Last week Curtis Duffy of Avenues challenged John des Rosiers of Inovasi to come up with a recipe using geraniums. Des Rosiers tweeted his response: "Geraniums in december? @curtisduffy you're an ass! No worries. Found a blooming plant at the dry cleaners across from inovasi! It's on!!"
John des Rosiers often cooks with flowers at his Lake Bluff restaurant—magnolias, snapdragons, lavender—but only in the summer, when they bloom on Inovasi's patio. And never geraniums. He called several greenhouses to find them, with no luck: "All the plants are like three inches tall right now," he says. Then he started hitting dry cleaners, which often have them, and finally found a large plant in bloom at one across the street from his restaurant.
Did he just walk in and ask to buy their geranium? "No, we walked in and asked to take the leaves off of it," said des Rosiers.
The restaurant and dry cleaner share a landlord, who worked out the deal since the "very old Korean woman there" didn't speak English, des Rosiers says. "We're not sure if she really understands what he meant by 'we're going to take all the flowers off.'" (If not, she's probably figured it out by now.)
It's actually more common for the plant's leaves to be used, usually to flavor sweets such as cakes, jellies, ice cream, and lemonade. Des Rosiers took the complete opposite tack, making pesto with the flowers and using it as part of a composed savory dish.
"This whole dish we're going to make—I've never made it before," he said. "We do it all the time. I write menus for wine tastings without tasting anything. If I write it and it makes sense in my head, it works. It always works."
Nor does he write down the recipes he uses, in part because the menu at Inovasi changes so often that "if we had to actually write down and develop and test and process every single recipe, we'd spend all day doing that and none of the time cooking. So instead we've got a whole bunch of cooks with great palates who have worked with me for seven years, and we can make a sauce and everybody can understand it and we can replicate it exactly the same way the next time."
Geranium-flower pesto made sense to des Rosiers because he's found that olive oil cuts down on the bitterness of flowers. He used macadamias instead of pine nuts or walnuts because "they have a really even, round flavor." The other parts of the recipe—Alaskan black cod poached in a geranium-flower liquid, kabocha squash puree, grilled artichoke hearts, mole, and yuzu marmalade—he chose for their presumed compatibility with the geranium too.
The finished dish was an edible painting, with the pesto, mole, and marmalade spattered onto a long, narrow "canvas" of heavy paper, topped with the other ingredients, and garnished with geranium petals and leaves. It's an idea that des Rosiers, who also did several of the paintings on the walls at the restaurant, has used before—including once with a seven-square-foot canvas, which he painted with food from the top of a ladder.
As he tossed sauces onto the paper and added two portions of squash, cod, and artichokes at opposite ends, he mused, "I like this. Sometimes things for the restaurant start like this. This is a great dish for two."
After tasting it, he pronounced it "nice." The fish was tender and juicy, and the geranium pesto ended up being "a little bitter—like 2 percent." The geraniums, he said, were less floral and aromatic than the flowers he'd worked with before, which could be because of the season, the age of the plant, or the soil it was grown in.
Des Rosiers liked how the various parts of the dish came together: "Every time you take a bite and the composition of the different sauces changes, it'll be different."
By the time he finished, he'd decided to put the dish on the menu—but with a flower that'll grow indoors in the winter. (He's named it Pollock's Cod, after both the painter and the fish.)
Phillip Foss of Meatyballs Mobile, a food truck that serves meatball sandwiches, using freeze-dried saffron. Foss participated early in the launch of this feature, so des Rosiers didn't get to pick him. But "the funny thing is that I would have picked Phillip next," he says. He thinks Foss got off too easy, though: "I would not have picked freeze-dried saffron. I would have done . . . some weird bird's ball from Indonesia or something."
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
2 c water
½ c Tozai Junmai or other good-quality sake
1 c geranium flowers
2 t soy sauce
1 t sorghum syrup
2 3-oz pieces Alaskan black cod
Heat all ingredients except the cod to 140 degrees in a saucepan; add the cod and cook 15-20 minutes until tender and flaky.
¼ c extra-virgin olive oil
½ oz macadamia nuts
1 oz Pecorino
1 c geranium flowers (ideally 3-4 cups)
1 ice cube
Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor, adjust to taste.
½ c organic kabocha squash, roasted and peeled
1 t homemade chipotle
1 t roasted and pureed onion
Pinch of ras el hanoot
Place all ingredients in a blender, puree.
4 oz Manjari 64 % dark chocolate
1 t (no seeds or veins) pasilla de Oaxaca chiles (cooked in a little tequila and pureed)
1 T pecans
Blend of sesame seeds, cumin, za'atar (a Middle Eastern mixture of dried herbs and spices), filé powder (dried and ground sassafrass leaves), and lime juice (to taste)
Melt chocolate and combine with other ingredients.
2 T honey
1 T maple syrup
1 T yuzu juice
1 c yuzu skins
Combine all and cook over low heat for ten minutes, then puree.
Grilled quartered artichoke hearts
Geranium leaves and petals (for garnish)
Spatter geranium pesto, mole, and marmalade on a plate or canvas of heavy paper. Sprinkle with geranium leaves and petals. Spoon on squash puree in two equal piles, then top each with a piece of cod and a couple artichoke heart quarters.