The growing season is in high gear, and colorful blooms are peppering gardens across Lawrence.
But why leave them rooted in the soil when many of them could liven up the dinner table?
"They add great edible color instead of just useless garnish," says Sam Siber, operations manager for Pachamama's, 800 N.H., which is featuring a dish this month that uses squash blossoms. "In salads they add a subtle flavor, and, of course, the fragrance is a huge plus.
"If you can add excitement and indulge more senses for the diner, it will only enhance their food experience."
Edible flowers can be used as a garnish or as an integral part of a recipe. In fact, many of us eat flowers without even knowing it. Broccoli and cauliflower are underdeveloped flower buds. Saffron comes from the stamen of the crocus flower. Some teas are laced with roses, chamomile and other flowers. And capers are the unopened flower buds from a bush native to Mediterranean and Asian nations.
Pachamama's uses edible blooms in salads and as garnish, Siber says, citing violas, pansies and lavender blossoms as examples.
They can be fried in a light batter or used in stir-fry dishes. They can be stuffed, candied, frozen in ice, made into jellies and jams, infused in vinegar and added to teas or wines. They can be minced and combined in cheese spreads, herbal butters, pancakes, crepes and waffles.
The possibilities are endless.
Evan Williams, of Evan Williams Catering in Lawrence, was nibbling on nasturtiums on a recent morning while freezing some of the plants, along with raspberries, in a bottle of vodka for an upcoming event.
"I use a lot of marigolds, squash blossoms - all our herbal flowers are incorporated into recipes. Gosh, I've even used peach and apple blossoms," she says.
She says the plants enhance a presentation.
"They can really dress up a dish and table," she says. "Plus it is fun to try unique foods. The nasturtiums are especially peppery and add a real bite to salads."
If you're going to eat flora, it's always best to know their origins. So plucking them out of your own garden is generally preferred, knowing they have not been sprayed with chemicals. Venturing out to the local farmers market is usually a safe alternative, too. Don't eat flowers purchased from a florist; most bouquets have some level of toxins. Allergy sufferers should avoid eating flowers altogether.
Edible flowers are delicate and generally don't fare well when stored for any length of time, so pick them and consume them as quickly as possible. Be sure to wash the flower gently with water and pat it dry. Remove the petals (which are usually the most flavorful part of the plant). Although some flora boast edible stems and leaves, it's always best to double check which parts of the plant are best to eat.
Here's a look at some of the scrumptious options you might already have at your green fingertips:
¢ Allium: Known as "flowering onions," there are about 400 species that range from giant to petite. All members of the genus are edible.
¢ Apple blossom: These pretty blooms are a lovely accompaniment to fruit dishes and make a delicious and beautiful candied garnish.
¢ Bee balm: Wild bee balm tastes like oregano and mint. The flavor is reminiscent of citrus with soft minglings of lemon and orange.
¢ Borage: This annual grows 2 feet to 4 feel tall with purplish blue, star-shaped flowers. Borage adds a cucumber taste to salads, dips and cold soups. The flowers are also wonderful frozen in ice cube trays to decorate drinks.
¢ Calendula: This annual was a favorite in medieval cooking pots. They grow 20 inches tall with pale yellow to deep orange flowers. Sometimes called "Poor Man's Saffron," calendula has a slightly bitter taste. Try the petals in soups, egg dishes, stews, rice dishes and with cheese and poultry.
¢ Carnation: Try steeping in wine or using as cake decorations. The surprisingly sweet petals are a tasty treat. Dianthus, a smaller version of carnations, have a nutmeg scent and are equally tasty.
¢ Chamomile: An annual with tiny daisylike flowers, it grows 1 feet to 2 feet tall and has a sweet apple flavor and aroma which makes it ideal in tea. Steep 2 to 4 teaspoons of fresh flowers with a cup of boiled water.
¢ Chives: A perennial that grows 1 to 2 feet tall with pink and lavender flowers that have enhanced dishes for centuries. Break apart chive florets to add a mild onion flavor to breads, casseroles, potatoes, herbed butters and eggs.
¢ Chrysanthemum: Boasting a tangy, slightly bitter flavor, these range in color from red, white, orange and yellow. They taste faintly peppery, and the petals should be blanched before being scattered on a salad or infused into vinegar.
¢ Dandelion: Next time you're cursing these yellow flowers while plucking them from the garden, you might consider saving them to eat. The flowers are sweetest when picked young; they have a sugary, honeylike flavor. Dandelions are good raw or steamed, with the petals sprinkled like confetti on rice.
¢ Hibiscus: Have a cranberry-like flavor with citrus overtones. However, they are slightly acidic, so use them sparingly.
¢ Lavender: A perennial with delicate purple blooms, not all lavenders have the same taste qualities. A popular choice for consumption is Lavandula angustifolia, which combines well with rosemary and thyme in chicken and lamb dishes. Add a teaspoon to cake and cookie recipes, keeping in mind that a little lavender goes a long way; too much tastes soapy.
¢ Nasturtium: This annual has brilliant orange, pink and yellow cuplike flowers. It is said that Thomas Jefferson favored these in his salads. They add a peppery taste to greens, herb vinegars, sandwiches and pizzas. The immature pods can be picked and used as a substitute for capers.
¢ Rose: Older species, such as Rosa rugosa and Rosa gallica, are considered best for taste. The thinner the petal, the more pungent the rose. Petals add flavor to jellies, honey, vinegars and salads.
¢ Scented geraniums: The flower flavor tends to mimic the variety. For example, a lemon-scented geranium would have lemon-tasting flowers. They range from citrus to spicy to fruity to flowery. Try sprinkling them on top of desserts or in a punch. They are also wonderful frozen in ice. Note: Do not eat the citronelle variety of geraniums.
¢ Sweet violet, Johnny-Jump-Up, pansy: These three violas are old-fashioned culinary favorites that bloom well into the cool temperatures. Sweet violets are a perennial with purple and white blooms. Johnny-Jump-Up and pansies are annuals that add sweet, perfumed or wintergreen flavor to salads, fruits and vegetables. Try floating them in a punch bowl, or candy the petals for an elegant addition to cakes and cookies.
¢ Yucca petals: The white yucca flower is crunchy, with a mildly sweet taste that has a hint of artichoke flavor.
Sources: whatscookingamerica.net, homecooking.about.com, ext.colostate.edu, flowerstoeat.com