Edible Beauty

Some flowers can grace your plate as well as your vase.


July/August 2012

by Corinne Garcia

Yards and neighborhoods are brimming over with color this time of year as flowers pop out of their buds, just as ready to bask in the summer sun as we are. Fragrant scents, from the lilacs of early spring to the lavender days of August, fill the air, and we are reminded of the wonders of nature as we watch bees buzzing around fresh blooms.

The delicate beauty that flowers add to life is difficult to ignore, making it even more difficult to imagine chomping down on one in a salad or main course. But according to Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate (Fulcrum) and senior editor of Garden Gate magazine, once you get past the awkwardness that comes with trying new things, eating flowers can be just as fun and beautiful as gazing at them. In her book, Barash covers a number of flowers not to be relegated to the role of mere garnish, including more than 280 recipes from simple salads to carefully prepared candied treats. On the list are flowers that many people probably had no idea could be eaten.

Susan Mills-Gray, nutrition and health specialist at the University of Missouri Extension service in Harrisonville, recommends using those flowers that are not only edible but also most accessible, either grown in your yard or organically nearby. As far as nutritional value goes, she explains that most people are probably not eating enough to make much of a difference in their overall diets, and although each flower does have a specific nutritional profile, they aren’t always exactly the same. “It really depends on growing conditions, harvesting techniques and holding techniques,” Mills-Gray explains. “I would remind people that these are mostly for flavor and color, not necessarily for nutritional value.”

Morgan Milton, the executive chef of Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Montana, has the luxury of using edible flowers from the resort’s on-site greenhouse, and enjoys the colorful beauty they add as a garnish as well as the flavor they can add to a gourmet dish. “Sometimes we pick the petals and use them as a colorful garnish just like chopped parsley, or on big platters to make them stand out,” he says. “Or something like the chive flowers, we can pair that with the flavor of our tuna tartare.”

And when it comes to taking your first nibble of delicate petals, Barash recommends moving slowly. “When eating a flower for the first time, bite just a little bit, chew it with the front teeth, let it roll over tongue, and if you don’t like it, spit it out!” Each has a different flavor profile; from spicy to minty to sweet, and just like any other type of food, not every one will suit each palate.

Here are some of the edible flowers that Barash recommends (others include carnation, hibiscus, hollyhock, honeysuckle, lavender, lilac, marigold, rose and squash).

Nasturtium

A common bloom in the culinary world, available in a number of vibrant colors—most commonly yellows, oranges and reds—with round leaves, nasturtiums add as much spice to your dishes as they do to your garden. “Initially there’s a sweetness of the nectar, followed by a spicy pepperiness that’s not too overwhelming,” says Barash. She like to add chopped nasturtiums to a salad with a mild dressing that allows the flavor to shine through, or she lets the petals soak in white wine vinegar for a week, adding color and flavor to an infused dressing vinegar. She also recommends adding nasturtiums to pizza as an uncooked topping and as an edible garnish to guacamole and Mexican dishes. The colorful petals contain vitamin C.

Daylilly

If you’ve ever had Chinese food you’ve unknowingly eaten daylilies, commonly used in dried form as the basis of hot-and-sour soup. Available in a variety of colors, the most common and flavorful daylilies are yellow and orange, Barash explains. “They have a sweet to mild vegetable flavor,” Barash says, “and along with great flavor, they offer a drop-dead gorgeous presentation.” Daylily blooms only last for one day, although you will most likely have many coming up at different times and you can always cut off a bud that’s about to bloom to let it open in a vase on the kitchen counter. Barash sautés daylilies with oil and garlic for a tasty addition to green beans or stir fries, puts the whole bloom in a wine goblet to hold a scoop of sorbet or frozen yogurt, or uses them in whipped cream cheese dip. Daylilies contain protein, vitamin C and beta-carotene, but avoid eating too many as they can have a laxative effect.

Dandelions

Those pesky dandelions that pop up all over the yard can be put to good use in the kitchen, where they contribute a mildly sweet flavor. Native Americans frequently used dandelions in traditional dishes, including flower dipped in egg and cornmeal and fried in pork fat or bacon grease. “Sautéed in plain oil, it tastes like a mushroom—it’s a total transformation,” Barash says. She recommends using young flowers for the freshest flavor. Barash throws chopped-up dandelion petals into scrambled eggs and salads to add color, and adds them to pancake batter. Many people make dandelion wine, where the sweet, honey-like flavors really come out. Dandelion greens can also be used in stir-fries and salads. Dandelions contain vitamins A and C, and the leaves contain calcium.

Tulips

Most people who grow tulips probably have no idea they can be just as delightful to munch on as they are to gaze upon. With a multitude of flavors and colors, the petals have a dense base similar to that of daylilies, resulting in a wonderfully crunchy texture. “They tend to taste bean- or pea-like,” Barash says. “The reds and oranges taste best. The purple ones are not very tasty for some reason, and you don’t want to eat the stem.” She likes to chop tulips and add them to whipped cream cheese or use the whole flower, filled with cream cheese, or tuna or chicken salad, as a beautifully edible serving cup. Nutritional information about tulips is not readily available, but judging by the bright colors, there could be trace amounts of vitamins, including the vitamin A typically found in yellow flowers, and antioxidants.

Chive Flowers

The pale purple chive flower, made up of many tiny florets popping off the top of the common garden herb, is a tasty addition to savory dishes with a sweet, oniony flavor. But beware: “If you were to eat an entire flower, it could have the equivalent flavor of an entire bulb of garlic,” Barash says. “I always break them up and sprinkle them.” She likes to toss chive flowers onto potatoes, burritos and salads, or use them as a garnish on onion dip or an addition to marinade; you can also rub a whole chive flower around a wooden salad bowl to add flavor. Make chive butter by adding the flowers to softened butter and then freezing or refrigerating. To fashion a flavor-imparting marinade brush, tie five chive flower stems to a chopstick that’s been soaked in water. One study revealed that chive flowers contain important fatty acids along with vitamin E.

Pansies

The colorful and delicate pansy is as tasty as it is beautiful, whether candied and adorning a fancy wedding cake or sprinkled on a simple salad. “They have a slightly minty flavor,” Barash says, “and someone described the taste as similar to Pepto-Bismol, but in a good way!” However Barash uses pansies, she likes to make sure they are visible because they add a real flair. She makes a tri-
colored salad of pasta, sweet pepper and pansies, and adds them to dip. Pansies contain vitamins A and C.

Eating Flowers Safely

Not all flowers are edible; here are what Cathy Barash calls her 10 commandments of edible flowers.

1. Eat only those flowers you can positively identify as safe and edible. If you have questions, contact your state's extension service before ingesting.

2. Just because it’s on your plate does not mean it is edible.

3. Eat only those flowers that have been grown organically.

4. Do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries, garden centers or public gardens.

5. Do not eat flowers if you have hay fever, asthma or allergies.

6. Do not eat flowers picked from the side of heavily trafficked roads.

7. Eat only the petals of flowers; always remove and discard the pistils and stamens before eating (except for the tiny flowers, which would make it impossible).

8. Not all sweet-smelling flowers are edible; some are poisonous.

9. Eat only the flowers of the recommended plants; other parts may be toxic or inedible, even though the flower may be delicious.

10. Gradually introduce flowers into your diet one at a time and in small quantities, the way you would new food to a baby.

 

Recipe

Savory Flower Spread

8 oz whipped cream cheese
1 tbsp chive florets, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp rosemary flowers, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp nasturtium flowers, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp pansy flowers, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp calendula petals, coarsely chopped

In a non-metallic bowl, fold all ingredients together.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.

Cathy Barash says, “This makes a great stuffing for nasturtium blossoms,
served in daylily or tulip cup or in celery sticks. It is a colorful, flavorful, inexpensive
alternative to ready-made herbal cheese. Refrigerate for up to a week,
or freeze up to three months.”

Source: Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate by Cathy Wilkinson Barash
(Fulcrum; www.fulcrumbooks.com)

 

Making Candied Flowers
with Cathy Barash

What You’ll Need:
1 egg white
100 proof vodka
superfine granulated sugar
thin artist's paintbrush
Violets (or other flower to be candied, such as pansy,
Johnny jump-up, rose petals, lilac, borage, pea, pinks, scented geranium)
wire cake rack
baking parchment

Instructions:

In small bowl, beat the egg to a light froth.  Add 1 or 2 drops of vodka and mix; this helps the flower to dry quicker. Pour sugar into a shallow bowl. Have the paintbrush at hand and some freshly picked violets. find it best to pick no more than four or five at a time, candy them, and then pick more. Even with putting them in water, they wilt quickly, making the process more difficult. Cover a wire cake rack with baking parchment.

Grasp the top of the stem of a violet between your thumb and forefinger. Dip the paintbrush in the beaten egg white and gently paint all surfaces of the petals, making sure to get between all the petals. Gently sprinkle the sugar on the flower, making sure to cover all surfaces and between the petals. Place the flower, face up, on the parchment. Repeat process for all the flowers. Do not be discouraged: This is a slow process that requires meticulous attention to detail.

When you have done as many flowers as will fill the parchment, place them (still on the rack) in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area to dry completely. When the flowers dry, they will be stiff and brittle. Store in an airtight container.

It can complicate matters if you live in a very humid area. You may dry the flowers in a room with a dehumidifier. Once dry, gently place them in a heavy duty plastic freezer container, layered no more than three deep, separated by a sheet of parchment. Keep them in the freezer up to a year. If you store them at room temperature, the humidity creeps in and they can turn into green mush after a couple of months.

 

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