Edible flowers have been esteemed as food throughout the world for hundreds of years. Today they are featured in restaurants, magazines and cookbooks, but home cooks use them mostly as an attractive garnish. The variations in color, flavor and texture qualify them to be much more than a plate decoration. More than seventy kinds of plants produce ornamental flowers that are safe to eat. Be sure to use fresh, organic flower petals that have been rinsed in cool water to remove “little beasties”. One cup of water with one tablespoon of vinegar will flush them out.
The flowers of culinary herbs are more than a “pretty face”. They provide a more subtle flavor than the leaf, and increase the number of edible flowers available many fold. We will explore the use of both ornamental flowers and herb flowers in this column. Sample a petal before adding it to your recipe because the flavor can vary due to growing conditions and plant variety.
There are some safety rules for flower consumers! Eat only organically grown flowers which you know are edible and have not been toxically treated. Keep in mind that some flowers are poisonous! Don’t eat flowers if you have allergies, asthma, or hayfever which might be connected to them. It may help prevent allergic reactions if you remove the pistils and stamens (pollen carrying parts) of the flower.
If we categorize flowers by their flavor it will make it easier to choose the one with the “right stuff” to dress up a recipe. It is best to start with a few petals and add more to your taste. If you are looking for a minty flavor the obvious choice is any member of the mint family. Pansies and violas (johnny-jump-ups) also impart a mild mint taste. For a citrus verve use lemon verbena, lemon balm, hibiscus rosasinensis and signet marigold. Bee balm (Monarda didyma) adds a citrus spark with a striking red tubular flower as a bonus. Lemon-gem marigold is lemony and spicy.
For a sweet taste you may be surprised to know that young dandelion flowers (Taraxacum spp.) fit the bill. The emphasis here is on young, because the older blooms are bitter. Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and jasmine (jasminum sambac) are sweet with a floral essence. CAUTION: The berries of honeysuckle are toxic. One part of a plant being edible does not hold true of all its parts!
If you want a particular fruit essence in a dish there are many flowers to choose from. Chamomile imparts a sweet applelike taste. It should not be used however if you are allergic to ragweed. The petals of Rosa eglanteria are likened to ripe apples in scent and flavor. Pineapple sage has beautiful red trumpet shaped flowers and imparts the flavor it is named for. The daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) has a mellow melon taste. Do not confuse it with other lilies, which may be poisonous.
For a “touch of spice” try anise hyssop and fennel for their licorice verve. Dianthus caryophyllus is clovelike. Lavender (lavandula spp.), jasmine (jasminum sambac), lilac (syringa spp.) and sweet violets are floral and perfumy. A small amount goes a long way!
That onion\garlic flavor is evident with the flowers of chives, garlic chives and society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea). Society garlic flowers have the mildest flavor of this group. If peppery is what you are after use the flowers of arugula, nasturtium, calendula, mustard and radishes. The hollyhock variety Alcea rosea has a nutty flavor. The red bud (Cercis canadensis) and the tulip (Tulipa spp.) are bean or pealike in flavor.
There are many flavors to explore with scented geraniums (pelargonium spp.). These include apple, lemon. rose, lime and nutmeg. It was the herb originally used in finger bowls to cut the grease and leave fingers clean and fragrant.
You can cultivate a variety of flowers with colors and flavors that take your cooking to new creative heights. Growing them yourself gives you control over quality and safety. You probably already enjoy some of these flowers in your landscape. Now, you can relish these incredible edibles in your kitchen as well.
This column is dedicated to my “Gourmet Lunch Group” buddies of many years. The theme of our last luncheon at my house was favorite flowers. We shared many sweet stories about the flowers we enjoy. Check my Website at www.herbbasket.net for photos. Keep your flowery questions coming and enjoy a sweetly scented month!
Floral Recipes and Uses
Flowers with sweet, floral and perfumy tastes are used in:
Fruit salads, cake batters and beverages
Flowers with a mint or fruit flavor are used in:
Teas, desserts, yogurts, and fruit salad
Flowers with a peppery or onion flavor are used in:
Vegetable and pasta salads, egg dishes, cheese dips and spreads
Use instead of the more expensive saffron to add color to rice, savory custards, and soft cheese:
First cook the flowers in milk to extract the pigment. Add the colored milk to the dish being prepared.
Follow your favorite recipe to crystallize these flowers for sweet toppers on desserts:
Pansies, viola’s, calendula, pelargonium, borage, cornflower and miniature roses.
Choose flowers that are newly opened, clean and dry. Remove stamens and pistils if flowers are large enough.