Crave: Edible flowers can make dinner vibrant and tasty, too

photo by: Courtesy of Mother Earth News

Starving for that delicious-looking appetizer, you reach for those crispy little nuggets of deep-fried mushrooms, but … What the heck? Golden and delectable, those morsels turn out to be tasty little dandelion flower buds that have been fried up soft, tender, and reminiscent of wild morel mushrooms. The colorful salad is sprinkled with violets, nasturtiums and calendula petals. Not only that, the ice cream is flavored with pastel specks of lavender-colored … well … lavender. The ruby-jeweled jelly is created from summer rose petals. And even the tuna salad bowl is edible: It’s a hibiscus blossom.

From the finest restaurants to the humblest farm kitchen, more and more cooks are finding that adding flowers to an ever-increasing number of menu items adds color, excitement, flavor and a touch of enticement — and maybe even some romance.

For ages, bakers have been making candied violets to decorate party cakes. Nasturtiums look pretty sprinkled on a salad. Diners now are discovering that flowers have more than visual appeal — they also have flavor. Specific flowers are mingling pleasantly with a variety of entrees, salads and desserts — as one of the ingredients, no longer merely a pretty decoration.

Flowers are most commonly used fresh or as garnishes. When cooked, they frequently wilt and lose their bright colors (though cauliflower and broccoli are actually “flowers,” too).

Topping cakes with bright pansies, garnishing soups with chive flowers, or using flowers such as tulips or daylilies as bowls to hold tuna salad or cottage cheese are all good ways to experiment with blooms fresh from your garden.

Of course, as with any other foods you use, you will want to add flowers to your meal carefully. Roadside flowers are often polluted with vehicle exhaust residues, roadway hydrocarbon runoff, dust and trash. Some flowers do not taste good, and some are actually toxic, such as potato, foxglove and sweet pea. Flowers served at the table should be grown organically, with no residual pesticides clinging to the petals.

The best-tasting flowers are usually the most fragrant; the more fragrant the flower, the stronger the flavor. So use them with discretion. Although some marigolds are tasty, some taste terrible. It is wise to experiment first and not try out new ideas on unsuspecting guests. Always taste before you cook. A large number of garden flowers are edible, but as with any other plants — tame or wild — before you start eating them willy-nilly, you must learn the edibility rules.

Some popular flowers

These top-choice flowers taste good, are versatile in cooking and are commonly and easily grown in gardens everywhere.

• Calendula: A flowering annual, sometimes called “pot marigold,” this fragrance-free flower has been used as a food addition (and for medicinal purposes) since ancient Rome ruled. Called “poor man’s saffron,” the bruised petals can be used in place of the more expensive spice. The calendula’s petals can be mixed into muffins, sprinkled on a salad or mixed into a cheeseball.

• Chives: A perennial herb from the Allium (onion) genus, chives sport pink pomponlike flowers in mid-spring. The onion-flavored flowers can be used in many dishes, in addition to being used as a decorative garnish. Eaten whole and by itself, however, the chive flower can taste a bit strong.

• Daylily: Daylily flowers are indeed open only for a day. The buds themselves are tasty and nutritious, and even the root and crown were used medicinally. Chinese hot and sour soup often includes dried daylily petals as an ingredient. The paler yellow and orange varieties are sweeter; darker colors are more bitter. Daylilies may be diuretic and also act as a laxative, so eat them in moderation. (These may be frozen for later frying.)

• Mint: A group of hardy perennials that may rudely take over your flower bed, these culinary herbs have edible leaves and flowers. Many varieties, from apple to orange to chocolate mint, are available. Essential oils are extracted from this plant, and the flavoring appears in everything from candies to gravies.

• Pansy: Cheerful bi- and tri-colored annuals related to violets and violas, pansies have a slightly sweet grassy flavor. They are commonly used as garnishes in desserts and fruit salads, frozen into dainty ice cubes, and glazed on cookies; fresh sprigs can be planted on cakes — a spicy wintergreen flavor is encountered if the pansy is eaten whole. In the heat of the summer they fade back, but will re-bloom when autumn brings cooler weather.

• Rose: An age-old flower, the rose is used in everything from cakes to jams to beverages, often used in the same way as vanilla flavoring. Flavors of roses vary; some leave a bad aftertaste while others taste like sweet apple or cinnamon. The white base of the petal, however, is bitter.

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