Growing up in Mexico City, my sisters and I used to prepare exotic meals, perfumes and potions for the inhabitants of our enchanted forest. That was our dog, the bluebird, snails, butterflies and ladybugs that happened to peek into our backyard and witness our extravagant mess. It also included any family friend who happened to stop by and become a willing victim. We sometimes offered cooking classes too.
My mother set us up in the backyard on a big blanket with random pots and pans, while she cooked laborious weekend meals. There was a fig tree, an apple tree, a peach tree, a couple of what we called Chinese orange trees and tons of azaleas and herbs that offered an immense array of witch-crafting material. But among our most prized ingredients were dried jamaica flowers, known here as hibiscus flowers, stored in a big jar in the kitchen.
HIBISCUS FLOWER CONCENTRATE
Makes about 5 cups
8 cups water
2 cups (3 ounces) dried hibiscus/jamaica flowers
1 1/2 cups sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
In a 6- or 8-quart saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add flowers, stir and simmer over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool a bit.
Strain mixture into a large container (with a lid to cover later), and add the sugar and lime juice. Stir until well-dissolved.
Once the concentrate has cooled, cover well and refrigerate. It will keep in the refrigerator for months.
AGUA DE JAMAICA (HIBISCUS FLOWER WATER)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cups concentrate
6 to 8 cups water
Dilute each cup of the concentrate with 3 to 4 cups water. Serve over ice cubes, or refrigerate until very cold.
For the Hibiscus Flower Tea
Dilute 1/3 to 1/4 cup concentrate with 2/3 or 3/4 cup of water.
Hibiscus Flower Popsicles
For 2 cups concentrate, add 4 cups water and add 1/4 cup more sugar. Stir well, pour into popsicle molds and place in the freezer. This amount will make 24 2-ounce popsicles and will take 4 to 5 hours to freeze.
SEARED DUCK BREAST WITH HIBISCUS FLOWER AND ORANGE SAUCE
Pechuga De Pato Con Salsa De Jamaica Y Naranja
Makes 6 Servings
4 cups jamaica/hibiscus flower concentrate
2 cups chicken broth, homemade or store-bought
Rind of an orange
1 bay leaf
3 whole cloves
5 black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick, about 2 inches (use Ceylon or true cinnamon if you can)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
6 duck breasts, 6 to 8 ounces each, with skin
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground, or to taste
Pour concentrate and broth into a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil and add the orange rind, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, vinegar and salt. Simmer at medium-high heat for about 35 minutes.
Bring heat down to medium-low, as the sauce will have reduced considerably and will be simmering too strongly. Keep on a low simmer until the sauce achieves a thick, syrupy consistency, about 10 more minutes. Don't let it thicken too much, as the sauce will continue to thicken as it cools. Remove the spices using a slotted spoon or strainer, and reserve in a container.
If you are not going to use it in the next couple of hours, or you made more than you need, let it cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat before using.
Thoroughly rinse the duck breasts under a thin stream of cold water and pat dry. Make 6 to 8 diagonal cuts through the skin of each breast, being careful not to cut through the meat. Season with kosher salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Once it is hot but not smoking, place the duck breasts skin-side down and sear for 6 to 7 minutes, until the skin is brown and crisp, and most of the fat melts and turns into liquid.
Move the breasts, skin-side up, to an ovenproof dish or pan. Place in the oven for 5 to 9 minutes, depending on how rare you like your meat: about 5 minutes for quite rare and about 8 to have a nice pink center.
Remove the breasts from the oven and let them sit for a couple of minutes before slicing. Slice diagonally along already marked skin. Drizzle jamaica and orange sauce on top.
WATERCRESS, GOAT CHEESE AND PECAN SALAD WITH HIBISCUS FLOWER VINAIGRETTE
Ensalada De Berros, Queso De Cabra Y Nueces Con Vinagreta De Jamaica
Makes 6 servings
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup safflower or corn oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1 cup hibiscus flowers
12 ounces watercress, rinsed and drained
8 ounces fresh goat cheese, cut into 12 slices (can be crumbled, too)
1/2 cup pecans or pine nuts, lightly toasted
Pour the champagne vinegar into a 3- to 4-quart mixing bowl. Slowly add both the olive oil and the safflower oil as you whisk them into the vinegar with a fork or whisk. Mix in the minced garlic, sugar, salt and pepper. Add the flowers and toss them well. Let them macerate from 4 to 6 hours.
Remove the flowers with a slotted spoon, reserving the vinaigrette. Chop the flowers and return them to the vinaigrette. You may use then, or cover and refrigerate up to a week. Mix very well before using and taste for seasoning as it may have become a bit more tart as the days go by and need more salt and sugar.
Place the watercress in a salad bowl. Toss with some vinaigrette and top with goat cheese slices and toasted pecans or pine nuts.