PETALS for your plate

Take your pick from a bouquet of edible flowers to brighten up spring menus.

May 02, 2001|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Spring flowers are blooming, bringing a rainbow of colors to brighten your home. But the tulips, lilacs and pansies now in season can be more than a bouquet for your table; they can bring new tastes to your plate.

If you think only goats and bunnies eat flowers, you're wrong. In fact, you've probably eaten some flowers already.

Artichokes and broccoli are immature flowers, and many herbal teas contain rose petals, hibiscus, mint, chamomile and other flowers, says Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of "Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate" (Fulcrum Publishing, 1995, $24.95). Dried day-lily petals are integral to the hot-and-sour soup at your local Chinese restaurant.

You may even have eaten candied flowers on wedding cakes or petals in your salads.

Even so, flower cookery remains fairly unusual. Searches on food Web sites yield few recipes using edible flowers, and even fewer beyond salads and wedding-cake decorations.

It wasn't always that way, according to Leona Woodring Smith, author of "The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery" (Pelican, 1985). She writes that Persians included nasturtiums in their diet about 400 B.C. and that chrysanthemums were used as food in the time of Confucius. In 17th- century Europe, flowers, herbs and spices were used liberally.

Flowers have long been treasured for more than their beauty," Smith writes. "They were candied, pickled, dried, stewed, or their essence was captured in waters and oils. Truly a forgotten art worth reviving!"

Barash, Smith and another cookbook writer, Rosalind Creasy, have been extolling the virtues of flower cookery for years. Yet flowers remain a culinary novelty.

"I think people are using them more to decorate than to cook," Barash says. She thinks one reason may be the amount of labor involved. Flowers must be eaten fresh, so the best way to guarantee good quality is to grow your own.

Still, people who take the trouble to cook with flowers will be pleasantly surprised, she said. "I think it is catching on more," she says. "This is happy food."

That doesn't mean you should start chowing down on the nearest flower bed. Because some flowers are poisonous, it's important to make sure you're eating something safe before taking a bite.

Only use flowers that cookbooks or other sources have specified as safe. Even with safe flowers, start slowly, adding just a few petals to dishes and increasing the quantities over time. Large quantities of flowers can give stomachaches to the uninitiated.

Flowers that you plan to eat must be grown organically, picked at their peak and thoroughly washed. Never eat flowers plucked from the side of a road. Flowers purchased at nurseries and florists often contain pesticides and preservatives that are not safe to eat.

Experts advise picking flowers in the morning or late afternoon, when water content is at its peak. Look for blossoms that are free of insects, disease and damage. Gently wash them in water and drain on paper towels. If possible, serve within a few hours of picking.

Some specialty stores sell a mix of flowers for eating, often heavy on nasturtium and pansies. But Barash warns against these packages. "I've seen mixtures in supermarkets that have stuff that's not edible in them," she said by phone from her home in Iowa.

When cooking with flowers, nibble a petal or two first to make sure you like the taste. Some of the more popular flowers for cooking are peppery nasturtium and perfumy roses.

Nasturtiums are great with eggs, writes Smith. She suggests filling an omelet with three chopped blossoms, 1/2 teaspoon each of pimento, parsley and butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

Barash especially likes roses in one of her favorite recipes, Rose Petal Fusion Crisps, which she got from Charmaine Eads, the chef of Manor Farm Inn in Poulsbo, Wash. "It has a wonderful sort of Oriental flavor," she says.

Lilacs and tulips, both now in bloom, are also wonderful, Barash says.

Lilacs vary widely in taste, from perfumy to grassy, she says. Nibble a petal to find the flavor of your lilac. Perfumy lilacs make a great poaching sauce. Simply put them in water used to poach fish or chicken, then boil it down once the meat is cooked, add a little cream, and serve over the meat, she says.

Tulip petals can be dipped in melted chocolate for an elegant dessert. When you remove the petals, cut off their whitish base, which is bitter.

Refrigerate the coated tulips on waxed paper for an hour before eating, she says.

The flowers of many herbs taste like the herb, only more so, Barash says. The beautiful spiky mauve chive flowers, for example, have a wonderful oniony flavor. Don't eat an entire chive flower at once, Barash warns, "as the flower can have the equivalent flavor of a bulb of garlic." Break the flower into small pieces for both cooking and garnishing.

Flowers make wonderful additions to salads and dips.

For salads, simply add about 1/2 cup of nasturtiums, calendula or Johnny-jump-ups to about 12 cups of greens.

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