Quail in rose petal sauce with toasted pistachio couscous

"Tita wasn't there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair; there wasn't the slightest sign of life in her eyes. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal's aromas."

For my birthday this year I was given the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate. It was a present from two good friends of mine, chosen - I think - because it is very food-centric. It recounts the story of Tita, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, who has been forbidden to marry because Mexican tradition dictates that the eldest daughter must remain single to look after her mother until she dies. She falls in love with a man called Pedro, who marries her sister Rosaura out of a desire to be near Tita. This doesn't quite go to plan, and - as the blurb of the novel states - "for the next 22 years Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds."

The novel tells the story of Tita and Pedro through the medium of food; each chapter begins with a different recipe, and tales of Tita - who we are told has a "sixth sense" about "everything concerning food" - preparing numerous exotic and seductive dishes are interspersed with the story of her emotional life and her encounters with Pedro. There is a scene where Pedro stumbles upon her grinding toasted chillies, almonds and sesame seeds together on a stone, and is "transfixed by the sight of Tita in that erotic posture". Everything in the novel revolves beautifully around the domestic world of cooking and food preparation, intertwined with passion and romance.

From the way the book is written, you'd never guess that twenty-two years are supposed to pass from beginning to end. It's structured around the months of the year, a chapter for each, but rather than covering a single year we're supposed to assume that the 'March' that follows the 'Feburary' is in fact March several years later. Each month begins with a recipe. January features 'Christmas rolls' (ingredients: a can of sardines, half a chorizo sausage, an onion, oregano, a can of serrano chiles and 10 hard rolls), moving through April (Turkey Mole with Almonds and Sesame Seeds), July (oxtail soup), October (cream fritters: 1 cup heavy cream, 6 eggs, cinnamon and syrup) to December (Chillies in Walnut Sauce). 

All the recipes are utterly fascinating, exotic and wonderful; I particularly love the idea of the turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds. In each chapter the recipe is featured because it bears some relevance to the emotions and situation of Tita at the time, or because the plot demands it. Feburary's 'Chabela Wedding Cake' (granulated sugar, cake flour, 17 eggs and the grated peel of a lime) appears because of the forthcoming wedding of Pedro and Rosaura.

I think maybe I enjoyed this book so much because I can relate to Tita in some ways; I often feel like my emotional life is inextricably bound up in my life with food. I don't mean that if I've had a bad day I'll devour an entire chocolate cake to cheer myself up, or that I comfort eat. More that I tend to remember significant or important episodes in my life via what I had cooked or eaten at the time, or that my cooking nearly always reflects my mood in some way, or that my state of mind is frequently governed by what I've cooked or eaten.

It is a wonderful, beautiful book. It's also rather surreal in places; I hate to use that over-used and rather vague term 'magical realism', but I think that's the best way of defining it. You're reading about something that appears to be a normal, realistic situation and then something utterly bizarre will happen. 

The best example of this is in the March chapter, where Tita's sister Gertrudis is affected in a surprising way by the dinner Tita has prepared: 

On her the food seemed to act as an aphrodisiac; she began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs. An itch in the centre of her body kept her from sitting properly in her chair. She began to sweat, imagining herself on horseback with her arms clasped around one of Pancho Villa’s men: the one she had seen in the village plaza the week before, smelling of sweat and mud, of dawns that brought uncertainty and danger, smelling of life and of death. She was on her way to market in Piedras Negras with Chencha, the servant, when she saw him coming down the main street, riding in front of the others, obviously the captain of the troop. Their eyes met and what she saw in his made her tremble. She saw all the nights he’d spent staring into the fire and longing to have a woman beside him, a woman he could kiss, a woman he could hold in his arms, a woman like her. She got out her handkerchief and tried to wipe these sinful thoughts from her mind as she wiped away the sweat.

But it was no use, something strange had happened to her. She turned to Tita for help, but Tita wasn’t there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair; there wasn’t the slightest sign of life in her eyes. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas.

Gertrudis goes to shower, because "her whole body was dripping with sweat. Her sweat was pink, and it smelled like roses, a lovely strong smell." Little does she know that the scent of roses from her body travels all the way to the town, engulfing the solider she had seen the week before.

A higher power was controlling his actions. He was moved by a strong urge to arrive as quickly as possible...the aroma from Gertrudis’ body guided him. He got there just in time to find her racing through the field. Then he knew why he’d been drawn there. This woman desperately needed a man to quench the red-hot fire that was raging inside her...

Gertrudis stopped running when she saw him riding toward her. Naked as she was, with her loosened hair falling to her waist, luminous, glowing with energy, she might have been an angel and a devil in one woman. The delicacy of her face, the perfection of her pure virginal body contrasted with the passion, the lust, that leapt from her eyes, from her every pore. These things, and the sexual desire Juan had contained for so long while he was fighting in the mountains, made for a spectacular encounter.

Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her on to his horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that I am not the first to try and recreate the splendid 'Quail in rose petal sauce' that is the focus of the March chapter and the cause of such wild, tempestuous carnal urgings. I was honestly convinced I might be, and was so excited about this prospect, but of course there are various recipes from other bloggers out there who have given it a go. My attempts at original creativity are always thwarted by others in the blogosphere.

However, I should probably add a disclaimer before I go any further: I did, by no means, decide to make this dish because I was hoping a rippling, muscular, semi-naked Mexican warrior would gallop down to my house and whisk me off into the sunset on his horse. 

No, I...er...actually made it because I thought it sounded tasty. Like you're going to believe me. But honestly, I did.

This is a recipe that has poetry. Pedro brings Tita a bouquet of roses to celebrate her becoming the official cook of the house. Rosaura is not impressed and runs off crying. Tita, overcome with emotion, clasps the roses to her breast "so tightly that when she got to the kitchen, the roses, which had been mostly pink, had turned quite red from the blood that was flowing from Tita's hands and breasts". Not wanting to waste the roses, Tita remembers a recipe she was once taught involving pheasants. She adapts it to use quail, which is all they have on the ranch. 

"It truly is a delicious dish", the novel states. "The roses give it an extremely delicate flavour". 

Fascinated by the idea of using roses in a sauce of meat, and also by cooking with quail, which I've never tried, I just had to give it a go. 

The book gives one of the strangest ingredients lists I have ever seen: 

  • 12 roses, preferably red
  • 12 chestnuts
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour
  • 2 drops attar of roses
  • 2 tablespoons anise
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 6 quail
  • 1 pitaya

There are very vague instructions as to how to make the actual dish, from which I was able to improvise a little and come up with my version.

It's actually a simple recipe, even if its ingredients are a tad bizarre. The sauce is made by frying some crushed garlic in a little butter and honey until softened and fragrant. To this is added a puree of cooked chestnuts and 'pitaya', which is more commonly known over here as 'dragon fruit'. I've seen them in supermarkets before and have eaten them occasionally - they have translucent white flesh full of little black seeds, that look rather like raspberry seeds. The taste is slightly sweet but generally a bit bland, which is why I don't really eat them. You also grind together anise and rose petals, and add these to the sauce, along with 'attar of roses' which I assume is rosewater or similar, and cornflour if needed, to thicken.

As I was making this, I looked at my Kenwood and I thought "this is the weirdest combination of things I have ever put in a blender". Roses, chestnuts, dragon fruit. Totally bizarre.

But, can I tell you something? It works. 

It's hard to describe the flavour of this sauce. It's rich and earthy from the chestnuts and garlic, but also quite sweet from the honey. There's a nice nutty texture from the seeds of the dragon fruit, which just lends it a slight mild fruitiness. Finally, there's the perfume of roses. I used dried rose petals for this rather than fresh - if you have roses in your garden that you can guarantee haven't been sprayed with anything nasty (hence don't use shop-bought), then go ahead and use fresh petals. Dried petals, though, can be found in Middle Eastern cooking stores and are rather lovely. I felt like I was cooking with confetti or potpourri.

Because rose is a strong flavour and one we don't generally tend to associate with edible things, you don't want to use too much. I added the rose petals bit by bit, tasting as I went. I didn't use any rosewater, as the recipe suggests, but the rose flavour of my finished recipe was very subtle, so by all means add a couple of drops of rosewater if you want it a bit more floral (only a tiny amount, though, as otherwise you'll think you're eating quail baked in soap).

I made a few changes to the book's recipe, adding chicken stock to make a runnier sauce that would soak into the couscous. I also used cornmeal (polenta) to thicken it, rather than cornflour, because it seems right with the Mexican theme. You could use either, depending on how thick you want your sauce. I also thought it needed something to give it a bit of sharpness, as it's quite rich - lemon juice would work perfectly, so I've included it in the recipe.  I didn't grind the rose petals with anise in a pestle and mortar, as the book says; rather, I put the rose petals in the blender with the chestnuts and dragon fruit, and I put two whole star anise into the sauce while it was simmering. If you have ground anise, though, either add that directly to the sauce (I'd suggest two teaspoons rather than two tablespoons) or grind with the rose petals, if you like. If you don't have dragon fruit, you could try adding a few raspberries instead, for the texture, or just leave it out. You could try other fruits in its place - peaches might work quite nicely, or pears.

I'd never tried quail before, apart from once at Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant Nopi, where I had it smoked with an utterly incredible fruity sauce that I think had kumquats in. It was divine. I was almost as impressed with it the second time round. These plump little birds (serve 2 per portion) have delicate, tender breast meat and rich, meaty legs that are small and diminutive enough to pick up and gnaw on without looking like a wannabe caveman. They're not hard to get hold of - Waitrose sell them, and any butcher should be able to order them for you. There's something delightful about being served two tiny little quail, perky and burnished like mini roast chickens, all for you.

I served this on a bed of couscous mixed with toasted pistachios, because I had an inkling it would all work very well. I wasn't wrong. The sauce is quite sweet and rich, so really needs that earthiness from the toasted nuts to balance it out. Couscous is a perfect vehicle for the sauce and, although not really Mexican, seems to work with the textures and flavours involved.

This is a delightful dish. The sauce infuses the tender, flavoursome quail meat with its intriguing blend of flavours, and forms a lovely crust on top of the birds. It's addictive in its combination of flavours, a gorgeous blend of chestnuts, sweet honey, fruit and that light floral touch from the roses. The pistachios add the final flourish. This is exactly my kind of food: flavoursome, fruity, earthy, and served with couscous. I loved every minute of devouring it.

Best of all, it's not even very difficult, despite sounding a bit odd. 

This would make the perfect romantic meal for Valentines Day or some kind of special occasion, especially given its origins in the book. You could decorate it with real rose petals or roses, if you like. It's romance on a plate; it's exotic, exciting and unusual.

I  love the associations this recipe has with the wonderful writing of Like Water for Chocolate; like the book, it is romantic, sensuous and bursting with flavour and excitement.

Quail in rose petal sauce with toasted pistachio couscous (serves 2):

  • 4 oven-ready quail
  • 12 vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts
  • 4 heaped tsp dried rose petals, plus extra to garnish
  • 1 dragonfruit, flesh scooped out (omit if you can't find one, or use another fruit as suggested above)
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 star anise or 2 tsp ground anise
  • 250ml chicken stock
  • 1-2 drops rosewater (optional)
  • 2 tsp cornflour or 1 tbsp cornmeal/polenta
  • A good squeeze of lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g couscous
  • 3 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Put the chestnuts, rose petals and dragonfruit flesh in a blender and blitz to a puree. In a small saucepan, heat the butter and saute the garlic until it is golden and softened. Add the honey. Add the chestnut and rose puree along with the star anise and cook for a couple of minutes. Season well, then add the chicken stock and lemon juice, and simmer for another couple of minutes. Add either the cornmeal or cornflour to thicken the sauce. If using cornmeal, add it directly. If using cornflour, stir it into a little water first to make a paste, then add this. Taste - if you want more rose flavour, add the rosewater. It might need a little more lemon juice or salt to give it a bit of sharpness, as it's a rather sweet sauce.

Place the olive oil in a frying pan and place over a high heat. Brown the quail on the side of one of its legs for a couple of minutes, then flip over, then finally brown the breast side. 

Place the quail in a small oven dish so they fit snugly together. Season them well, then pour over the sauce.

Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes until the sauce is rich and bubbly, and the quails are cooked through - test them as you would chicken.

Meanwhile, place the couscous in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover by about 1cm. Cover with a plate and leave to fluff up. While this happens, toast the pistachios in a dry saucepan over a low heat until fragrant. Fluff the couscous with a fork, season, and add the pistachios.

Serve the quails on top of the couscous, with the rose sauce poured over. Garnish with a few dried rose petals.