A feast for the senses

The allure of flowers is irresistible. Their delicate fragrances beckon, and their colors are candy to the eye. But have meo100510you ever considered nibbling a flower’s tender petals, just to find out whether their taste is every bit as tantalizing? If so, read on. It just so happens that there is a rainbow of secret flavors within a common backyard garden that is just waiting to inspire an entirely fresh array of hand-harvested fare throughout the summer to come.

Incredible and Edible
As their gorgeous colors suggest, flowers are high in vitamins and minerals, and they offer a piquant variety of flavors ranging from spicy to nectar-sweet. While flowers have been eaten throughout the ages, they were particularly popular during the Victorian era. One fanciful recipe of the time called for a peck of flowers pounded with ladyfingers, three pints of cream, 16 eggs and a little rosewater to create “fairy cakes” that were baked with a sprinkling of sugar on top.
Recently, flowers have been reappearing in gourmet cooking. The finest restaurants are reinventing the art of floral food, scattering violets atop savory salads, infusing baked goods with hints of rose and searing meats in succulent crusts of lavender petals. But you needn’t be a professional chef in order to revel in the romance of flowers. Most edible petals are easy to find — you may even be growing them in your garden already. Common candidates for the kitchen include: nasturtium, chamomile, hibiscus, lavender, marigold, tulip, rose, dandelion, day lily, sage, squash, violet, Johnny jump-up and yucca. These flowers and many more can be found on the following Web charts, which give comprehensive information about edibility, flavor and precautions:
Edible Petals Glossary: www.epicurean.com/articles/edible-flowers.html
Edible Flower Chart: www.whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm

As with any wild-growing foods, it’s best to introduce flowers into your diet slowly and in small quantities, trying one species at a time. This way, you can keep track of any digestive upset or allergic reactions that might occur. In general, it’s best to avoid any flowers that you cannot positively identify as edible: flowers growing by the roadside; flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers; and flowers grown with pesticides.

How to Harvest
Ideally, edible flowers should be picked in the morning, just after the dew has dried. For best flavor, look for fully open flowers, and steer clear of any that are damaged, wilting or brown. Like fruits and vegetables, flower flavor can vary depending on environmental conditions, soil types and cultivars. Flavor can also fluctuate during the growing season, and from one year to the next. Simply sample a petal from one or two flowers before collecting larger amounts to make sure you’re happy with your harvest.
Flowers are most attractive and flavorful when used fresh from the garden. Short-stemmed flowers should be harvested no more than 3 to 4 hours before use. If you can’t use them right away, place the blossoms in a plastic bag between layers of damp cloth, and store in the refrigerator. Long-stem flowers can be placed in a container of water and stored in a cool location.
When you’re ready to use your flowers, test one for colorfastness in water. (Some may discolor when wet.) If the test flower holds up well, you can gently wash the rest to remove dirt and check for insects. At this point, you might also want to remove the pistils and stamens because their pollen content can detract from the flavor of the flowers and may also increase the odds of allergic reaction. If your recipe calls for petals only, then pluck each petal at the base where it was attached to the flower.

Flower Feasts
There are countless ways to incorporate flowers in your food, whether you want to fancy up cool drinks and salads with whole-blossom beauty or mince petals into otherwise ordinary dishes. Think lavender lemonade, stuffed squash flowers, rose-petal scones, lilac syrup and pansy crisps. I guarantee you’ll never look at a backyard flowerbed the same way again.

Copyright 2010, MaryJane Butters.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.