March into Spring
March is often a curious month, with changes in weather and days of sun and rain. Our unusual winter is holding true as we march into spring. red-winged blackbirds arrived at the feeders the third week in February, and the spring peepers started their chorus the earliest I have ever heard them - March 13. The greenhouses are starting to become crowded, and thoughts of planting outside are creeping in.
The Herb of the Year (TM) for 2012 is Rose. Many have exclaimed to me that they had no idea that the rose was considered an herb. As herbs are generally considered to be a plant useful to humans (culinary, medicinal, industrial, decorative) the rose certainly can lay claim to most of these categories.
Roses have been a favored flower of humans since time began, Its attributes have been lauded in art and literature, and the rose figures prominently in many historical and religious contexts. Medicinal uses of the rose are encountered in many cultures and throughout the ages. But as a culinary experience, the rose as food is now experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and enjoying a renewed popularity as a delicate flavoring and attractive seasoning.
The Romans were particularly enamored of the rose - both as a sensual delight and for its supposed effectiveness as a preventative for drunkeness. They also concocted a pate of red rose petals, eggs, calves brains, wine and oil that was baked and served as an appetizer. Many banquet halls were filled with roses - carpeting floors, suspended from ceilings, and lavishly displayed.
In 13th century England, a pottage was made of pounded chicken and rose petals. In medieval times, the medicinal properties of herbs were not considered separate from their use as a flavoring agent. The fact that rose tasted good and was easily obtainable probably only enhanced its use in food and medicine.
Bancke's Herbal of 1550 contains many references to rose, including melrosette, sugar roset, syrup of roses, oil of roses and rosewater. Rose was felt to "comfort the braine and quench the spirit". In The Queen's Delight (1695) a recipe was included for candied rose petals. Through the Tudor and Stuart periods, rose hips, pureed and sweetened, were used in tarts. Petals and buds were used in salads.
Distillation of rosewater brought new uses into the kitchen, and marchpane (now known as marzipan) was originally made with ground almonds falvored with rosewater. Blancmange was a dish first made of shredded chicken, ground almonds and rosewater. Later versions omitted the meat and thickened the pudding with egg, serving it as a dessert.
The nineteenth century saw a shift from using roses as a source of food and medicine to regarding them as a garden and landscape plant. Some of this may be attributed to the fact that as hybridization became fashionable in the 1800's, many of the highly scented and flavorful roses, such as damask, centifolia and gallica, were crossed to create roses that were beautiful and repeating, leaving scent and flavor behind.
If you wish to try cooking with roses, your best bet is to use the old-fashioned or heirloom types, whose scent and taste are much better than modern hybrids. Many rugosa roses - which are hardy and easy to care for - are very fragrant and tasty. Use your nose and tastebuds to try them out.
The following is a recipe that I used in a workshop recently. It is quite simple, but very rich and satisfying. The rose sugar can be made when roses are at their peak - it keeps very well in a tightly sealed jar.
ROSE STUFFED DATES
20-30 soft dates
1 package cream cheese (low-fat OK)
1/4 cup rose sugar (recipe below)
In a bowl, soften the cream cheese and mix in the rose sugar, being sure to smooth out any lumps. Take the pit out of each date, and separate into two halves. Spread one teaspoon or so of the cream cheese mixture on each half. Makes 40-60 appetizers.
Using a mortar and pestle, take equal amounts of rose petals (white heel removed) and sugar and grind together. Be sure to grind the rose petals as fine as you can. The mixture may cake up, but it can easily be re-ground before using. Keeps up to a year if stored in a tightly sealed glass jar.
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