At a recent edible flower seminar at the Crowley Museum & Nature Center, Joan Kershaw, owner of Floral Concept, demonstrated that the proof is indeed in the pudding-or, in this instance, in the delectable floral delights she served. A peppery gazpacho strewn with arugula blossoms, nasturtium stuffed with savory cream cheese, an herb and flower cheese terrine, pecan pansies, orange flower corn muffins, chocolate orchids and hibiscus tea were not only lovely visual additions to the table, but tasty ones as well.
After a 10-year stay in Moca, Puerto Rico, where she owned and farmed a 38-acre fruit and flower farm, Kershaw moved to Sarasota in 1999 and volunteered her talents to Selby Gardens. One thing led to another, and three years ago she began creating unique flower arrangements and edibles, including organic and native flowers, for environmentally conscious clients.
"Flower petals can be added to almost any recipe," Kershaw says. But she cautions that there are some guidelines. Not all flowers are edible. If in doubt, check the plant's Latin name to avoid confusion. With the widespread use of pesticides by commercial growers, select edible flowers from a supplier who grows them specifically for consumption. Many grocery stores and gourmet markets now also offer them. Never eat flowers obtained from a florist or from the side of a road. "Your best bet is to grow them yourself, so you know they are completely pesticide-free," says Kershaw. "Pick homegrown flowers in the morning or late afternoon when the water content is high."
Some cultures have incorporated flowers into their traditional foods for thousand of years. Oriental dishes make use of daylily buds, and the Romans were fond of mallow, roses and violets. Italian and Hispanic cultures gave us stuffed squash blossoms, and Asian Indians use rose petals in many recipes. Chartreuse, a classic green liqueur developed in France in the 17th century, boasts carnation petals as one of its secret ingredients. And flowers and herbs have long been prized for their healing qualities.
Edible flowers emerged on the American culinary scene a decade ago. Today, they're favorites of home cooks and professional chefs alike. Peppery nasturtiums spice up salads. Ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms grace dinner plates, and lavender blossoms and rose petals lend their delicate color and flavor to homemade ice cream.
If the concept of using flowers in your cooking intrigues you, start by taking stock of the bounty in your own yard. A large number of edible flowers may already be growing in your garden. Nasturtiums, Kershaw says, are wonderfully peppery, and their pickled buds can be substituted for more expensive capers. Borage tastes like cucumber, and Johnny-jump-ups have a mild wintergreen taste. Though not quite as pungent, bright yellow calendula is an economic alternative to expensive saffron. Violets, roses, lavender and verbena lend a sweet flavor to butter, jellies, salads or desserts. For a subtle flavor, she suggests mixing rose with vinegar.
Kershaw recommends to start by using flowers sparingly. "Too much of a pretty thing can lead to digestive problems," she explains. "If you're prone to allergies, introduce flowers in small amounts so you can judge their effect." Taste is another factor. "Some have a much more pronounced flavor than others, so you'll need to test to learn your preferences taste- and quantity-wise," she warns.
The leaves of some flowers also have culinary uses, but Kershaw recommends checking a trusted food reference source before experimenting. With the notable exception of safflower and crocus (saffron), whose stigma are prized as an herb, usually only the petals are eaten. All flowers should be washed gently and thoroughly before use. If need be, they can be perked up by dropping into a bowl of ice water for 30-60 seconds, and drained on paper towels. Then carefully remove petals or other parts to be consumed. Trim off the whitish part of the petal where it connects to the stem, as it can often be bitter.
While the petals can be refrigerated for a day in a plastic bag, it's best to use them within a few hours. "Flowers can also be pickled, candied and condensed into syrups and liqueurs to top cakes, tarts, hors d'oeuvres and soups," she says. "Sprinkle petals over roasts or grilled fish, add them to sauces and float them in a pot of tea." For parties, she advises color-coordinating them with the decor or freezing them in ice cubes.
BEFORE YOU TASTE
- Eat only blooms you are positive are edible.
- Eat only organically grown flowers.
- Do not eat flowers if you have hay fever or asthma.
- If you have allergies, introduce edible flowers gradually.
- Do not eat flowers from florists, garden centers, nurseries or the roadside.
- Remove pistils and stamens from flowers and eat only the petals.
- Introduce flowers into your diet in small quantities, one species at a time.
1/2 cup cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/4 cup cottage cheese
1 tablespoon vanilla yogurt
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup chopped currants
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoon maple syrup
Mix all ingredients in a food processor and refrigerate for 1 hour. Shape into small balls and stuff into fresh naturtium flowers. Serve immediately.
1/2 cup softened butter
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup flour
1 large egg
1 tablespoon butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
24 crystallized pansies
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter and cream cheese. Stir in flour and form a ball with the dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. In a small bowl, beat egg lightly, add remaining ingredients. Form dough into 24 walnut-sized balls and press into a miniature muffin pan. Fill with pecan mixture and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and top each with a crystallized pansy. Makes 24 muffins.
3 cups cabbage, shredded
6 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 cup nasturtiums
Blend olive oil, sugar and vinegar. Toss all ingredients together and serve immediately. Serves 8.
PICKING YOUR FLOWERS
You can find safe, edible flowers at these sources.
830 Central Ave., Sarasota
At the Sarasota downtown farmer's market:
My Mother's Garden
(813) 642-0191; and
Marigolds & Marmalade