|be a foodie | May/June 2016
Fork & flowers
by Ginger Johnson
Imagine this: you've been invited over to a friend's home for Sunday brunch. Besides looking forward to the company of your friend, you're anticipating a delicious meal. You're happily surprised when your friend serves you a steaming drink topped with... rose petals? Then they serve a scrumptious baked French toasts, topped with lavender infused syrup and an attractive smattering of pansy and sweet violets. Gently battered and fried squash blossoms are next along with a tangy dandelion green salad to refresh your palate. Finally, you sip on a relaxing and fragrant chamomile tea to wrap it all up.
Sound good? Then you're ready to start using edible flowers in your food adventures.
Flowers have been used in edibles and health applications for eons. Ancient cultures used various flowers for specific reasons, including Rome, China, and India. The Empress Wu Zetian created a "hundred flower cake" and Empress Cixi supposedly enjoyed lotus flower petal fritters.
"I first started thinking about edible flowers in working with brides," states florist Leslie Kirkland. "They wanted to know what flowers could decorate their cakes." Leslie continued to share that some flowers, while edible, offer no flavor contribution -- simply the added beauty. Since we eat with our eyes first, using flowers on and in foods engages diners on a whole new level.
The more I talked with Leslie and got to thinking about edible flowers, the more questions I had. What about fruit blossoms and edible herb blossoms? Are they edible? And how about the nutritional value of flowers? Finally, I wondered about how to raise flowers to be safe to eat or buy flowers that are safe to eat. How can we tell what's okay and what's not?
Many of the edible varieties are relatively easy to propagate and gorgeous in the growing, so you get the benefit of the plant as well as the culinary bonus. They're are a terrific way to entice friends, family and guests to enjoy uniquely accented dishes.
Before we get to a list of floral candidates for your plates, there are a few things to consider and be aware of:
1. Some varieties of flowers are absolutely edible and some are not, like Lilies.Do your homework to ensure you're getting the safe and tasty varieties, not a cousin or non-edible variation.
2. Always use flowers in your cooking you know for a fact to be safe.Make sure they have not been sprayed with any chemicals. Steer away from store bought cut flowers and potted flowers unless you're sure they are certified safe to consume. When in doubt, don't.
3. Numerous helpful edible flower and flower garden books are on the market.Head to your local bookstore and search online for the ones that meet your needs.
4. Talk to your local nursery to see what they know.Flower growers in your area and farmers market vendors & growers who specialize in edible flowers can educate you too. Some restaurateurs may also have some helpful insight.
With that information under your gardening hat, plan a simple bed in which to grow some of these lovely flowers. Some flowers are in menus more often than others, including violets, nasturtiums and dandelions. With their happy and bright petals, you can place freshly plucked violets on pancakes, puddings and cold pasta salads. Nasturtiums provide a bite, similar to pepper, so they're perfect for some Asian and Thai recipes. Dandelions can be incorporated into cookie recipes once thoroughly cleaned and simply prepared. Don't spray your yard with chemicals and harvest both the flowers and leaves for a huge nutritional boost when you see those bright yellow faces smiling at you!
The list of candidates is vast, so do some research and find out what works for you. Coordinating the landscape with the colors of your flowers will further enhance your endeavors. "I've been called to help people plan their landscaping according to color, and we often fit several edible flowering plants into that mix," says Kirkland.
When you see the first blossoms, you can smile yourself at the work you've done. Enjoy a new adventure or fine tune one you've already started by adding flowers to your food life. They're fun to look at, a surprise for your guests and add some color to our world. Bon Appetit!
Ginger Johnson can often be found pairing food & drink, speaking, developing recipes and teaching all sorts of classes to flavor lovers all over. Read more at GingerJohnson.com and WomenEnjoyingBeer.com. She can also be found on Twitter (@gingerjohnson) and Facebook (Ginger Johnson LLC).