Don't get too close; I may have spring fever. I've ditched my gloves before it's warm enough, and I feel like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, ready to mow down near-east-side vegetation. Even the flowers in my kitchen are looking good.
Floral notes in food can, in fact, be a rite of spring. With smell and taste and vision so intertwined, flowers can reinvigorate your senses in a really good way.
Stop and eat the rose petals. Or the lavender buds. Or take a stab at nasturtiums. And if you think that's a mouthful, wait for the season to turn a notch further and have a succulent squash blossom.
In contemporary restaurants, flowers will be popping up as garnishes and tossed right into salads. This pushes taste and aesthetics back to what Mother Nature arguably does best (I mean, how beautiful is a chive blossom?). The culinary use of edible flowers dates back to ancient times. Feeling sheepish? Nibble some borage like Celtic and Roman warriors did - to drum up courage for battle. And medieval monks took pleasure in preserving violets in simple syrup.
The National Gardening Association (NGA) provides an exhaustive list of commonly encountered edible flowers. The list is lengthy, including pot marigolds, lilacs, sunflowers, pansies, carnations and more. Positively identify your flowers, and be choosy about where you get them.
Some sources recommend avoiding florists entirely; most commercial ornamentals are sprayed with chemicals and pesticides, as the product is being sold for decoration, not consumption. The NGA recommends buying organic, and I'd feel safer going that route.
Learn a little about plant anatomy. The stamens are in the center of the petals, and our friend pollen hangs out there. Generally, people just eat the petals, though certain small varieties, like nasturtiums, may be eaten whole. If you're prone to allergies, stick to petals (even small flowers can be gently disassembled at the base with a paring knife) and expose yourself in small doses to gauge tolerance. On larger flowers like squash blossoms, the reproductive structures in the center of the flower pop right out, and not having them there makes for better eating anyway.
At the Dane County Farmers' Market, there are a number of options for buying fresh edible flowers. Carpenters Farm supplies L'Etoile; nasturtiums are almost always on plates along with other varieties as available. The Plant Petaler, Blue Skies Berry Farm and Garden To Be are growing flowers specifically for eating - no guessing game there. I've even seen Willy Street Co-op carry small boxes of edible varieties for short periods during warm months.
The care and eating of flowers
That term "delicate flower" exists for a reason. Keep your flowers in the fridge when they aren't in use. And keep them dry. Washing flowers will zap them, which is why being vigilant about pesticides is even more pertinent. And bugs aren't usually a problem, but you may run into one. Don't be alarmed; just pluck it off.
Now, what to do with these fresh, well-cared-for flowers? Flowers are pretty, and since we eat with our eyes as well as our taste buds, when used as a garnish they're a surefire way to make eyes pop. In fact, Harmony Valley often includes nasturtiums in its bagged salad mix.
And they taste good. If you're lucky enough to find multiple varieties of fresh edible flowers, educate yourself on the different flavor profiles. Delicate Johnny Jump-Ups, which are dwarf pansies, taste ever so slightly tart and sweet - meek but captivating, as their looks suggest. Nasturtiums are warm and vibrant blooms that will catch your attention with their zippiness; in Latin, their name means "nose twist." Chive blossoms twist into lovely confetti and still carry a hint of the plant from which they come. And they are a great way to add a little drama to something savory.
Taste and experiment with the edible flowers you find as raw mix-ins for salads; other flowers can be steeped to make tea. To this day, I wish I could get my hands on anise hyssop year-round to brew the tea I was taught to make with all the leaves and flowers I received through my CSA. Chrysanthemum tea is another commonly found goodie.
For cooking with heat, squash blossoms are one of my favorites. I'll need to wait for summer, but I long for squash blossom tempura. It's sublime and requires only three ingredients: a batter of rice and white flour and enough soda water to create a loose batter that is still thick enough to cling.
Add squash blossoms to veggie sautés. Or eat them as an entree by stuffing them with, say, a cheese mixture. Go Italian with herbed ricotta or play around with regional influences, like a Southwest twist with queso fresco and cream cheese with roasted peppers. I could see myself making a charcuterie-plate-inspired one…some pte or 'nduja with a smear of Driftless cheese and a halved cornichon. I did say I was a Hungry Caterpillar, didn't I?
God bless you, rosewater
Dried florals like lavender buds are especially charismatic in baked goods. I love them in sturdy shortbreads and sugar cookies or as an infusion in cream products. The lemon lavender ice cream at Weary Traveler is a great example.
Or look for lavender kombucha. NessAlla makes lavender-infused brews; or you can make it yourself. A home brewer friend of mine recently gave me a decadent bottle of lilac mead that knocked my socks off.
A 2009 National Public Radio program featured dried Jamaica flowers, or hibiscus, which is often used in Mexican cuisine. It can be steeped to make a concentrate and used in sauces with gamier meat such as duck and lamb. Although I've never used it, it's on my list of things to try now; apparently the cranberry-like tartness after macerating is also perfect in vinaigrettes.
Need something smoother? Try a hydrosol - a distilled water like rosewater or orange blossom that adds a backdrop of aroma to foods in the same way vanilla is often used. Use from just a few drops to a scant drizzle in pilafs, biryani and scented rice to tickle the senses.
Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Chinese and Indian recipes are a great way to explore the magic of a little rosewater. To me, rosewater makes one of my favorite cuisines, Persian food, taste like what it is…it's the special backdrop.
You can also put orange blossom water in with chicken while it's poaching. It makes for a lovely cold chicken salad with ginger and almonds. Both rosewater and orange water can be found at most health food stores.
Spring Salad on Flatbread
This appetizer could be made with anything from your favorite flatbread to matzo.
- 3 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
- 2 tablespoon raspberry balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- 6 cups (packed) baby greens, such as arugula, spinach or mixed lettuces
- 8 baby carrots, thinly sliced or mandolined
- 8 radishes, thinly sliced or mandolined
- 2 cups stemmed edible flowers (Johnny Jump-Ups, nasturtiums, pansies). Use only flowers that have been grown without pesticides.
Whisk together olive oil, vinegar and maple syrup. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Add greens, carrots and radishes to dressing and toss to coat. Divide salad among flatbreads. Strew edible flowers on top.