences free by grinding them against the volcanic stone. It takes more time to use the molcajete, but by employing this method, the recipe truly becomes attuned to your rhythms, and the result will be a rougher, more fragrant mixture of ground spice the way it was intended to be made.
It would seem enough that we were going to make this romantic sauce for our game hens, but I didn’t want to accidentally wind up with tough meat, so the decision to marinate seemed obvious. Keeping the idea that this is a truly Mexican recipe, we decided to use a truly awesome Mexican dark beer, Negra Modelo, to bathe our birds in. By doing so, there are two options for covering the meat, the faux rose petal sauce or the natural Modelo gravy.
The flavor of our chestnut and pomegranate seed sauce was uniquely delectable, like nothing else I had ever tasted. I noticed hints of licorice from the anise and tartness provided by the cactus fruit, while the chestnuts gave the sauce body and the pomegranates lent their own brand of sweetness. The Negra Modelo made the perfect base for the marinade, offering robust flavor without giving a telltale beer taste. This meal was worth every minute of work, and with proper planning, it’s not that difficult to execute.
Ingredients for Cornish Game Hens in Negra Modelo Marinade:
(serves 4 people)
2 Cornish game hens
1 bottle Negra Modelo beer
1/3rd cup gluten-free, MSG-free Hoisin sauce
2 tbsp. chile sauce (Tapatio, Cholula, Valentino or Sriracha)
2 tbsp. mustard powder
1 tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. Mexican oregano
1 tsp. cumin
1 tbsp. sage
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice if you intend to grill the hens
Instructions for marinating and cooking hens:
1. Wash the hens and place two in a large plastic zip bag or marinating bag.
2. Add the Negra Modelo.
3. Add the remaining ingredients and turn the bag over several times to thoroughly mix the marinade.
4. Place in the refrigerator for several hours or preferably overnight.
5. To make the hens in the oven, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place them in a glass roasting pan or an iron skillet that is oven safe. Pour half the marinade into the pan and place in the oven when the temperature has been reached. After one half an hour, open the oven and slide the shelf out with the hens on it. Pour the remainder of the marinade over the hens. Roast for another half hour.
6. To make the game hens on the grill, make sure the charcoal is white and no longer flaming. Place the hens on the grill, brush with marinade and sprinkle with fresh squeezed lime juice. Turn the hens over after 20 minutes. Brush with marinade and sprinkle with fresh squeezed lime juice. Cook for an additional 25 minutes for a total of 45 minutes.
7. After cooking the hens, using a very sharp serrated knife, cut the hens in half. One half of a hen is equal to one serving.
Ingredients for the Faux Rose Petal Sauce (Chestnut and Pomegranate Seed Sauce):
seeds from 1 ripe pomegranate
1 cup organic chicken stock
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed, then ground on the molcajete or minced
1 teaspoon ground star anise
juice of 3 pitaya or red or green tunas
2 tbsp. good quality honey
1 tsp. sea salt or Himalayan salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
Instructions for Sauce:
Note: You may want to prepare the chestnuts a day before you plant to make the sauce.
1. Cut an x in the top of each chestnut. Place the chestnuts on a baking sheet and roast them in 375° oven for 15 minutes.
2. Remove the chestnuts from the oven and let them cool until you are able to handle touching them. Once you can touch them, peel the outer shell. You will notice there is another layer, called the pellicle, that may begin to separate from the meat on some of some of the chestnuts. Don’t attempt to remove that at this time except for the parts that have come very loose.
3. Place the chestnuts in a pot with 4 cups of water. Boil for 20 minutes. Once boiled, let them cool in the pot. The water will probably have turned a deep red.
4. Slice the pomegranate in half. Remove the white pith that you see. Turn the pomegranate upside down and let the seeds fall into a bowl. Repeat removing the white pith and loosening the seeds with a spoon if necessary. Most of them will simply fall willingly without help.
5. Remove any remaining pellicle from the cooled chestnuts. Place the chestnuts, honey and pomegranate seeds in the blender or food processor and blend until fairly smooth. Add 1 cup of organic chicken stock to the mixture gradually as you blend.
6. To juice the tunas (cactus fruit), peel them, slice them in thin slices and place them in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Using a masher, press down to extract the juice. If any seeds find their way through the strainer, you may need to pour the juice through cheese cloth to remove them.
7. In a non-stick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the spices and saute until they are lightly browned. Add the juice of the tuna.
8. Add the chestnut and pomegranate seed mixture. Combine with the butter, spices and cactus fruit juice. Turn the flame to low and let simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. As mentioned earlier, grinding the garlic and anise in the molcajete will give the sauce a more fragrant flavor. If you are very ambitious, you could also grind the nuts and seeds this way.
9. Place the sauce in a gravy boat and garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds.
Notes: We served our sauce over the hens rather than cooking them in it because they were already marinated. You could try placing the chestnut and pomegranate sauce over the hens for the last 15 minutes of cooking if you feel like experimenting.
I personally prefer the hens cooked on the grill. Their skin comes out dark and crispy while the meat remains amazingly tender.
I’ve heard it rumored that Phoenix Flowers carries organic roses. With Phoenix’s warm days and usually sunny climate, it would make sense. I plan to call to verify this information and get delivery details. If you are interested in planting your own edible flower garden, there is a wonderful resource book, The Edible Flower Garden, by Rosalind Creasy.
* For the gluten-free option, replace the Modela Negro with a gluten-free beer. There is no other gluten used in this recipe.
Negra Modelo Beer is distributed by Crown Imports, LLC. To learn more about the beer and its history, visit http://www.crownimportsllc.com/ourbrands/pacifico.htm