Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Not Just for Paris Hilton and the Brits

“Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul.”

 The Koran

In continuation with our “You Can Eat That” theme, today’s foraging goodie is the elderflower (in bloom NOW). For those not living in Europe, going to some trendoid cocktail bar, or having a gay best friend (I am guilty of all three), elderflower is probably ringing a “Huh?” Elderflowers are flowers of the elder tree/shrub (genus Sambucus) that are the primary ingredient in St. Germain liqueur, cordial and presse.  While elderberries, the fruit of the elder tree has numerous uses in jam, pies, juice, etc., elderflower seems to be stuck playing the drink role in every play. When does it get a chance to shine on it’s own?
Elderflower Cluster
            First though, a little background. Like other urban foraging plants in the “You Can Eat That” theme, elder trees are pretty common across temperate regions on earth. Species vary from region to region, but most common to North America and Europe is the species Sambucus nigra (literally translated as black sambucus[1]). They flower in large clusters of cream and white flowers (see picture), which then produce blue/black or dark red berries (and when they come around, there will definitely be a recipe…I’m thinking PIE). Leaves stem from a single axis (also called “pinnate” for you plant nerds) usually in clusters of 5 to 9 leaves to a stem.
            Like many other edible plants, elderflower and its berries have been used for medicinal purposes, such as toothaches and flu. Some studies have suggested that elderberry extract could be a treatment for H1N1 flu virus (otherwise known has “bird flu”).[2] But lest you start hunting down every single elder tree for the elixir of life (I always thought it was Nyquil), every single part of the plant, except for the flowers and ripe berries are POISONIOUS. Just in case the poison part of poisonous didn’t get you, how about the word cyanide? Most of the plant, that is leaves, branches, twigs, seeds and roots, contain cyanide. In other words, don’t eat anything else beyond the flowers and the ripe berries (this especially is important for people with young children as they accumulate toxins much faster and in fatal doses than does of adults).
            But let’s get back to those lovely elderflowers. After a very unscientific survey of Google results, I realized that most of the recipes for elderflower were for beverages. But I did find out that the French and the Germans use elderflower syrup for pancakes or crepes. My line of thought is as follows:  pancake-dough-pastry-donut-fried deliciousness.  Why not tempura-batter the flowers and serve them up with cinnamon sugar for dessert?
            Made them and ate them. And now I am wishing that I made more before the last thunderstorm wiped out most of the flowers out of my neighborhood. Don’t make that mistake. As for the Koran- I think it needs to add an addendum: Flowers can feed both body and soul.

Elderflower Fritters

            As I have mentioned before, please follow the general rules for foraging (click here). But for elderflowers, there are some additional pointers. First, inspect the flowers for critters before you pick. Second, pick flowers that have just bloomed. They have the most flavor, fragrance and yummy pollen. And third, carry very gently. They are fragile and use immediately. They don’t keep.
            Once you get them home, clean them carefully in a bowl of cold water to get rid of any “friends” that may have come along for the ride. Dry them thoroughly on paper towels; otherwise, they will not pick up the batter properly.
            As for the tempura[3], the recipe is simple but technique is hard to perfect. With regards to the batter, use ice water. This is crucial in getting a crispy crust (this is the same reason why you need it for pie dough). If you have a cooking thermometer, by all means use it. Deep-frying is all about stabilizing the temperature of your oil so your batter does not become an oily sponge. Perfect frying temperature is 375ºF.[4] Lastly, do not overcrowd your pan. As soon as the batter hits the oil, the temperature drops dramatically. The more crowded your pan is, the more time it takes for your oil to heat back up to optimal frying temperature, and the more likely you will get undercooked, soggy, grease laden chunks of tastelessness. One more thing – serve immediately. Nobody likes cold tempura.

20 elderflower heads
2 qt. of neutral oil (any vegetable oil, except for olive oil, will do)
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. cornstarch
1/3 c. ice water
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. shortening
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 c. powdered sugar mixed with 1 tsp of cinnamon for dusting

1.     Heat oil in a deep fryer, or Dutch oven or wok to 375ºF.
2.     In a medium bowl, mix flour, cornstarch, ice water, egg yolk, salt, sugar, shortening, and baking powder. Do not overmix; otherwise you will get a tough batter.
3.     Dip flowers in batter, one at a time, and carefully place into the oil. Fry as many as the pan can hold without crowding the pan, until golden brown, about 45 seconds to a minute. (You will have to do this in batches) When done, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
4.     Dust powdered sugar mixture on top. Serve immediately.

[1] Finding the etymology of the genus Sambucus requires some serious sleuthing and knowledge of Sanskrit. Apparently the elder tree has its roots in Hindu mythology, particularly with stories associated with Ganesha.
[2] See ^ Roschek Jr., Bill; Fink, Ryan C.; McMichael, Matthew D.; Li, Dan; Alberte, Randall S. (2009). "Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro". Phytochemistry 70 (10): 1255–61. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2009.06.003. PMID 19682714; and Barak, V; Halperin, T; Kalickman, I (2001). "The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines". European cytokine network 12 (2): 290–6. PMID 11399518.
[3] This batter can be used for anything else: vegetables, shrimp, etc.
[4] There are numerous methods that suggest how to get the perfect frying temperature: bread cube, wooden chopstick, popcorn, etc. I find all of them to be imprecise. Use a thermometer. Don’t have one? Get one. They’re relatively cheap. A candy thermometer works nicely as well (it withstands high temperatures needed for deep-frying and it will hang conveniently on the side of the pot so your hand won’t become a casualty).
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