Stop and Eat the Flowers

Montana's Edible Feast from the Field: Flowers

The growing popularity of edible flowers

By Amy Hinman

Edible flowers are gaining popularity both in fine cuisine, and everyday cooking.

A sample of edible flowers grown in Livingston, Montana. Photo by Sarah Hussey

A sample of edible flowers grown in Livingston, Montana. Photo by Sarah Hussey

Once thought to be just a pretty garnish in upscale restaurants, blossoms are increasingly being used as essential ingredients. The key to using edible flowers is doing a little research and a lot of experimentation. It's imperative to learn which flowers may be eaten, let alone which taste good, and preferably this is done by reading and not by trial and error.

There are a number of flowers, such as monkshood and nightshade, which look great but are definitely poisonous. At the very least, popping any old petal into the mouth can result in a quick reversal of the process because some can be quite bitter and leave a distinct aftertaste.

With over 50 edible flower varieties, there are a number of choices to liven up a meal. However, it is important that you know if the flowers were treated with herbicides or pesticides (growing your own is recommended). Nasturtiums, with brightly colored flowers and a radish-like bite, are perfect in salads either thrown in whole, or by removing the petals for a confetti effect.

They're prolific during the hot summer and easily grown in containers to keep them in close proximity to the kitchen. Since they can produce so many blooms, they're ideal using them as appetizers by filling them with guacamole. Simply spoon the guacamole into a pastry bag or paper cone, pipe it into the cleaned blossoms, and serve them on tortilla chips.

They never last long so it's good to make plenty in advance and keep them in the refrigerator until they're ready to be served. Another sometimes surprising possibility is the common daylily. These cheerful, hardy perennials are common in many Montana gardens, yet people don't realize what a versatile culinary ingredient they are.

There's a wide range of flavors from somewhat spicy/floral to a mild vegetable-like taste among the huge variety of daylilies. The best flavor seems to be in the buds and flowers which are less than two inches long, although sautéing the larger ones tends to minimize any bitter flavor. Daylily buds are great tossed into a stir-fry with the vegetables.

Also, petals can be shredded and added to a salad for more flavor and color. For an interesting appetizer or light dessert, small (approximately 1-1/2" in length) daylily blossoms can be filled with a mix of ricotta cheese and powdered sugar. These are extremely simple and delicious, and offer a unique alternative for a special occasion.

Herb pizzas are always a big hit, even with the unwilling flower eaters. The easiest way to make them is to use a pre-made crust. Spread sauce on the crust and sprinkle with feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, and chopped oregano, marjoram blossoms and basil. Pop this in the oven at 400 degrees (or according to the directions) for 10 to 15 minutes to heat through, and it's a quick snack.

Calendula blossoms come in brilliant orange and yellow hues, and are very versatile in the kitchen. The petals can be included in salads for added color, or they can be baked into a common cornbread recipe for texture and a very mild flavor. Borage blossoms, tiny blue star-like flowers, taste similar to a mild cucumber. Pull off the blossoms by grasping the black center and releasing it from the calyx.

The flowers can be frozen in ice cubes to give them an extra flourish, or added to salads where they blend easily with the other vegetables. They're even good to eat straight from the garden since "grazing" is the best way to learn the distinct flavors of every plant. Even lavender is an edible flower. This sometimes surprises people, but this long-time favorite herb is known for its versatility above all else.

An easy yet elegant way to use lavender, is to steep the spikes in warm cream. Place them in a double boiler with the cream, and simmer over boiling water approximately 10 minutes. Allow it to cool in the refrigerator. This is excellent over a bowl of fresh fruit! (Calories do not count in this situation.)

The flavor of flowers can really come to life in herbal iced teas. A popular mix is a combination of fresh chamomile blossoms, bergamot flowers and mint leaves. Boil approximately one cup of herbs and flowers in four cups of water; allow it to cool, and serve over ice. Garnish with mint, or better yet, bergamot flowers. A more time-intensive yet dramatic process involves candying the blossoms.

Rose petals, pansies and even lilac blossoms can be crystallized for use as edible decorations. After carefully removing the petals from the stems and wiping them clean, a light coating of meringue (either a beaten egg white or meringue powdered mix) is applied to one petal at a time with a fine paintbrush.

Superfine sugar is then sprinkled over the damp petal covering the entire area before continuing with the rest. The batch of petals needs to dry completely, approximately 24 hours, before they can be used to decorate cakes, custards and any delectable dessert requiring a special touch.

The crystallized blossoms can be kept for up to a year in an airtight container. Beginning to use edible flowers can be as simple as tossing a few chives blossoms on a baked potato or in a salad, and can progress into an art form. In either respect, flowers have the capacity to liven-up cooking as much as they brighten the garden.

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