Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Hibiscus Rainbo for Pride

Hibiscus Spring Rolls with Savory Rice, Ham, Pepper and Mint

Hibiscus Rice Vegetable Maki

The taqerias of Chicago are ubiquitous and harbor a multitude of fantastic drinks. The cane-sugar Mexican Coke, spicy rich horchata, and many splendid flavors of Jarritos and Jumex are delicious little whiffs of the exotic within easy reach, and I indulge in them often. I have long been intrigued by jamaica, the magenta hibiscus flower infusion, but admit to not particularly enjoying it as a drink. It has a spectacular tartness and a mineral undertaste that are only calmed when served overly sweet, which doesn't appeal to me as my sweet tooth has evaporated as I mature. I have long thought that jamaica's unique attributes -- tartness, lean complexity and brilliant color -- could be useful in cooking for more than just drinking, and recently I've been experimenting with it. The dried hibiscus petals are available in most Mexican markets, and they are potent. A small handful will make a couple of quarts of infusion with a brilliant ruby color and a strong, complex flavor.

My first hibiscus experiment was to use unsweetened jamaica instead of water to hydrate the rice paper wrappers for some spring rolls. The wrappers can be a little pasty, and I thought the tartness of hibiscus could ameliorate that. The wrappers didn't take on the vivid hue of the jamaica, but were both appreciably magenta and appreciably sour. I cooked the rice in stock with saffron, and paired with some emerald green mint leaves from the alley, some pink smoked ham, and marinated roasted red pepper, the visual effect was bright and jolly. The hibiscus flavor, though muted by the rice paper, was discernible and interesting and made an additional dipping sauce unnecessary. My only reservation was that I didn't have any bright blue color to complete the rainbow in the rolls, since I made them during Pride weekend.

As an aside, I've always been intrigued by the unique Chicago idomatic spelling "rainbo." This spelling was used for Rainbo Donuts (now closed), Rainbo Roller Rink (also), the Rainbo Club (closes in about an hour as I type, but will be open again once the hipsters wake), Rainbo Gardens jazz club, the Rainbo housing development in Uptown and probably a hundred more places. It's baffling and charming.

My next Pride Week experiment was soaking rice in jamaica to add a note of sourness to some maki rolls without having to use citrus juice or vinegar. I let the rice hydrate in the jamaica overnight, then cooked it in jamaica with a little salt. Prior to cooking, the rice looked spectacular, a mottled deep purple resembling little slivers of alabaster. After cooking, the rice evened out into a uniform magenta pink that was a bit of a letdown in comparison, but tasted great, sour and salty and rich. In both color and sensation the rice reminded me of umeboshi, the salty Japanese pickled plum used as a condiment and seasoning. I intend to continue these experiments using umeboshi in conjunction with hibiscus to see how they compliment each other.

I made the maki rolls in the manner of a pretend-ninja. I put on black pyjamas and silently spread the rice on nori sheets, stealthily wrapping them around middles composed of mint, celery, julienne of ginger and roasted red pepper marinated in sesame oil and garlic. We recently made the trek out to Mitsuwa, the Asian market in Arlington Heights, and I bought several brands of nori sheet, ranging from a couple of bucks to $12 for a package. It saddens me to say the more expensive nori sheets were easier to roll, crisper to bite into and noticeably more flavorful. I guess from now on I'll know the difference and be an asshole about it. Why do I set myself up like this.

Cut into portions, the exposed colors of the rolls suited the occasion, and I couldn't jave been jappier with the eating of these. The tartness of the jamaica rice acted as a kind of trojan jorse for the rich, oily and savory elements inside the rolls. It was satisfying to eat these little pieces and jave the flavors and mouth sensations evolve and complicate over time. Jooray for jamaica. (v)

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