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Tasty Flowers Bring Spring’s Beauty To The Plate

Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

Flowers have crept into our diets almost unnoticed, and now it seems they are blooming everywhere: nasturtiums in salads; courgette (zucchini) flowers, stuffed and fried; elderflower cordial; and violet creams. Many more flowers than you might imagine can be used to add flavor and color to sweet and savory dishes.

Many of the flowers we now grow as ornamentals were originally valued as herbs. In addition, all the flowers of the herbs we use are edible, along with roses, fuchsias and day lilies, to name but a few. Now is the perfect time to plant many of them. Edible flowers don’t need much room and even if you only have a couple of window boxes, you will still get a good, long harvest.

Edible annuals such as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), sunflowers (Helianthus annus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and pot or English marigolds (Calendula) can be sown now. Only some Tagetes marigolds are edible, in particular T. patula, T. lucida and T. tenuifolium. If in any doubt, stick to calendulas. Simply sow the seeds in trays, pots or in situ, and you will be rewarded with a summerlong harvest. All these plants are “cut-and-come-again,” which means that the more flowers you pick, the more the plant will produce, usually right up to the first frosts.

The petals of cornflowers, which have little flavor, are a wonderful blue and look particularly good on creamy or yellow dishes such as custards, cheese and egg dishes and cakes; and with yellow and orange peppers. Even plain old macaroni cheese looks spectacular with a garnish of blue petals.

Marigolds have a subtle peppery taste and give food a rich yellow color, earning them the name of “poor man’s saffron.” Cut away the bitter ends of the petals and cook in oil to bring out the best flavor; fish, rice, pasta, eggs, potatoes, cream and butter are all good companions. Dried petals are a great addition to winter soups.

Tasty nasturtiums

Peppery-sweet nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed and are great to grow up sunflowers. Just wait till the sunflower is about 30 centimeters (11 inches) tall and then plant two to three nasturtium seeds around the base of the plant. Tie them in as they grow up and you will have two crops in the space of one. Nasturtiums are good in salads, but they also go well with fish, chicken, cream cheese, goat’s cheese, risotto or pasta and make great fritters. The young leaves are also tasty.

Sunflower petals have a slightly nutty taste. You can eat the young stems and flower buds, but this seems a bit of a waste as you lose the flowers. Better to enjoy the flowers, use the petals and leave the seeds to ripen on the plants. Sunflower bread is wonderful, using the seeds and petals. You can add the petals to pastas and soups; they go especially well with any onion-based dishes.

Plants you can buy now include hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). They are biennials, so they take two years to grow. But if you collect seeds and plant them toward the end of the summer, you will have a continuous supply of the plants and their beautiful flowers, which make perfect garnishes.

Pansies, Johnny jump-ups or violets (Viola) are also good plants to buy. As well as livening up green salads they go well with fish, potatoes, carrots and fruit salads. Violets are daintier and have a sweeter taste; perfect for cakes and scones. Do not be tempted to use African violets (Saintpaulia) as they are not edible.

All Dianthus (carnations, pinks and sweet Williams) have edible petals. They have a sweet clove-like flavor, which is strongest in the most fragrant flowers. They are one of the many ingredients in chartreuse, and complement egg- or cream-based puddings, salmon and cakes and biscuits.

Tulips make spectacular containers for ice cream. Simply prepare them as described below, prop them upright in a small glass or egg cup and add a scoop of ice cream. The petals taste mildly of cucumber; the paler flowers have a better flavor, but the more flamboyant ones make more striking containers.

Preparing edible flowers

While using flowers in your cooking is a wonderful thing, there are one or two cautions. Just because a flower smells good it follows that it will be good to eat — a vast number of flowers are highly poisonous. The Latin name enables you to tell exactly what you are growing and eating. Local names of flowers vary widely and can even refer to different plants.

Day lilies look like lilies and are delicious to eat, but they are Hemerocallis, not really lilies at all. Most true lilies (Lilium) are not edible. All marigolds belonging to the Calendula genus are great to eat, but only some of the Tagetes marigolds (see above) can be eaten safely. Secondly, if you suffer from pollen allergies you should introduce any flowers into your diet very gradually.

As well as knowing exactly which flower you are eating, it is important that they have not been treated with chemicals. The best way to ensure this is to pick them from your own garden. Most flowers are best picked early, on a dry day, once any dew has dried, but before the sun dries their oils. Pick unblemished, freshly opened flowers, give them a shake to remove any lurking bugs or dust, and then wash carefully in a bowl of cold water. Pat dry or spin gently in a salad spinner and place on paper towels to dry completely.

Nasturtiums, day lilies and fuchsias can be eaten whole, but with most other flowers it is best to remove the pistils and stamens (the bits in the middle). Flowers such as roses, marigolds and dianthus have a white heel at the bottom of their petals. This can be bitter, so snip it away if necessary. Make sure all the pollen is removed, especially from flowers such as hollyhocks, which have a lot. This is easiest done with a paintbrush.

If you aren’t going to use them within a few hours, store the prepared flowers on paper towels in an airtight container in the bottom of the fridge. Flowers can also be stored in sugar (violet-, pink- and rose-infused sugars are particularly good), crystallized, added to oils and vinegars, or mixed in butter (primrose or pot marigold butters are pretty and delicious).

Feel free to experiment, and you will find your dishes prettier and more flavorful.

Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter



Zester Daily contributors Jane McMorland Hunter and Chris Kelly write books on the good things in life: gardening, cookery and craft. Hunter lives in London and has a tiny garden. Kelly lives in West Sussex and has the luxury of a larger garden with a vegetable patch and orchard. Their latest book, "For the Love of an Orchard" shows that space need not be a bar to realizing your horticultural fantasies. Their website is Hafton & Kelly.

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