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Garden variety

Flowers are making a comeback — on the plate

In Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate, rose petals are used to flavour a sauce for quail. After eating the sensuous meal the cook’s sister is so overcome with lust, her rosy scent attracts a rebel soldier from battle. He rides to the ranch and scoops her up onto his horse and makes love to her as they ride away into the sunset.

Eating flowers does have romantic connotations, albeit the example above may be a bit ambitious, but it makes for a lovely tale of magical realism.

The best way to know that the flowers you are eating are both edible and free of pesticides is to grow them yourself. With the warm weather finally arriving, it is a good time to plan some patio/deck pot plants that can be enjoyed with meals later in the season. Many edible flowers are both beautiful and easy to grow and can be used in a variety of savoury or sweet culinary applications.

Flowers have been used to infuse teas and tonics for many years, think chamomile, mint, hibiscus and rose petals. Romans used herbal flowers, roses and violets in their foods. In China, daylily petals are a crucial ingredient in hot and sour soup. In Italy, stuffed squashed blossoms are deep fried and eaten. Flower consumption reached its peak during the Victorian era when elderberry flowers and rose petals were a common ingredient in many dishes.

Lately flowers have made a comeback to the plate, particularly in restaurants, their colour and romantic whimsy subtlety enhancing both palate and price. In British Columbia it is law that any flower appearing in a beverage or on a plate in a restaurant must be edible. This law does not always apply in other places.

Many flowers have different common names so it is important when choosing flowers to eat that they are in fact the edible variety. For example, we grow and eat sweet peas but the ornamental, beautifully scented sweet pea flower is highly poisonous. The best way to ensure that a flower is edible is to select flowers using their botanical name. The poison sweet pea’s botanical name is Lathyrus spp., while the edible varieties (snow pea, sugar snap pea, English pea) go by Pisum spp. This information can easily be found in books and on some Web sites, although using the Web should be only to back check as the information is not always reliable. One of the best cooking/gardening combo books on the subject is Edible Flowers From Garden to Palate, written by Cathy Wilkinson Barash. The gardening part of the book is most comprehensive and a worthwhile authority on the subject. The recipes that accompany the chapters are beautiful but zealous. Many dishes come from top restaurant chefs in North America and are intimidating for the average home cook. Nevertheless, the dishes look beautiful and taste wonderful.

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