Eating flowers right off a plant is an activity that can go completely haywire. You may notice a meadow frequented by deer that has many of its flowers eaten and yet there is that one flower type that the deer leave untouched. Humans too can eat many flowers, except for those flowers they cannot.
Here in our area, Jimson weed is one of those flowers, aka “loco weed.” Though the subject of a famous painting by Georgia O’Keefe, known for its beauty and splendor, there was a group of guys here one working on a crew who decided to brew up a special tea for one of the crew members as a joke. They fixed up a strong batch of tea from the loco weed and served it to their unsuspecting buddy. The guy drank it and he really did go completely nuts. The crew was shocked and, I can assure you, never pulled that prank again. The guy lived but only after a giant episode of “crazy.” (This might be the time to mention that “loco” is “crazy” in Spanish.)
There are many, many edible flowers but if the flower is new to you, don’t assume that it is edible. Check with your county extension office or a plant identification handbook. When you do find an edible flower, serving it up up as part of a meal is a simple way to add huge gourmet flare to your supper.
Adding flowers to salads is a great way to bring color to the dish and is a great place to start. Once you get started, syrups and oils will be your key tools to get the unique fragrances of flowers into your foods.
The salad showcase
Probably the most common use of edible flowers is in salads, mixed in with the salad greens. They add a delightful color “pop” taking a fairly ordinary salad to an entirely new level. Colorful flower petals (or even small flowers whole) that otherwise do not have a lot of flavor on their own are the most obvious options:
- Day lilies
- Calendula (marigolds)
- Orange blossoms
For extra success, consider the color wheel. Depending on the flowers and the bowls I have around, I pair petals and bowls with either colors either opposite on the color wheel or those just beside it. It the picture here we have purple petals in a blue bowl and it works because these colors do go together but later in the summer when our orange day lilies are blooming, I could use this same bowl and have a real festive showcase. Orange is the opposite of blue on the color wheel and it just pops against it. My first choice is always to go on the opposite side. My second choice is to go with a color right next to it on the wheel.
If you find yourself with bowls and salads that just don’t look as good as you wished, look back at the color wheel.
Capturing the fragrance and flavor
You can experiment with all of the flowers around you. It a lot of fun. Though I mention lilacs with the salads and though they do have a delicate flavor, I have used them in cookies, scones, and even cocktails using the various methods I outline here. For other flowers, you get a surprising amount of flavor using these methods. Flowers like lavender and rosemary are intensely flavored, as are the edible flowers of many other herbs. Herb flowers are a great place to start:
- Lemon verbena
In Water: A Simple Syrup
The simple syrup is your best first choice for capturing the flavor of your flower in water. You can use a fresh or dried flower for this purpose (though there are some more delicately-flavored flowers that may lose their flavor as they dry, unlike the herbal-type flowers). I also do use a regular refined white sugar in these syrups when my purpose is to showcase the flavor of the flower. A molasses-based sugar and honey will compete with the flavor of the flower, though honey would work quite well with some of the herbs. Keep the flavor balance in mind as you work on your creations.
I use the same method here as I do with any herb:
- Rough-chop your flower if it is fresh. Crush it up a bit if it is dry.
- Add about equal parts sugar (or half part honey). (You could add about half the amount of sugar. Some people even double the sugar for cocktails. It’s up to you and completely flexible.)
- Cover the mixture in boiling water and give it a stir.
- Add a lid and let it sit overnight.
- Strain out the herb and retain the syrup mixture.
Use the syrup mixed with carbonated water for a homemade soda, as a mixer in a cocktail, and in extravagances like syrup drizzled over cake that require a simple syrup. Your simple syrup will have an added flavor bonus.
There is a second method for making a floral-flavored water that is a more effective method but does take a little more time and a watchful eye: This stove-top hydrosol method I describe in detail here and Ramya uses here to make rose water. You will probably find your hydrosol to be more flavorful than your syrup but it definitely takes a little more kitchen time.
In Oil: Infused Oils and Butters
If you are adapting a recipe to add a floral fragrance, it may not be appropriate to add a syrup. It simply may not have that much liquid in it. In that case, you can infuse the fat portion of your recipe — the oil or butter (or even cream). The process is similar:
- Rough-chop your flower if it is fresh. Crush it if dry. (If it is fresh it will add a bit of moisture to your recipe so you may wish to adapt it slightly if possible or just be ready for a slight change in texture.)
- Warm the oil or butter on the stove in a double boiler.
- Add the flowers to the warm oil. Allow simmer on low for about 10 minutes. Stir.
- Turn off the heat and cover.
- Let the mixture sit for about 30 minutes for the floral flavors to infuse into the oil.
- Strain out the flowers (or keep them in for added texture and interest). Use the butter or oil as you normally would in a recipe.
Go forth and experiment
Salads, syrups, and oils are fun ways to incorporate flowers in your refreshments. Experiment with the flavors and fragrances around you and I guarantee that you will find some gems. As you find a new flower, use a good identification reference to ensure that it is edible. Remember that “loco weed” tale.