Spring flowers are blooming, bringing a rainbow of colors to brighten your home. But the tulips, lilacs and pansies now in season can be more than a bouquet for your table; they can bring new tastes to your plate.
If you think only goats and bunnies eat flowers, you're wrong. In fact, you've probably eaten some flowers already.
Artichokes and broccoli are immature flowers, and many herbal teas contain rose petals, hibiscus, mint, chamomile and other flowers, says Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of "Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate" (Fulcrum Publishing, 1995, $24.95). Dried day-lily petals are integral to the hot-and-sour soup at your local Chinese restaurant.
You may even have eaten candied flowers on wedding cakes or petals in your salads.
Even so, flower cookery remains fairly unusual. Searches on food Web sites yield few recipes using edible flowers, and even fewer beyond salads and wedding-cake decorations.
It wasn't always that way, according to Leona Woodring Smith, author of "The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery" (Pelican, 1985). She writes that Persians included nasturtiums in their diet about 400 B.C. and that chrysanthemums were used as food in the time of Confucius. In 17th- century Europe, flowers, herbs and spices were used liberally.
Flowers have long been treasured for more than their beauty," Smith writes. "They were candied, pickled, dried, stewed, or their essence was captured in waters and oils. Truly a forgotten art worth reviving!"
Barash, Smith and another cookbook writer, Rosalind Creasy, have been extolling the virtues of flower cookery for years. Yet flowers remain a culinary novelty.
"I think people are using them more to decorate than to cook," Barash says. She thinks one reason may be the amount of labor involved. Flowers must be eaten fresh, so the best way to guarantee good quality is to grow your own.
Still, people who take the trouble to cook with flowers will be pleasantly surprised, she said. "I think it is catching on more," she says. "This is happy food."
That doesn't mean you should start chowing down on the nearest flower bed. Because some flowers are poisonous, it's important to make sure you're eating something safe before taking a bite.
Only use flowers that cookbooks or other sources have specified as safe. Even with safe flowers, start slowly, adding just a few petals to dishes and increasing the quantities over time. Large quantities of flowers can give stomachaches to the uninitiated.
Flowers that you plan to eat must be grown organically, picked at their peak and thoroughly washed. Never eat flowers plucked from the side of a road. Flowers purchased at nurseries and florists often contain pesticides and preservatives that are not safe to eat.
Experts advise picking flowers in the morning or late afternoon, when water content is at its peak. Look for blossoms that are free of insects, disease and damage. Gently wash them in water and drain on paper towels. If possible, serve within a few hours of picking.
Some specialty stores sell a mix of flowers for eating, often heavy on nasturtium and pansies. But Barash warns against these packages. "I've seen mixtures in supermarkets that have stuff that's not edible in them," she said by phone from her home in Iowa.
When cooking with flowers, nibble a petal or two first to make sure you like the taste. Some of the more popular flowers for cooking are peppery nasturtium and perfumy roses.
Nasturtiums are great with eggs, writes Smith. She suggests filling an omelet with three chopped blossoms, 1/2 teaspoon each of pimento, parsley and butter, and salt and pepper to taste.
Barash especially likes roses in one of her favorite recipes, Rose Petal Fusion Crisps, which she got from Charmaine Eads, the chef of Manor Farm Inn in Poulsbo, Wash. "It has a wonderful sort of Oriental flavor," she says.
Lilacs and tulips, both now in bloom, are also wonderful, Barash says.
Lilacs vary widely in taste, from perfumy to grassy, she says. Nibble a petal to find the flavor of your lilac. Perfumy lilacs make a great poaching sauce. Simply put them in water used to poach fish or chicken, then boil it down once the meat is cooked, add a little cream, and serve over the meat, she says.
Tulip petals can be dipped in melted chocolate for an elegant dessert. When you remove the petals, cut off their whitish base, which is bitter.
Refrigerate the coated tulips on waxed paper for an hour before eating, she says.
The flowers of many herbs taste like the herb, only more so, Barash says. The beautiful spiky mauve chive flowers, for example, have a wonderful oniony flavor. Don't eat an entire chive flower at once, Barash warns, "as the flower can have the equivalent flavor of a bulb of garlic." Break the flower into small pieces for both cooking and garnishing.
Flowers make wonderful additions to salads and dips.
For salads, simply add about 1/2 cup of nasturtiums, calendula or Johnny-jump-ups to about 12 cups of greens.
Barash likes to make a cream-cheese dip with flowers. She simply purchases 8 ounces of whipped cream cheese, then adds a couple of tablespoons of assorted flower petals, cut into quarter-inch pieces. She lets the dip sit for an hour or so, then refrigerates it overnight. She serves it by molding it into a ball and sticking day-lily petals in it.
A sweet dip might have roses, violets and hibiscus, while a spicier one might have chive, oregano and thyme flowers, she said.
That's all it takes to turn a simple spread into a celebration of spring.
12 brightly colored tulips (reds, yellows, oranges or multicolored preferred)
2 cans albacore tuna, packed in water, drained
4 stalks of celery, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Remove the petals from 8 of the tulips, cutting off 1/4 inch where the petal was attached (this can be bitter). Julienne the petals. In a large bowl, mix the tuna, celery, curry and mayonnaise. Add the julienned petals and gently toss. Cut off the stems and remove the pistils and stamens from the 4 reserved tulips. Lay each tulip on a bed of lettuce. Gently spoon the tuna mixture into the tulips.
-- From Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of "Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate"
There are many recipes for candied flowers. Here's one.
1 cup sugar, plus more for dipping
1/2 cup water
fresh petals, well washed and dried
food coloring (optional)
Make a syrup of 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Boil until it spins a thread. Cool to room temperature. Using tweezers, dip the petals into the syrup. Gently shake off the excess and dip into fine granulated sugar. Place on waxed paper to dry. For a prettier effect, you may color the sugar the same as the flower by adding a couple of drops of food coloring and blending well. Use 2 to 3 drops for 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar. Thoroughly mix and allow to dry for 2 to 3 hours before using, stirring occasionally.
-- From Leona Woodring Smith, author of "The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery"
Purple Flash Spinach Salad
Makes 6 salad servings
1/3 cup slivered almonds
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 to 8 ounces baby spinach leaves, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons rosemary blossoms
1 cup purple or pink dianthus petals
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh lavender blossoms
salt and pepper
In an 8- to 10-inch frying pan over medium heat, shake or stir the almonds until golden, about 3 minutes. Pour the almonds into a large shallow bowl.
Add oil, vinegar, 1 tablespoon of water and mustard to the bowl, and mix. Add the spinach, rosemary, dianthus and lavender. Mix everything together and season with salt and pepper.
-- From "Sunset Magazine's All-Time Favorite Salads," 2000
Rose-Petal Fusion Crisps
Makes 4 appetizer servings
2 sheets of rice paper, in 7-inch rounds (available in Oriental markets, sometimes sold as rice sheets)
several drops sesame-seed oil
1/2 cup canola oil, plus more for saute pan
2 tablespoons rose petals, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds
2 tablespoons roasted white sesame seeds
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dip one sheet of rice paper in water for 15 seconds.
Remove from water and drain excess water against side of bowl. Place rice paper on a wooden cutting board. Add several drops of sesame-seed oil to 1/2 cup canola oil in a small bowl. Lightly brush the rice paper with the oil mixture.
Sprinkle on rose petals, black and white sesame seeds and cilantro leaves. Dip another sheet of rice paper in water, brush one side with oil, and place oiled side face down on top of other rice sheet. Gently press the rice paper down onto the bottom sheet.
Preheat a saute pan. Brush pan lightly with canola oil. Place rice paper into the pan and saute over medium heat for 2 minutes on each side. Do not allow to brown. Remove from pan, and, with scissors, cut fusion cracker into eight equal pie-shaped wedges. Place wedges on a cookie sheet in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and pat off excess oil with a paper towel or cloth. Place crisps on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely. Store in airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 5 days.
-- From Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of "Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate"
Rules of edible flowers
Eat flowers only when you are positive they are edible.
Just because it is served with food doesn't mean a flower is edible.
Eat only flowers that are grown organically.
Do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers.
If you have hay fever, asthma or allergies, don't eat flowers.
Do not eat flowers from the side of the road. They are contaminated from car emissions.
Remove pistils and stamens from flowers before eating. Eat only the petals.
There are many varieties of any one flower. Flowers taste different when grown in different locations.
Introduce flowers to your diet the way you would new foods to a baby - one at a time in small quantities.
-- From "Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate"