FLOWER POWER IN THE KITCHEN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Because of an editing error, information on identifying edible flowers was inadvertently omitted from an article in Wednesday's A La Carte.

Susan Belsinger, author of "Flowers in the Kitchen," says consumers should avoid eating cut flowers that have been purchased from a florist or a garden center because the flowers probably have been recently sprayed with pesticides. Herbs or flower plants bought at a garden center are probably safe to use after about a month in your garden, she adds, because the pesticides will have broken down.

It seems the culinary frontier has shifted. No longer are the brave and adventuresome tying on the feed bag for alligator meat or french-fried armadillo. Now the bold are nibbling on nasturtium flowers and squash blossoms.

"Flowers are, for most people, a strange thing to eat," says Susan Belsinger, author of a new cookbook, "Flowers in the Kitchen" (Interweave Press, paperback, $14.95),

In her book, she uses flowers judiciously and, for the most part, as a garnish. She scatters oregano and marjoram flowers over a fresh-from-the-oven goat cheese and sun-dried tomato topped pizza. She uses basil flowers instead of the leaves in a salad with fresh tomato, cucumber and mozzarella. And she wreathes a cheesecake with candied rose petals and lilac florets.

"The flowers are primarily used as fresh petals in salads and on top of things because they do lose their flavor and their potency if they're cooked for any length of time."

Among her favorites are the herb flowers, which have much the same familiar taste as the herb leaf, but are just slightly milder in flavor.

"All the herb flowers are edible. And basically you would use them where you would use the herb, but you want it to be prettier or to have a little bit lighter flavor."

Ms. Belsinger, who lives in northern Montgomery county, first became fascinated with flowers, fresh herbs and cooking while living in Italy in the early '70s. When she returned to Maryland, she started both herb and vegetable gardens.

She grew flowers as well, first using them as decoration on the table and then as garnish on the plate. When she and a partner, Carolyn Dille, started a catering business, they wanted to use the flowers as garnishes and to decorate wedding cakes with fresh and candied flowers. "I didn't want to put flowers on the plate that weren't edible," she says, "so I went to the library."

A couple of years ago when the publisher of Herb Companion magazine suggested she write a book on edible flowers, she did more library research to find out which flowers are absolutely safe to eat.

Even though, as she says, "people aren't going to eat a ton of flowers, my rule of thumb was that anything that was even slightly toxic, I didn't put in the book."

She created recipes for 25 of the best-tasting and most common edible flowers and then made a chart of 50 more flowers that taste, as she says, "pretty good."

Squash blossoms are a good choice for the novice flower-eater, she says. "In Italy, they stuff them with cheese. You can fry them in a batter, or broil them in an oven, or you can toss them with pasta."

Nasturtiums can be "stuffed with guacamole . . . They're a little bit hot like watercress and that spiciness complements the guacamole. I serve them on a slice of jicama or Jerusalem artichoke or cucumber.

All marigolds are edible, she says, but she only uses the tiny-flowered gem marigolds. The larger ones are musky in scent and flavor. The varieties "Lemon Gem" and "Tangerine Gem" really do have a citrusy flavor, she adds.

Use the flowers at their peak, Ms. Belsinger stresses. "Don't use unopened buds [with the exception of day lilies], and don't use faded or wilted flowers, as they tend to taste bitter."

Here are some recipes from "Flowers in the Kitchen."

Pasta and chicken salad with thyme blossoms Serves six.

1 pound pasta noodles, such as rotini, shells, bows or ziti, cooked al dente

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups shredded cooked chicken, roasted or grilled (optional)

1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar or lemon juice, approximate

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1/4 cup thyme blossoms

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and seeded

1 large celery stalk, sliced thinly

1 small bunch scallions, trimmed to about 2 inches of green, sliced thinly

2/3 cup mayonnaise, approximate

Put cooked, drained pasta in a bowl, drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over it and toss well. When the pasta is completely cool, add the chicken, the remaining olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, parsley, and half of the thyme blossoms. Reserve the rest of the thyme for garnish. Add salt and pepper and toss well.

Cut the pepper into thin strips, and then halve the strips crosswise. Add the pepper, celery and scallions to the pasta and toss well.

Add the mayonnaise and toss lightly until the salad is blended and lightly coated with the dressing. Chill for about 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, vinegar or lemon, or mayonnaise, if necessary. Remove the salad from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before serving and place it on a platter or individual serving plates. Garnish with remaining thyme.

Iced tea sorbet with mint blossoms Makes one quart.

1 quart of boiling water

4 teaspoons black tea or 4 tea bags (A good combination is 3 parts Darjeeling or orange pekoe and 1 part Earl Grey tea.)

about 20 mint flower heads

1/2 cup sugar

juice of one lemon (about 3 tablespoons)

mint blossoms for garnish

thinly sliced lemon for garnish

Brew a pot of tea with the boiling water and tea, add the mint blossoms to the pot along with the sugar, and steep for 15 to 20 minutes, Strain the tea to remove mint blossoms and tea leaves. Cool to room temperature.

Add the lemon juice and refrigerate until cold. Pour cold tea into the container of an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer's instructions. Serve immediately or place in freezer.

If the sorbet is frozen very hard, let it sit for a few minutes and process it in a food processor just before serving until it is fluffy and free of lumps. Serve in an elegant glass, garnished with a thin slice of lemon and a mint blossom or two. Pass your favorite tea cookies.

Fried squash blossoms Makes sixteen blossoms; serves four as a side dish.

16 squash blossoms

4 ounces mozzarella cheese

1 extra large egg

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup unbleached flour

few pinches salt

vegetable oil for frying

lemon wedges for garnish

Gently wash the squash flowers, remove the stamens or pistils, and pat the blossoms dry. Cut the mozzarella into 16 pieces about 1 1/2 -inch long by 1/2 -inch square and place a stick inside each blossom.

In a shallow bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork. Add the water and olive oil and blend well. Add the flour and salt and combine well to make a smooth batter.

Put the oil into a skillet so it is about 3/4 inch deep and place over moderate heat until a faint haze forms on the oil.

Holding the flower by the open end, dip it into the batter and carefully lower into the hot oil. Repeat with a few more flowers. Turn them gently so they turn golden brown all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels while frying the rest. Serve hot with lemon wedges.

If you are frying a lot of flowers, you can hold them in a 300-degree oven for a short time, but they are best served immediately.

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