Flower Power

Did you eat flowers as a child? Many farm kids eat wild clover and dandelions, elder flowers and even apple blossoms. We’ve already looked at the nutritional healing properties of some wildflower “weeds”. But did you know that people have enjoyed flowers for food since ancient times? As well as spices, garnishes and decorations, flowers we now consider ornamental actually were part of the meal. What we now consider an elegant, exotic treat was once commonplace. Edible flowers are making a big comeback and are now served in many restaurants. You can give your recipes a unique touch by cooking with flowers.

Eating Flowers

You’ve been eating flowers your entire life. Artichokes, cauliflower and broccoli are flowers. And if you use herbs you eat the flowers or their extracts, or make them into tea. But it’s likely you’ve also had dishes which contained blossoms usually found in ornamental gardens.

Middle Eastern food includes desserts like rice pudding made with rose water or orange-flower water. Orange-flower water is also popular in India. Some Italian dishes, especially festive ones, contain rose petals. Greek people sprinkle rose petals on ice cream. Sugared rose petals are very popular wedding treats. And Indians traditionally eat sunflowers, squash blossoms and yucca blossoms. Squash blossoms are especially versatile. They can be fried, cooked with eggs and cheese, stuffed, made into soup and even bread.

Cooking with Flowers

As with all herbs and plants, make sure you identify the right ones. You can find pictures and descriptions online or in books like “Edible Flowers from Garden to Kitchen” by Kathy Brown. Cathy Wilkinson Barash also has some great books about the use of flowers in cooking. Search on your favorite bookseller web site for more books on how to identify, grow and cook with edible flowers.

With some flowers you will eat only the petals, removing the stems, leaves and stamens. Some flower parts are toxic or simply not good to eat so you will have to dispose of them. Other flowers are completely edible. Like any other plant, even nontoxic flowers have elements that some people are allergic to.

Once you know which flowers are edible, taste them and get to know their textures and flavors. They can be citrusy, light and delicate, or strong and sharp. Judge for yourself which flowers are to your liking.

Look online as well as in books for recipes, or invent your own once you’re used to making edible flowers a part of your cuisine. The easiest way to begin is to toss them into whatever salad you are making. Use flowers with a fresh, slightly bitter taste. Dandelions, clover and calendula marigolds are good for this. Also try sunflower petals — actually each “petal” is a flower, or floret.

Flowers can be cooked into butter. Imagine rose or violet butter spread on slices of bread for an old-fashioned afternoon tea! Flower syrup, made by boiling petals, water, sugar and a bit of lemon, is great on pancakes. Bottle flowers with apple cider vinegar to make flower vinegars and salad dressings. Flower jam, flower wine and even flower ice cream were once popular Victorian treats that are now enjoying a renaissance.

How To Choose Flowers

Never use commercial flowers as these have been sprayed with pesticides. This is also why you shouldn’t use roadside wildflowers, many of which are planted or cultivated deliberately to beautify highways and stop erosion. If you want flowers to cook with, do business with a local organic flower farm that can certify its flowers pesticide-free and fit for human consumption.

Grow flowers yourself if you can. Use organic bug repellents or introducing insect species that repel harmful ones naturally. Don’t wash edible flowers, just brush them off. Look for insects inside the flowers and shake them back onto the plant.

One reason people don’t often think of eating flowers is the introduction of centralized grocery distribution. At one time, individuals grew and ate their own produce. Perishable flowers were too expensive to ship. As Americans return to growing their own food, flowers may once again become part of a standard diet.

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