Good Food Blog
Flowers in foodPosted at 10:30AM, 07 August 2008 by Sylvia Howe - Journalist
Food can and should look as good, if not better, than it tastes. Senses are all intermingled and a meal should tap gently on each one. Smell, certainly. Taste - goes without saying. And sight too. Adding flowers to a dish therefore manages to gracefully combine all three, with a bit of touch thrown in for good measure. As for hearing - well, listen to the signs of pleasure and the cries of delight!
First - words of caution. You must - obviously - be absolutely certain that what you use is edible. Be sure of this, and also that it has not been sprayed with noxious pesticides. Don't buy your flowers from a florist - unless you know they have been grown to eat. Better still, grow your own and you will be sure what has gone into propagation and protection from insects. Plant several close together and encourage ladybirds. Strong flavours such as coffee and garlic deter pests too.
Use only a little of each flower - too much can upset stomachs that are not used to them. And finally, you usually use only the petals. "You can, however, eat the slightly bitter stamens and buds of daylilies, which is something that the Chinese have done for thousands of years. They make it into a soup," Jekka McVicar of Jekka's Herb Farm told me.
Culinary herbs have edible flowers that are delicious to eat...
It is safe to use flowers from most plants that produce vegetables (such as courgettes, whose big yellow flowers are excellent stuffed and fried), and culinary herbs have edible flowers that are delicious to eat. "Nobody knows what to do with salad rocket once it has run to flower," says Jekka McVicar, "but the flowers taste even better than the leaves. They are quite pungent. Thyme flowers are really strong too, and so are basil flowers. Strongest of all is bergamot - for goodness sake, use it sparingly. Fennel flowers have a light aniseed flavour but fennel seed fresh tastes like aniseed balls."
The sunflower has petals which look lovely in salads. "The buds are good too - I make a very good sunflower bud salad. The seeds are available from supermarkets as well as off the flower head, and are better dried," Jekka says. "Carnations with the bitter heel of the petal removed taste good and dandelions have a tasty bitterness. Try jasmine flowers - but not the berries; this also applies to honeysuckle - and use lavender flowers sparingly. They look beautiful but they taste strong. Violets and daisies are quite mild and pretty".
Think parma violet flavour, jasmine tea, and dandelion leaves and flowers in salads. Roses have long been a staple of Middle Eastern cooking - rosewater is added to all sorts of dishes for a subtle, slightly sweet flavour. The books of Claudia Roden are the ones to investigate here. She has written often of childhood memories carried onto her adult table - the taste of cold, sweet diluted rosewater or lemonade adorned with flowers, and the scent of rose in sticky honey pastries.
Jekka remembers meeting "a lovely lady from Devon when we were both chosen for the Best of British Produce in Fortnums. She made rose petal jam which she served on a home-made scone with Devon clotted cream. I have never eaten anything so beautiful!".
Track down or make the North African spice blend of ras el-hanout - this uses crushed, dried rose petals blended with cumin seeds and nutmeg. It can be rubbed into game or lamb or stirred through rice or couscous.
Flowers are very seldom cooked. They are used for subtlety, for taste and appearance (and often scent too) as garnishes, in salads, in herbal butter, in batter for pancakes, frozen in ice trays with water and dropped elegantly into cold drinks (think colour matching here - raspberry cordial and lavender, lemonade and daisies), in teas and in jams. Try flowers in cocktails, or drop a bit of violet confit into yoghurt or fromage frais.
Summer evenings call for soft and pretty food, light and easy to look at and eat. Using flowers could be the answer - easy to find, simple to use, with spectacular results! And with the added bonus of encouraging conversation!