"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
- Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
|| Edible Flowers
|Toki Oshima drawing
They look and smell pretty in the garden, attract bees, and add color and inspiration to your cooking. So why don’t we use more of them?
By Ellie MacDougall
Soon after I began to grow vegetables, I realized that flowers have a place in the same garden. In fact, I don’t have a ‘vegetable garden’ or ‘flower garden’ any more, but just ‘the garden,’ and everybody seems to get along fine. Even more, some flowers, such as marigolds, not only taste good but help their companion vegetables grow stronger and healthier.
I’ve written columns on eating nasturtiums, calendulas and, most recently, roses. This is a new area of experimentation for me, but the possibilities are so enormous that I’ll take years to work through them all. This column is an overview. Eating flowers was all the rage during Victorian times, then the practice faded from view until a few years ago. Now even supermarkets carry little plastic boxes of flowers and petals in the produce section next to the basil and tarragon.
There are three caveats in bringing flowers to the dinner table. First, make sure they have not been chemically treated in any way. Second, people with allergies and hay fever may find that they are sensitive to flowers as a consequence. The trick is to start small and work your way up to larger quantities. You can also remove the pistils and stamens, which contain pollen (after pollination, in the case of pistils) and can taste bitter. (Exceptions are very tiny flowers, such as lilac and lavender.) Third, as with mushrooms, you must know what you are eating, so if you are out somewhere and find an unusual flower garnish on your dish, please don’t assume it’s edible.
Most herb flowers are edible and taste very much like their leaves, but milder. These include all of the alliums (leeks, onions, etc.), angelica, anise hyssop, basil, borage, burnet, chive, coriander, dill, garden sorrel, lemon verbena, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory and thyme. Use the blossoms on a dish flavored with the herb for fragrance, color and interest. You also can freeze them in ice cubes; the little, blue, star-like, cucumbery borage flowers are my favorite.
Here’s a list of edibles to get you started:
• apple blossoms in moderation (may contain cyanide precursors) — candied
• bee balm — wild varieties are mint-like and colorful
• carnations — cut the sweet petals away from the bitter white base and add to desserts and salads
• chrysanthemums — flavors from peppery to cauliflower-like, best to blanch first and then use as salad garnish (and don’t forget Japanese shungiku, a chrysanthemum grown for stir frying)
• clover — can be pickled or used as a garnish for veggies and fish
• daylilies — slightly sweet with a taste like melon, asparagus or zucchini; cut the petals away from the bitter base and use in salads, stuffed like squash blossoms, or as a cake decoration
• hibiscus — very tart and cranberry-like with overtones of citrus; wonderful used sparingly in salads
• lilac — perfumy, slightly bitter, citrusy; differs with variety; great in salads
• marigolds — flavors of lemon/tangerine/saffron; petals look and taste delicious in salads, herb butters, rice, pasta, open faced sandwiches and steamed vegetables
• pansies — use the whole flower for a green, grassy taste, as the petals alone are bland
• scented geraniums — flavor varies with the scent, but all of them are sensational as garnishes for coolers, desserts (including ice cream) and frozen in ice cubes
• snapdragons — a delicious garnish for applesauce with raisins
• sunflower — a bittersweet flavor, best used as a bud, like an artichoke; the petals can be used as a garnish after the flower opens
• tuberous begonias — their bright color is a counterpoint to a sour, fruity taste that works nicely in salads
• tulips — not much flavor here but, with pistils removed, they make a cool holder for chicken salad
• violets — their sweet perfume brings charm to salads; or use as a dessert garnish, candied or frozen in ice cubes
Rose Geranium Sour Cherry Ice Cream
3 rose geranium leaves
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups sour cherries, pitted
2 Tbsp. Kirsch
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
6 egg yolks, stirred to combine
3 bittersweet chocolate squares, chopped (optional)
Marinate cherries in 1 tablespoon of kirsch, 1 tablespoon of sugar and 2 rose geranium leaves, stir a few times and let them stand for a few hours or, even better, overnight.
Simmer the cherry mixture over low heat with 1/4 cup sugar until tender and the juices have thickened slightly (about 15 minutes). Turn the mixture into a bowl to cool and add the remaining kirsch.
Heat the cream with the remaining sugar and the last rose geranium leaf over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves and bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Let this steep for an hour. Reheat just until bubbles form.
Whisk, a little at a time, some of the hot cream into the egg yolks, pour the egg mixture into the saucepan and heat over a low flame, stirring constantly. After the mixture forms a custard, quickly pour it through a sieve into the bowl of cherries. Stir well and cover with Saran wrap right on top of the custard. Chill thoroughly.
When the custard is cold, remove the geranium leaves and freeze the custard in an ice cream maker. Add chocolate pieces if you want and let the ice cream maker run a few minutes more.
Violet Lavender Sorbet
1-1/2 cups water, divided
3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/4 cup lavender flowers
1/2 cup violets
2 Tbsp. lime juice
Pour 1 cup of water into a saucepan. Add 1/2 cup sugar. Bring to a boil and continue to cook for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.
Fit a food processor with the metal chopping blade. Add lavender flowers and 1/4 cup sugar to the bowl. Process for 3 minutes, or until the flowers and sugar are completely blended and in tiny pieces. Add this mixture to the cooled syrup and stir well. Allow to stand for 1 hour at room temperature. Strain to remove any particles. Set strained syrup aside.
Bring 1/2 cup water to a boil in a non-metallic saucepan. Remove from heat, add violets, and allow them to steep for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain through a piece of cheesecloth. Squeeze the cheesecloth tightly to release the blue color.
Blend the lavender syrup with the violet infusion. Add lime juice. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Daylily Chicken Soup
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup cooked, minced chicken
1-1/2 Tbsp. cubed salt pork or butter
3/4 cup diced potatoes
2 Tbsp. minced onion
3 Tbsp. minced celery
1/4 tsp. each ginger, salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. sherry
3 tsp. minced mushrooms
1 Tbsp. minced parsley
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1-1/2 cups chopped daylilies
Combine chicken stock, chicken, salt pork, potatoes, onion, celery, ginger, salt and pepper. Cook for 15 to 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Add flour to sherry and add to soup. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
Asian Pickle Clover
Use red and white clover blossoms, white vinegar and honey. Alternate the different clover blossoms in a wide mouth quart jar. Fill the jar with vinegar, then pour out and measure the vinegar. For each 1/2 cup of vinegar, add 1 tablespoon of honey. Pour this over the clover blossoms and let the mixture set for a week before using. This is a nice garnish for veggies and fish, and can be served for hors d’oeuvres.
On a personal note –
Friends, this is my final column for The MOF&G. It has been a pleasure to write for all of you over the years, to get to know so many of you, to learn from all of you, and to see the “unfoldment” of organic agriculture in Maine. It’s time now for my husband and me to move on, and we’re going to the Pacific Northwest. Believe me, it will be no hardship to get used to growing things in Zone 8! But there will always be a part of me that remains here with all of you in Maine.
– Ellie MacDougall