Winter in New England has been long and cold this year, but warmer weather is just around the corner. Nothing heralds spring so much as tender young blossoms emerging from the soil! Many of these flowers are edible and add color, flavor, aroma and elegance to entrees, salads and desserts. I recently ordered an Edible Flower Garden kit from http://www.bambeco.com and can hardly wait for it to arrive!
The concept of using flowers in cookery is not new. Cooking with flowers dates to Roman times, and to the cuisine of China, India, and the Middle East. The Victorians, who associated edible flowers with elegance, candied violets to decorate cakes and desserts. Italian and Hispanic cultures gave us stuffed zucchini blossoms. Chartreuse, a classic green liqueur developed in France in the 17th century, uses carnation petals as one of its secret ingredients.
It was common to dry the petals and include them in tea blends. Popular tea flowers were hibiscus, rose, jasmine and bee balm. Bee balm was used as a tea substitute when black tea became unavailable during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. To preserve violets, medieval monks made a sweet syrup from the petals.
The most common flowers used in cooking are:
Alliums (leeks, chives, garlic, garlic chives) – Known as “onion flowers,” they include the blossoms from onions, garlic, chives, ramps, and shallots. Their flavors range from mild onions and leeks right through to strong onion and garlic. All parts of the plants are edible.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) – Both flowers and leaves have a delicate anise or licorice flavor, which remind some people of root beer. The blossoms are excellent in salads and make attractive plate garnishes and are often used in Chinese cuisine.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) – Blossoms are bright white, pale pink, or a delicate lavender. The flavor of the flower is milder, but similar to basil leaves. Some varieties have different milder flavors like lemon and mint.
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) – Also called Wild Bergamot, Wild Oswego Tea, or Horsemint, wild bee balm tastes like oregano, mint or citrus like lemon and orange. It is the main ingredient in Earl Gray Tea.
Begonias (Begonia X tuberosa) – Tuberous begonia petals are used in salads and as a garnish with have a citrus-sour taste. Stems, also, can be used in place of rhubarb. The flowers and stems contain oxalic acid and should not be consumed by individuals suffering from gout, kidney stones, or rheumatism.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – Also known as marigolds, the calendula had golden-range hued petals and flavors that range from spicy to bitter, tangy to peppery. Only the petals are edible and add a yellow tint to soups, spreads, and scrambled eggs. Sprinkle them on soups, pasta or rice dishes, herb butters, and salads. The sharp taste resembles saffron (also known as Poor Man’s Saffron).
Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum coronarium) – Tangy, slightly bitter, ranging in colors from red, white, yellow and orange, chrysanthemum petals range in taste from faint peppery to mild cauliflower. Blanche the petals first and then scatter them on a salad. Always remove the bitter flower base. Young leaves and stems of the Crown Daisy, also known as Chop Suey Greens or Shingiku in Japan, are widely used in oriental stir-fries and as salad seasoning.
Cilantro/Coriander (Coriander sativum) – Like the leaves and seeds, the flowers have a strong herbal flavor. Use leaves and flowers raw as the flavor fades quickly when cooked. Sprinkle to taste on salads, bean dishes, and cold vegetable dishes.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis) Dandelions are members of the daisy family. Flowers are sweetest when picked young. They have a sweet, honey-like flavor. Mature flowers are bitter. Young leaves taste good steamed, or tossed in salads. When serving a rice dish use dandelion petals like confetti over the rice.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) – Fennel has spiky yellow flowers that have a mild anise flavor. Use with desserts or cold soups, or as a garnish with your entrees.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – Petals from the white variety of ginger is very fragrant and has a gingery taste on the tongue. They may be eaten raw or the tender, young shoots can be cooked.
Impatiens (Impatiens wallerana) – Impatiens, which have a sweet flavor, can be used as a garnish in salads or floated in drinks.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Lavender flowers look beautiful and have a sweet, floral flavor, with lemon and citrus notes. They can be added to a glass of champagne, served with chocolate cake, or used as a garnish for ice creams. Lavender lends itself to savory dishes also, from hearty stews to wine-reduced sauces. Diminutive blooms add a mysterious scent to custards, flans or sorbets. NOTE: Do not purchase and consume lavender oil, as it may be poisonous.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla) -\Lemon verbena sports diminutive cream-colored citrus-scented blossoms. Leaves and flowers can be steeped as an herbal tea, and used to flavor custards and flans.
Mint (Mentha spp) – The flavor of mint flowers are, as their name implies “minty,” but with different overtones depending variety. Mint flowers and leaves are great in Middle Eastern dishes.
Nasturtiums Tropaeolum majus) – Nasturtiums are my favorite edible flowers. They come in brilliant sunset colors with peppery flavors. Blossoms have a sweet, spicy flavor similar to watercress. Stuff whole flowers with savory mousse. Leaves add peppery tang to salads. Pickled seed pods are less expensive substitute for capers. Use the entire flower to garnish platters, salads, open-faced sandwiches, and savory appetizers.
Pansy (Viola X wittrockiana) – Pansies have a slightly sweet green or grassy flavor. If you eat only the petals, the flavor is extremely mild, but if you eat the whole flower, there is a winter, green overtone. Use them as garnishes, in fruit salads, green salad, desserts or in soups.
Violets (Viola species) – Sweet, perfumed flavor. Related flowers, Johnny jump-ups or violas, and pansies now come in colorful purples and yellows to apricot and pastel hues. They are great in salads or as a garnish for desserts. They can also be crystallized. The heart-shaped leaves are edible, and tasty when cooked like spinach.
NOTE: Do not use herbicides and pesticides on plants whose blossoms you want to use in the kitchen, and NEVER collect flowers from along the roadside or from the florist. Not all flowers are edible and could make you sick if you digest the wrong ones. Remove pistils and stamens before using. Only the blossom petals should be consumed.