Edible Flowers 101
Garden to Table
May 29, 2007
Cathy Wilkinson Barash
Spring is officially here. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, and the edible flowers are starting to bloom. For thousands of years, cultures around the world have incorporated edible flowers into rituals and revelries, and gourmets have long cherished their addition to special dishes. Gourmets aren't the only ones indulging in their luscious flavors these days, however. People everywhere are celebrating the delicious beauty of edible flowers.
"People are traveling more and rediscovering some of the heritage of edible gardening," says Cathy Wilkinson Barash, a life-long organic gardener and the author of Edible Flowers From Garden To Palate. "Flowers add a whole other dimension to food, turning ordinary fare into food that's fit for company."
Consumed both as a garnish and as an ingredient, the essence of edible flowers varies. Daylilies, which bloom only for a day, are sweet and slightly crispy (though, Barash notes, occasionally spicy). Dried daylily blossoms (available at Asian markets as "golden needles") are traditionally used for thickening and flavoring Chinese hot and sour soup. Orange, yellow or red nasturtium flowers, gorgeous in a mixed green salad, are somewhat peppery, and tend to cut the oiliness of smoked salmon in dishes like Salmon Nasturtium Pizza. Hibiscus flowers, known for adding their red color to Red Zinger tea, lend a crisp, cranberry tang to the mix. And the pale purple chive blossom, sold in huge stems, imparts all the flavor of onion and garlic to any savory dish.
With close to 100 different flowers to choose from, including the well-known rose, tulip, pansy, violet and squash blossoms, and the lesser-known pineapple guava, recipe options are limitless. The 287 recipes in Barash's book include 67 different flowers, and span the gamut. She is particularly fond of substituting chive blossoms for onion and garlic, and regularly attaching them to damp chopsticks to use as a "brush" while grilling chicken or meat. Another favorite combination is the marriage of tulips and tuna fish.
"The base of the spring tulip has a pea-like crunchy flavor. I like to chop up the petals, mix them into the tuna, and serve each individual portion inside a tulip blossom on fresh lettuce. The result is glamorous and tasty."
Although they are fairly easy to grow, edible flowers are not raised in large quantities because their shelf life is short. And they tend to be expensive. Those interested in keeping costs down may want to invest in their own patch of edible landscaping. This process, it turns out, is dual purpose, for it not only provides scrumptious ornamentals, but also encourages conservation, says Barash, especially in areas with water shortages. The pretty parsley plant, for example, tastes great, makes a lovely edging, and, when set on a hillside, prevents erosion. For her part, Barash plants mixed lettuces along the path to her front door.
"So many of the edible fruits, vegetables and flowers are so beautiful. Why relegate them to the back 40?"
If you can't have your own garden, Barash recommends buying edible flowers directly from a reputable organic grower, but never a florist, nursery or public garden center, because these flowers are often sprayed with chemicals to preserve the bloom. Before using, pistils and stamens should always be removed, as only the petals of the flowers are fit to eat. Also, Barash says, don't assume that the restaurants and caterers serving flowers know which ones are edible. Not all sweet-smelling flowers are safe to consume.
"I once saw lily-of-the-valley used as a decoration on a wedding cake," she says. "Though charming, lily-of-the-valley is extremely poisonous. Learn which flowers are edible before diving in, and if you're ever in doubt, wait and consult with an expert."
Since they are devoured in such small quantities, the health benefits of edible flowers are hard to measure. But Barash believes that the true value of the flower lies in the actual eating experience.
"This is happy food," she says.
SALMON NASTURTIUM PIZZAIngredients:
Pizza dough for a 10 - 12" pie *
1 cup peas (fresh or frozen)
1/8 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup frisee or chicory - small leaves
6 slices smoked salmon
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
15 nasturtium flowers
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Shape pizza dough and bake for 2 to 3 minutes - do not allow it to brown. Remove dough from oven and allow to cool. Puree peas with olive oil, and Parmesan cheese; add salt and pepper to taste. Spread puree on pizza dough. Bake for 5 minutes or until crust begins to brown and peas are hot and bubbling slightly. Remove pizza from oven. Arrange salmon, onion and flowers on top. Cut into four to six wedges and serve.
Serves 4 for hors d'oeuvres or 2 for lunch
* Substitute ready-made focaccia to save time.
12 brightly colored tulips (reds, yellows, oranges or multicolored are preferable)
2 cans albacore tuna packed in water, drained
4 stalks of celery, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. curry powder
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Remove the petals from 8 of the tulips, cutting off 1/4" where petal was attached (this can be bitter). Julienne the petals. In a large bowl, mix the tuna, celery, curry and mayonnaise. Add the julienned petals and gently toss. Cut off the stems and remove the pistils and stamens from the 4 reserved tulips. Lay each tulip on a bed of lettuce. Gently spoon the tuna mixture into the tulips.-- All recipes copyright 2007 Cathy Wilkinson Barash