By Wilma Fernando
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2007.
Preparing a summer salad often means darting out to the garden for a selection of tender, green herb leaves to mix in with the other ingredients. But how about picking some fresh flowers for your salad, too?
Many edible flowers are high in vitamins C and A, as well as other nutrients. Flowers can be incorporated into baking, sauces, jelly, syrup vinegars, honey, oil, tea, flower-scented sugars, candied flowers, wine, and flavored liqueurs.
And many restaurant chefs and innovative home cooks garnish their entrees with flower blossoms for a touch of elegance.
History of Edible Flowers
The culinary use of flowers dates back thousands of years, with the first recorded mention in 140 BCE. Flowers have traditionally been used in many types of cooking. Early American settlers used flowers as food, and flower cookery has been traced back to Roman times and was especially popular in the Victorian era. Many different cultures have incorporated flowers into their traditional foods. Oriental dishes make use of daylily buds, Italian and Hispanic cultures relish stuffed squash blossoms, Asian Indians use rose petals in many recipes, and the Romans used mallow, roses, and violets.
Directions for Cooking Edible Flowers
Edible flowers are extremely fragile and cannot be conserved in the refrigerator, and thus must be consumed as quickly as possible. Flowers can be consumed raw, cooked in confit, or infused in sauce.
They liven up dishes, creatively complementing appetizers, main courses, or desserts. Nasturtiums, primrose, and dandelion are all eaten raw in salads. It is important to choose flowers according to their flavor, taking into consideration how each distinct taste will correspond with other ingredients.
-- Blossoms should be harvested the day they are to be used. Try to pick no more than one day early. After harvest, place long-stemmed flowers in water and then in a cool location. Short-stemmed flowers should be placed between layers of damp paper toweling or in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Gently wash the flowers immediately before using to remove dirt and check for insects.
-- To candy flowers, whisk an egg white, then use a brush to paint a fine layer onto clean, dry, pesticide-free flower petals (or whole flowers if they’re very small). Next, gently place the petal into some superfine sugar, and sprinkle some more superfine sugar on top. Shake off the excess and lay it out on waxed paper to dry. Store preserved flowers in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
-- To preserve flowers, put them on moist paper and place together in plastic wrapping. If the flowers are limp, they can be revitalized by floating them on icy water for a few moments.
-- Wash fresh flowers gently and set them aside to dry. Refrigerate them in plastic sandwich bags until you use them. The most common use of flowers is in salads, but you can incorporate them into sauces, tarts, preserves, pickles, and fritters.
Advantages of Introducing Edible Flowers Into Your Cuisine
Flowers add variety to your cooking. Serving a salad sprinkled with pansies is far more attractive than serving it without. Edible flowers make lovely additions to many desserts. A floral garnish can add color and elegance to a menu that your family and guests will never forget. Many garden flowers can be used as edible garnish or to lend flavor and color to a cooked dish.
Blossoms of borage, chrysanthemum, cornflower, and dianthus can float in a bowl of soup or punch. Violet, miniature rose, lavender, and honeysuckle blooms add a sweet flavor to salads or desserts. Nasturtiums and mustard flowers lend a spicy flavor to casseroles. Bright yellow calendula flowers make an economical substitute for saffron.
The flowers of lilac, elder, marrows, squashes, and fruit blossoms can all be dipped in batter and deep fried. The marrow flowers can also be stuffed with fried onion, breadcrumbs, and parsley before deep-frying in batter.
White wine or cider vinegar can be flavored with flowers. Primrose, rose, violet, elderflower, nasturtium, lavender, rosemary, and thyme can be used. Fill a jar two-thirds full with the flowers and top it off with vinegar. Leave on a sunny windowsill for two weeks.
Some Flowers to Consider
- Calendulas (pot marigolds). Only the petals of these composite flowers are edible. The bright yellow to orange color adds a golden hue to salads and dips. It has a spicy, peppery taste. The petals work well in cooked and fresh dishes. Calendula is also used as a saffron substitute. Quantities should be small because the flavor is strong and a bit bitter. A sharp knife for chopping is important because they can be tough.
- Daylilies (Hemerocallis species). Daylily buds are a marvelous little vegetable. Flowers look beautiful on composed salad platters or crowning a frosted cake. Sprinkle the large petals in a summer salad. They taste delicious when picked just before they open and cooked in a little olive oil. Daylily buds, flowers, and even young leaves have been eaten and used as a medicine in China for centuries. Confucius recommended consuming daylilies to ease the pain of grief. Recent studies have shown that daylily petals are loaded with an array of antioxidant compounds.
- Dandelions. Only the petals of these composite flowers are edible. Flowers are sweetest when picked young. They have a sweet, honey-like flavor. Dandelions are also made into wine. Young leaves taste good steamed or tossed in salads. When serving a rice dish, use dandelion petals like confetti over the rice; it will spark your spa cuisine.
- Hibiscus. Hibiscus has a cranberry-like flavor with citrus overtones. Use slightly acidic petals sparingly in salads or as garnish. The beautiful flowers give a tropical feeling to any party. In Asian spas, hibiscus tea is served to guests after massages. (See tea recipe on page 16.)
- Squash blossoms. These flowers can be fried in light batter or cornmeal. Some flowers can be stuffed or used in stir-fry dishes. They make exquisite garnishes and can also be sautéed briefly and put into omelettes or quesadillas.
- Pansies. This flower has a mild, minty flavor. The flowers work well for candying and make great decorations on top of hor d’oeuvres and cakes.
- Roses. All roses are edible, but the flavor is more pronounced in darker varieties. Roses can garnish ice creams and desserts. Larger petals can be sprinkled on summer salads. Freeze them in ice cubes and float them in punches. Rose petals are also used in syrups, jellies, perfumed butters, and sweet spreads.
- Sunflower. This flower is best eaten in the bud stage when it tastes similar to artichokes. Once the flower opens, the petals may be used like chrysanthemums. The flavor is distinctly bittersweet. The unopened flower buds can also be steamed like artichokes.
Edible flowers are great ways to introduce the high culture of flower cooking. Pick, perfect, and enjoy.