WICHE: Edible flowers tasty and pretty

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By Jeneen Wiche

I think about food so much this time of the year because vegetables abound. I just came home from working at Courtney Farms in Bagdad with a load of vegetables that will be presented to Community Supported Agriculture subscribers for a weekend gathering of shared experiences and shared food. We are combining our farming efforts to bring food to local families, and that includes the pretty things that can be added and eaten in the mix.

Any successful festivity needs food, friends and flowers; and the food and flowers can actually complement each other because there is a wide range of flowers that are edible. Why limit flower use to decorating tables, they can also decorate food without the threat of choking or poisoning your guests?

It used to be that parsley was the only garnish found on dinner plates or buffet tables. It originally was intended as a breath freshener, but over the years it was relegated to being a simple ornamental garnish that was the only thing left on the plate after the meal was complete.

As chefs became more creative, so did their dinner plate presentation and we began to see flower garnishes among the salads, soups and entrees. This is something you definitely can try at home.

My sister was the first in the family to start plucking the pansies in spring to put on box lunches that she would make for visitors to the farm. Most people ate their lunches, leaving the pansy behind.

As time went on, we encouraged people to give them a try, “They don’t really have much flavor, come on, try it.”

The pressure tactic worked and at least people where now willing to use edible flowers as a compliment, albeit only visual, to their own meals at home.

Many edible flowers – and I have tried most of them – don’t really have that much flavor, but some actually pack a savory punch. The best one is the nasturtium.

Back in the early spring, when I put my kitchen garden in, I planted nasturtium among the lettuces and spinach. The nasturtiums are in full bloom now and ready to be mixed in the salad bowl.

Both the bloom and the foliage of nasturtium are edible, imparting a spicy, peppery taste. Plus, the deep-red bloom of Empress of India will add some bold color to the mix.

Another edible flower that has good flavor is the tuberous begonia. But a word of warning here, apparently only the hybrid varieties of tuberous begonias should be eaten.

For the most part that’s what you will find at most garden centers, so go ahead and pinch blooms from your Non-Stop tuberous begonias for a crisp, sour-lemon flavor.

I have a tendency to enjoy more savory flavors, and when it comes to flowers, this means I like those that are slightly on the bitter side. Petals from the sunflower, the snapdragon and the marigold add some tang. I have used them as a sort of confetti on dishes or in salads, so you only get a hint of the flowers aroma in each bite. Plus, it makes for a very pretty presentation.

If you prefer sweeter flavors the crunchy quality of a daylily petal is nice, I have found that yellow blooms are the sweetest, imparting a slightly floral taste. Gardenia, lilac, and violet blooms are also sweet, as you would suspect, so fear not placing them on your dessert platter and finishing your meal with a petal or two.

Other blooms are ideal for processing in some way. Have you ever fried squash blossoms or marigolds, or brewed tea from bee balm, hibiscus or rose hips. They are delicious, and it proves just one other way you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.