Lauren Taylor chats to food writer Elly McCausland about botanical ingredients and how we can all use them at home.
Many of us probably eat ‘botanical’ ingredients all the time, in curries, stir-fries and takeouts from our local Thai, but how much attention do we really pay to them?
When we say ‘botanical’ we’re talking flowers, seeds and leaves, and fruit and food writer Elly
McCausland is on a mission to bring these small under-rated ingredients to the forefront and celebrate the big role they can play.
“They aren’t always centre stage but they’re the backbone of the dish and provide really important flavour accents, we don’t always give these ingredients as much attention as they deserve.” she says.
“A lot of the time, we think about the protein first, or the carbohydrate, and then we build a dish from there, whereas I’m thinking, ‘Ok, I have a pear, what can I do with that?’ … or a pineapple.”
Her first cookbook, The Botanical Kitchen, is packed with recipes celebrating fruits such as orchard fruit or berries, banana leaves, kaffir lime leaves and herbs, lavender, saffron and elderflower and seeds including cardamom or poppy. And it’s all about letting these little powerhouses shine by doing as little as possible to them: “A lot of the recipes are quite natural and simple.”
But some might feel a bit alien to many home cooks. After all, how often do you really cook with flowers?
“When I was describing the book to someone and said there was a chapter on flowers, they looked at me like I was a bit mad.” McCausland admits. “I discovered lamb goes really well with lavender, just enough to get a slightly resinous, grassy taste, it really brings out the natural herbiness of the meat. Ditto with chicken and roses!”
But she knows these ingredients can seem daunting. “My advice would be to use sparingly; things like rose and lavender are quite powerful and you don’t want to end up with a dish tasting of soap. But the other thing I’d say is to be open minded. We tend to associate floral flavours with sweets, Turkish delight, sugared violets but actually a little bit of floral can have a really powerful and wonderful effect on savoury food.” Think lavender, lemon and goats cheese focaccia, or chamomile rice with teriyaki pork and picked apple salad.
Are people she cooks for surprised by her sometimes unusual flavour combinations? “Yes, I think so, I hope pleasantly surprised! One of the recipes, the blue cheese risotto with caramelised balsamic pears… pears with risotto sounds very strange and I’ve definitely had some sceptical reactions, but people end up loving it. It’s just not something you initially think goes together. It’s the same with duck and lychee or anything with tea in it, people are surprised by how versatile tea leaves are to cook with.”
McCausland has taken a lot of inspiration from her travels around the world. There’s North African and Middle Eastern notes in her cauliflower, date and preserved lemon dumplings with pomegranate and tahini dipping sauce, and Japanese influence in her soba noodles with crab, pomelo, yuzu and avocado.
“The way they layer flavours, that’s something we’re working on in our cooking in Europe but it’s something certain countries have been doing for thousands of years.”
Something else that fascinates her is the history of these ingredients: “Knowing a bit more about the story behind the recipe can really make you want to make it more and enjoy it more. I think a lot of these ingredients we use without really thinking about it, especially common ones like bananas or apples.”
In the book, she talks about the disappearance of British and local apple varieties and the strong history the UK has with saffron. “A tiny part of me hopes I can get people to try and take food for granted a bit less and enjoy local produce”.
It seems to be a culture she’s picked up on in Scandinavia; she lived in Denmark before Norway. “One of the things I really admire, particularly in Sweden and Denmark, is people really love food but they have a really good sense of balance, like the French. You notice that no one seems unhealthy, everyone is fit and active, they’re outdoorsy people and they know when food is a treat to save for a special occasion.”
She says there’s also less of a diet culture. “When they have cake, they have a little bit and that’s enough. It’s a really healthy attitude to food; food is valued. It’s somehow ingrained into the culture to enjoy good food, but not too much and not too little.
“I think we could actually learn a lot from that.”
The Botanical Kitchen by Elly McCausland, photography by Polly Webster, is published by Bloomsbury Absolute, priced £26. Available now.
Banana, tahini and white chocolate muffins recipe
Weekend baking, anyone? Muffins are great to whip up at the weekend so you can make your way through them in the week. Elly McCausland says her recipe using banana, tahini, cardamom and white chocolate, results in a highly addictive sweet and savoury combination and is also an excellent way to use up overripe bananas, the blacker the better.
To make banana, tahini and white chocolate muffins..
Ingredients: (Makes 12)
For the muffins:
200g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
Seeds from 8 cardamom pods, finely ground
1/4tsp sea salt flakes
100g white chocolate chips (or 1cm pieces of white chocolate)
3 large bananas, mashed
70g light brown soft sugar
50g butter, melted and cooled
1tsp vanilla extract
For the tahini glaze:
100g icing sugar
1tsp lemon juice
1tbsp sesame seeds (a mixture of black and white looks nice)
- Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6. Line a 12-hole muffin tray with paper cases or grease thoroughly with some extra butter if you don’t have paper cases.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, then stir in the cardamom and salt. Stir in the white chocolate.
- In a separate bowl, mash together the bananas, sugar, egg, melted butter, vanilla and tahini.
- Mix the wet ingredients into the dry, being careful not to overmix, this is the key to a light muffin.Divide between the 12 cases and bake the muffins for 20-25 minutes, until they spring back when pressed lightly with a finger.
- Transfer the muffins in their cases to a wire rack to cool.
- Make the glaze in a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, icing sugar, lemon juice and two tablespoons of water. When the muffins are cool, spoon the glaze over the top. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds and leave for an hour or so for the glaze to set before eating, if you can wait!