Edible flowers are a simple way of making a striking, memorable presentation on the plate. Packages of edible flowers are available in the fresh-herb section of many supermarkets, but if you know what you're looking for and follow safety guidelines, you can find a lovely garnish in your own garden.
"I especially like pansies," says Cindy Corley-Crapsey, who gives presentations on edible flowers as part of the St. Louis Master Gardeners, a joint program of the University of Missouri Extension and the Missouri Botanical Garden. "They're one of the first things that bloom in spring, and they provide such a beautiful little presentation.
"Another of my favorite flowers right now is dianthus," Corley-Crapsey adds. "They're beautiful frozen in ice cubes, and you can also crystallize them - and all edible flowers - with egg whites and sugar."
Edible, however, doesn't mean the same thing as flavorful. Some flowers are added mainly for visual appeal. For taste, Corley-Crapsey likes nasturtiums and day lilies.
"Nasturtiums make a beautiful addition to salads, and at the same time they add a little bit of peppery flavor," she says. "Day lilies make great stir-fries."
Corley-Crapsey emphasizes that any flowers purchased for consumption should be marked as organically grown, and if they're not specifically packed for sale as food, they should be double-checked against documented sources to ensure they're safe to eat.
"Lots of flowers, such as geraniums, have some forms that are edible and some that are toxic," she says.
If you're picking flowers to eat from your garden, Corley-Crapsey adds, you should choose flowers that you've grown yourself from seed and have not treated with pesticides.
In her new cookbook Keep It Seasonal, chef Annie Wayte recommends incorporating flowers into dishes sparingly at first, "as they can sometimes have an overpowering flavor."
If you are using herbs as part of a recipe, Wayte writes, garnish the dish with their flower buds. She recommends using chive or garlic flowers to garnish soups or salads, and crushing lavender buds with sugar to flavor ice cream or shortbread cookies. Chopped nasturtium blossoms, Wayte writes, can be added to butter and melted over grilled fish.
To crystallize edible flowers in sugar, whisk 1 egg white with about a teaspoon of water until the mixture becomes slightly frothy. Using a tweezers, dip the whole flower or individual petals into the egg-white mixture and shake off the excess, or paint on the mixture with a small pastry brush or new paintbrush.
Dip into a bowl of superfine sugar, coating both sides and shaking off excess sugar. Place on a parchment- or waxed-paper-lined drying rack. Let dry completely, 8 to 12 hours. Store in an airtight container lined with parchment or waxed paper.
Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.
Colorful Caprese Salad
4 medium tomatoes, sliced (see note)
16 to 20 arugula leaves
8 ounces fresh mozzarella
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup edible flowers (see note)
Arrange tomato slices on 4 plates, dividing evenly. Top each slice with 1 or 2 leaves of arugula. Slice mozzarella thinly, then cut slices so that the pieces fit on top of the tomato and arugula. Drizzle each stack with olive oil; garnish each plate with petals or with whole flowers.
Note: If possible, mix the colors of the tomatoes, choosing red, yellow, pink or orange tomatoes or heirlooms. A plastic package of edible flowers from the herb section of the supermarket contains about 1/2 cup.
Per serving: 262 calories; 20 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams sugar, 2 grams fiber, 364 milligrams sodium
Nasturtium, pansy, spring crocus, California poppy, baby's breath, violet, forsythia, dogwood, dandelion, phlox, petunia, peony, gardenia, marigold, impatiens, hibiscus, snapdragon, yuca, day lily, gladiolus, squash, flowering herbs, lilac, elderberry, calendula, dianthus, primrose, wild geranium, rose, honeysuckle, hollyhocks, daisy (Bellis perennis), Johnny-jump-up, red clover, mallow, yarrow, tulip, bee balm, borage, carnation, fennel, forget-me-not and mint
[University of Missouri Extension]