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Robb Walsh: 'Are You Really Going to Eat That?'

<i>Are You Really Going to Eat That?</i> by Robb Walsh (Counterpoint, 2003)
Are You Really Going to Eat That? by Robb Walsh (Counterpoint, 2003)

As a food critic, Robb Walsh approaches his responsibilities with the zeal of an adventurer. From a trip to Jamaica's Blue Mountains in search of the perfect cup of coffee, to a tango with stinky, custard-like fruit in Thailand, Walsh has gone to great lengths to sample the world's culinary phenomena.

Walsh is the restaurant critic for the Houston Press, a two-time recipient of the James Beard Award for food writing, and an occasional commentator for Weekend Edition Sunday. His latest book is Are You Really Going to Eat That?, a collection of essays and recipes. In it, Walsh recounts his last few years of culinary thrill seeking, commenting on both the food and the cultures behind the dishes.

NPR's Liane Hansen talks with Walsh, whom she's dubbed "the Indiana Jones of food writers." Below, read an excerpt from the book and get a recipe for quail in rose petal sauce:


"A Rose by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet"

Ever so gently, the young woman gasped as I set the platter down on the table. It was a few days before Valentine's Day, and for dinner I had made quail in rose petal sauce. Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate made the dish famous. Tita, the Mexican cook whose dishes literally express her emotions, makes the sauce from roses given to her by Pedro, her forbidden lover. Putting this recipe together, I felt a little like I was preparing a witch's potion. And the most magical of the ingredients were the red roses.

Flowers aren't really unusual in cooking. In fact they are often essential. Bouillabaisse wouldn't be bouillabaisse without the intoxicating aroma of saffron threads, which are the orange-yellow stigmas of the purple crocus. Hot-and-sour soup wouldn't taste right without dried day lilies, known in China as "golden needles." And in New Orleans, no self-respecting bartender would dare serve a Ramos gin fizz without a splash of orange-flower water. But in none of these flower-flavored dishes can you actually recognize any blossoms. As the book title Please Don't Eat the Daisies suggests, actually putting whole blossoms in your mouth seems a little strange.

Roses in particular, with all their romantic connotations, look odd on an ingredient list. After all, when a man sends a woman a dozen roses, he doesn't expect that she's going to be making salad out of them. But in fact, roses have been eaten since ancient times. At some flower-strewn Roman feasts, rose petals were sprinkled on the food, the table, and all over the banquet hall. Rose petals, fresh, dried and crystallized, as well as rose water and rose syrup, are still widely used in the cuisines of the Middle East. Greek baklava, for instance, is authentically served with a drizzle of rose syrup.

Though roses are one of the most common flowers in our florist shops, we Americans hardly ever eat them. Which is a good thing, because modern systemic pesticides have made them highly toxic. And according to Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate, even if you could eat modem hybrid roses, you'd probably be disappointed. "Queen Elizabeth has very little flavor," she reports. "Tropicana has none at all." Barash grows flowers organically so that she can use them in cooking. And she has eaten dozens of roses in her quest for good-tasting varieties. "My favorite eating rose is the beach rose (Rosa rugosa), which grows wild along much of the Atlantic coast," she says. "It has great aroma, and it tastes as good as it smells."

If you're looking for a cooking rose to grow organically in your garden, Barash recommends the David Austin varieties, which are throwbacks to old garden roses. "Gertrude Jekyll is my pick of his cultivars," she says. Among the modern hybrids, Mr. Lincoln, a deep velvety-red rose, and Tiffany, a light pink hybrid, are tastiest. Carrot slaw on a bed of pink Tiffany petals is one of Barash's favorite salads.

Flowers are also popular these days with innovative and romantic young chefs like Danielle Custer, the executive chef of Laurels Restaurant in Dallas. "I use a rose petal-infused oil for salads," she says. "I also serve my lobster bisque with rose petals sprinkled on top." We can thank the organic farming movement for the return of edible flowers to our cuisine. The pesticide-free cooking roses used by most American chefs come from organic gardeners in California who air-freight them to specialty food suppliers around the country. Chefs pay around $17 for fifty fresh thumbnail-sized blossoms.

So what does a good eating rose taste like? "I don't think roses really taste like much of anything on the palate," says Custer, "but there is an aroma and a texture and an association with their eye appeal that makes them very sensual, almost-- what's the word? -- aphrodisical."

In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita's quail in rose petal sauce certainly had that effect. After eating it, her sister Gertrudis "began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs." Dripping with rose-scented sweat, Gertrudis went to the wooden shower stall in the backyard to wash. "Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame." Having set the shower stall on fire, Gertudis stood in her backyard, burning hot and smelling of roses, until she was suddenly swooped up by one of Pancho Villa's men, who charged into the backyard on horseback. "Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away." The naked Genrudis and the crazed soldier made love at a full gallop. The moral: Cook and eat flowers at your own risk.

I followed Tita's recipe pretty closely, except I added more roses. Not only did I use rose petals and rosewater as called for in the recipe, I also garnished the dish with an extra dozen tiny red buds. The young lady who ate the quail with me did not set my house on fire. (I kept a pitcher of water nearby just in case.) But the striking beauty and the deep perfume of all those roses certainly made her cheeks flush.

Quail in Rose Petal Sauce

Adapted from Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies)

My local Middle Eastern store had plenty of rose water on hand. I ordered the edible roses from Heart of Texas Produce, a specialty food company in Austin. Tita's recipe also calls for pitaya, a delicious type of cactus fruit. But pitaya was out of season, so I substituted a dark red prickly pear fruit puree. You can also use frozen raspberries.

6 quail

3 tablespoons butter

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup dry sherry

Petals of 6 fresh, organic red roses

6 peeled chestnuts (boiled, roasted or canned)

1 clove garlic

1/2 cup pitaya or red prickly pear fruit puree (or substitute raspberries)

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon ground anise seed

Rinse the quail and pat dry. In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and lightly brown the birds on all sides. Add sherry and salt and pepper the quail. Lower the heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Turn the quail, cover and cook another 10 minutes. Remove the quail, reserving the pan juices.

Rinse the rose petals in cold water. Place half the petals in the blender, with remaining ingredients and the pan juices. Puree until smooth. Transfer to a sauce pan and simmer 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning with more salt, pepper and/or honey. Pour sauce over quail and sprinkle with the remaining rose petals.

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Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.