Have you ever thought about eating the table setting? Talk about new adventures! Come and look at the wonderful, colorful world of edible flowers and have a chuckle or two as well!
"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
While we have always been told to stop and smell the roses, no one ever said a word about eating them! Whoever thought those April showers that came our way would bring the brunches we ate in May? Try as I might, I cant imagine myself starving for a home-cooked meal and sitting down to a feast of fricasseed roses topped with candied violets for dessert! And yet, believe it or not, the culinary use of flowers dates back thousands of years (before Hallmark cards and florist shops even), with the first recorded mention in 140 BC. Even the Bible had something to say about flowers. Did you know that dandelions were one of the bitter herbs referred to in the Old Testament?
Many different cultures have incorporated flowers into their traditional foods. Oriental dishes display daylily buds and the Romans used roses and violets lavishly to adorn their plates. (A lot less messier than using Christians, especially after the lions in the Coliseum got through with them.) Italian and Hispanic cultures gave us squash blossoms and Asian Indians use rose petals in many of their recipes. Certainly Americans use flowers too, especially where garnishes and decorations are concerned. Still, its one thing to admire flowers and think they are pretty, and quite another to consider them appetizers!
Despite the fact that curiosity killed the proverbial cat, one cannot help but wonder what these flowers laid before us taste like. Nasturtiums have a wonderfully peppery flavor that is similar to watercress and their pickled buds are often substituted for the more expensive capers. Borage tastes like cucumber and miniature pansies (Johnny Jump-Ups) have a mild wintergreen taste. Violets, roses and lavender lend a sweet flavor to salads and desserts, but lavender may be harmful in large amounts. Bright yellow calendulas are a cheaper alternative to saffron, although their flavor is not quite as pungent. The dandelion is packed with nutrients and the flowers are excellent when used in salads (as long as Mr. Weed Killer hasnt made a visit to your lawn. In that case, stay away from them).
Flowers lend a sense of celebration to both taste buds and table, for they add color, texture and fragrance to any setting. I guess I am just old-fashioned thinking that they belong in vases on top of shelves and pianos. But is it proper etiquette to consider eating part of the table setting, no matter how pretty it is? The fact is that flowers are nutritious and that they have been eaten ever since mankind has been eating. Thats true about mushrooms as well, but as we all know, some varieties may push us through to the other side of where the daisies bloom if we are not careful! Not all flowers are good for you either and should be avoided at all costs (just like most ex-spouses). Some plants are even poisonous. These include azalea, crocus, daffodil, foxglove, oleander, rhododendron, lily-of-the-valley, poinsettia and wisteria.
With the widespread use of pesticides by commercial growers, it is important to select edible flowers from a supplier who grows them specifically for consumption. Never eat flowers obtained from a florist or pick wildflowers blooming by the side of the road. Many gourmet markets now carry edible flowers. Pick your own, if you dare. Morning or evening is best because the water content is at its peak at that time. Select flowers that are freshly opened and sample one or two before harvesting. Always check for insects and gently rinse to remove dirt, allowing time to drain before using. Once harvested, flowers will not keep for very long, even if they are refrigerated. Avoid the pistils and stamens where the pollen is formed and stored because they are likely to contain more allergens than the petals. Eat in conservative amounts so that you know which flowers agree with you, even if they are members of another political party!
In addition to decoration and taste, many flowers have healing properties as well. According to the Herb Book by Johnathan Lust, calendulas are good for colitis, fever and anti-nausea. Hollyhock are used to treat sore throat and heal mouth inflammation. Dandelions serve as powerful blood purifiers and lavender soothes migraine and dizziness. Nasturtiums are very effective in the treatment of chest colds and promote the formation of new red cells. Rose hips are a good source of vitamin C and other anti-oxidants, and Borage is known as an anti-inflammatory. I would take this information with more than a grain of salt and I wouldnt consider administering anything without first consulting a gardener who went to medical school.
Use flowers sparingly in your recipes, particularly if you are not accustomed to eating them. Too much of a pretty thing can lead to digestive problems. (Remember that chorus girl Uncle Harold ran away with in Las Vegas a few years back? His stomach as well as his wallet have never been the same since!) If you are prone to allergies, it is best to introduce flowers in small amounts so you can judge their effect. Some have a more pronounced flavor than others do, so youll need to judge accordingly. The leaves of some flowers also have culinary uses, but be sure to check a trusted food reference (maybe the gardeners sister) before experimenting.
Appreciate the beauty of flowers and their subtle power to enhance and elevate the dining experience. Make sure the flowers you use complement the flavor of the dish you are serving; for example, bean blossoms have a wonderful beany flavor. Consider sprinkling edible flowers in green salads for a splash of color and taste. Freeze whole small flowers into ice cubes and add to punches and other beverages. They can also be used in flavored oils, jellies and marmalades. The only boundaries with flowers seem to be those we create ourselves; everything is all a matter of habit, usage and attitude. So why not invite me over to lunch someday? After all, flowers are in full bloom somewhere in the world at this time of year. Ill bring the wine if you promise to keep your pansies to yourself. After a few glasses, Im certain the roses will look like tuna casserole to you too!