Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Edible Flowers: Dinner is Blooming!


With the increasing knowledge of organic gardening, the blossoming trend of growing your own food, and demand for farm-to-table dining, home-grown culinary options are expanding as quickly as fields in springtime. Consequently, flowers are earning a new place of honor on the table — from decoration to dinner.

Beauty and food make a pleasant paring in colorful salads, savory dishes and sweet treats. More and more, adventurous chefs and home cooks are experimenting with flowers, seeking to satisfy all the senses, not just our sense of taste.

The practice of eating flowers has been in and out of style for centuries. The Romans ate rose and violet petals, the British added violets, primroses and nasturtiums to their salads during the Victorian era, and Chinese cooking has long incorporated chrysanthemums and daylilies.

Today, some additional favorites include familiars like violas and pansies, which can be candied or sprinkled on  salads; lavender, which can flavor cookies and drinks and is  a main ingredient in the French seasoning Herbs de Provence; calendula marigolds, known as “poor man’s saffron,” which can be used in soups, pasta, rice or salads; and the giant of culinary flowers, the squash blossom, which is perfect for stuffing and/or frying.

And it’s not just foodies and trendy restaurants taking notice. The internet is blooming with garden supply companies offering edible flower seed combinations targeting the home gardener, and with growers offering mail-order culinary flowers. Since there are greater than 100 varieties of edible flower, chances are good that most home gardens contain an edible blossom or two.

Still skeptical? You may already be eating flowers without realizing it. If your diet contains broccoli, cauliflower or  artichokes, you are essentially consuming the flowering bud  of the plant. The precious spice saffron comes from the
stamen of the crocus and vanilla extract is derived from the vanilla orchid.

For many gardeners and cooks, flowers make the food experience more enjoyable and innovative; however for some, culinary flowers are a way to communicate a connection with past generations and with our home soil.

Most of us can look back in our family histories and find relatives who lovingly tended gardens which yielded fresh
produce in summer, canned vegetables for winter, and maybe even an edible flower here and there.

It’s not unusual to find a gardening Grammy or Grampy close to home who will reminisce about frying up a plate of squash blossoms as a summertime treat, making flowery tea, or even sipping dandelion wine.

Surely we could use that harvest wisdom; because long before our gardens are wilting in the summer heat, we’re looking at a riot of vegetables and flowers, and running out of creative recipes using squash and zucchini. By snipping a few flowers, we could manage the harvest and maybe save ourselves the baking of one more loaf of zucchini bread (not that there’s anything wrong with zucchini bread).

And as summer heats up, a refreshing offshoot of culinary flower gardening is “cocktail” gardening — growing flowers
like lavender, violas and pansies to mix in beverages. Incidentally, using edible flowers as a garnish or ingredient in
cocktails and other drinks is a simple way to experiment with culinary blossoms.

Lemonade infused with lavender is a cool twist on a warm-weather favorite. The flowers of herbs like verbena, basil and rosemary are interesting and tasty in cocktails like Mojitos or Martinis. Rosewater, rose petals or rose syrup can give a flowery summer fragrance to a favorite beverage like tea, and hibiscus flowers preserved in rose syrup bloom beautifully in champagne. Even simple garnishes like violas or pansies frozen in ice cubes lend festive flair to punch or flavored water.

Edible Flowers 101: A Culinary Sampler

There’s no place like home; so when you find yourself searching for your heart’s desire, you need look no further than your own backyard. Try a few of these local and abundant edible flowers.

Pansies, Johnny-Jump-Ups, and Violas (Viola x wittrockiana, V. tricolor, V. cornuta) — All three of these relatives are similar in taste, with a light floral, sweet green or wintergreen flavor. The entire flower is useable as a garnish for desserts and drinks, in salads, or in soups.Pansies, Johnny-jump-ups and violas contain both vitamin C and vitamin A (antioxidants said to help the body fight infection and diseases including cancer and heart disease).These annual flowers grow best in partial shade and moderately moist soil.

Lavender (Lavandula) — Blooms have a sweet floral flavor with hints of fresh pine, rosemary and citrus. English lavender varieties (L. angustifolia) have the best culinary flavor. Lavender accentuates both sweet and savory dishes — from desserts and drinks to roasted meats, stews and sauces. To use, strip the flowers from the stalk. It is noted as a natural remedy for headache, stomach upset and hypertension, among other ailments. A perennial, lavender grows best in full-sun and well-drained soil.

Roses (Rosa rugosa or R. gallica officinalis) — Flavors depend on type, color and soil conditions, and range from fruity to floral, minty to spicy. All roses are edible, with stronger flavor in the darker varieties. Use petals to garnish desserts, salads or beverages. Freeze them in ice cubes or use them to make syrups or jellies. Remove the bitter white portion of the petals. Because petals contain about 95 percent water, their nutritional value is limited and their calorie count is low; however, the petals do contain some vitamin C. Roses thrive in full sun to light shade and moderately moist, well-drained soil.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) — Probably the most-celebrated of culinary flowers, Nasturtiums have a spicy, peppery flavor similar to watercress. Both the leaves and blooms are edible. Use them in salads or stuff them with savory soft cheese, or use as a garnish for sandwiches and appetizers.Nasturtiums are nutritionally dense, as even the leaves  contain significant amounts of vitamin C and iron. This easy-to-grow, self-seeding annual thrives in most
well-drained soils in full sun to light shade.

Calendulas (Calendula officinalis) — Commonly called marigold, Calendula officinalis is preferred for its flavor over the garden-variety marigold, Tagetes tenuifolia. Both the petals and leaves are edible. Flavors range from spicy to bitter, tangy to peppery. Their sharp taste resembles saffron and they impart a golden tint. Sprinkle them on soups, pasta, rice dishes or salads.Nutritionally, calendula is high in antioxidant vitamins A and C. Like the nasturtium, calendula is an easy to grow, self-seeding annual. It thrives in full sun to partial shade and requires moist, well-drained soil.

Squash (Cucurbita pepo) — All squash blossoms (yellow squash, zucchini and pumpkin) are edible, crunchy and taste mildly of the vegetable. The flowers are usually taken from the male plant (which has a thinner stem end). The large blooms are perfect for stuffing, frying, or for simply seasoning and  drizzling with olive oil. Prepare them by washing, trimming  the stems, and removing the stamens. Light and delicate, squash blossoms have about five calories per cup and are high in calcium, iron and vitamins C and A.Plant this warm-summer annual in full sun and rich, moist, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter.

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) — These crunchy blooms taste slightly sweet with a mild vegetable tone, like sweet lettuce
or melon. The flavor is also described as a combination of asparagus and zucchini. Use them in a stir-fry, salads, desserts, or deep-fried. In the spring, gather shoots two or three inches tall and use as a substitute for asparagus.
Daylily flowers and tubers are high in protein and are good sources of beta carotene and vitamin C. This hardy perennial thrives in full sun or light shade in fairly moist, well-drained soil.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) — These blossoms have a cranberry-like flavor with citrus overtones. Use the petals sparingly in salads or as a garnish. Dried hibiscus flowers can make an exotic “blooming” tea. Blooms preserved in rose  syrup are lovely floating in champagne. Hibiscus tea is said to be superior to green tea for anti-oxidant power.
The tropical variety is best used as a container plant, as it cannot thrive in temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tips for Safe and Tasty Flower Dining

Not all flowers are edible, so verify with a trusted reference book or university extension service (always check using the flower’s botanical name). Many informative websites are devoted to edible flowers. Do not eat any flower that has been sprayed with chemicals or pesticides. Do not eat flowers picked from roadsides. Avoid eating flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers unless the plants are certified organic.

In general, remove the stamens, pistils and sepals from flowers before eating — except for violas, pansies and Johnny-jump-ups, which may be eaten entirely. Remember that just because a flower is edible doesn’t mean it will taste good — preferences vary.