Making Dining a New Feast for the Eyes and the Palate
It was in 1995 that Alice. P., a veteran Master Gardener Volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County, wrote an article for the Farm and Garden News. It was titled simply "Please Eat the Daisies". This was no invitation to the four legged denizens that were ravaging flower beds and gardens across the region. It was, rather, an invitation to the public to expand their horizons by growing flowers that could be used to adorn culinary efforts at home, and offer a unique flavor experience at the kitchen or dining room table, or, at the next party.
I was blessed with a marvelous group of volunteers at that time. They were educating me faster than I could provide education for them. I'll be eternally grateful to all of them. Bea R., Martha and Tony M., Lynn E. and all the rest of you, you know who you are. Don't be offended if I haven't mentioned your name. You are included.
In any event, a couple of years later, I was meeting sporadically with a local transplant from N.Y.C., not unlike myself, who was investigating establishing a business in our Catskills that would have, in part, a company supplying organically grown, ornamental and edible flowers for what appeared to be a burgeoning niche market. She was off to Mexico to do some research for her possible business venture. I haven't spoken to her since. Regrettably.
I was still traveling to N.Y.C. every Tuesday, and as part of my journey, I visited with a close friend, Tom, in tony Forest Hills Gardens. There on Austin Street was a relatively new and upscale market called "The Natural". It boasted the best and freshest and highest quality food anyone could yearn for. Among the many delivered daily items were certified organically grown edible flowers. They cost at that time $1.79 to $2.39 for a small styrofoam container, shrink wrapped and refrigerated to preserve freshness. Total weight of a few Johnny Jump-ups, violets, rose petals, and maybe marigold petals (each package was a different mix), about three grams.
Now, you and I know there are 28 grams to an ounce. We also know, flower petals don't weigh much. So, one does get a lot for the buck. Do a little math, however, and we are seeing flowers petals selling for, in the range of $16.00 to $21.50 an ounce, or, $256 to $344 a pound. Sounds like saffron, also a flower product (pollen from a specific crocus bloom).
I advocated locals get into this in the most scrupulously clean and sanitary environment. I hoped successful agricultural entrepreneurs could take off. They could supply chefs at upscale restaurants, at first. I wonder if any of these incredible edibles are available at the local farmers markets. I sure hope someone is making the effort. In our value-added economy, there has got to be some demand for this kind of product. No?
That's how I got to writing this column. There are a handful of flowers we've been eating for a very long time, unbeknownst to some not initiated in this kind of thing. Broccoli and cauliflower are actually the compact clustered heads of very many flowers yet to open. Capers, too, are the brined or pickled unopened flower buds used as a condiment or flavoring. The artichoke we favor for eating as a tender vegetable is the unopened flower bud of a thistle like plant.
It's been on my mind since that summer visit to The Natural. Flower parts, especially the petals, have been used to flavor and decorate meals since they were first tasted. Recorded uses go as far back as the mid-hundreds B.C. in Ancient Rome. To be sure, some are dangerously toxic. Some time back I wrote about an epic military victory that resulted from the ingestion of honey that bees made from rhododendron flowers. Reference: Xenophon, ca. 400 B.C..
Wines, syrups, teas, waters and, yes, honeys, have long been flavored using blossoms. Color and fragrance have been imbued to butters, vinegars, candies, breads, mayonnaises, sauces, cheeses ... Jude Waterston, are you out there? I think this list could keep going. Anyone visiting an authentic Greek restaurant has likely tasted the rice pudding flavored with rose water. In fact, only recently my sister, Judy, made some that very way. It was wonderful.
So, too, were the stuffed and fried squash blossoms my friend Joe. G.'s mom made every summer when I was but a youngster. Even in elementary school I was crazy for Italian food, and this was authentic. We used to swap lunches, he, longing for my German rooted liverwurst and bologna type sandwiches, with mustard or mayo, and me, for his meatball, cheese or other Mediterranean olive oil flavored fare.
I am suggesting a less explored way to add visual candy, and palate excitement to the food plate. By introducing flower petals to adorn your presentation and inject new and exciting flavors into your food preparation, you can enter into the world of the elite, fine restaurants and their patrons.
A FEW VERY IMPORTANT REMINDERS FOR SAFETY FROM POISONING:
- Know the flower petals you intend to consume. Know that they are edible.
- Never use flowers from florists, nurseries, vendors, garden centers or anyone else if you do not know the origin. This includes roadside flowers that may be covered with herbicides or lead auto exhaust deposits.
- Focus on petals only at the beginning. Remove stamens and pistils. We already know how many suffer from pollen allergies. Include flower petals for color and flavor in small, measured amounts , until you know your family's or guest's response.
- Diets and digestive problems are to be considered. Go slow and observe.
- If you grow it, pesticide free, it will be what anyone without any allergies will revel in! Now, put on your toque. Examine the petals and create that next melange, Chef!
The number of flowering plants you can use is very large. All of the Alliums (chives, garlic chives, leeks, garlic, shallots, and ramps) are special in that all parts are edible: flowers, stems, leaves, seed heads, and bulbous root. Also, Angelica flowers and leaves; Anise hyssop flowers and leaves; Apple blossom's petals; Arugala flowers and leaves; and in the Aquatic category, the Cattail, early as an immature flower spike, both male and female.
I've just looked at the A's list. Get a good, solid, research based list of edible flowers and stick to it. The flavors will range from onion, garlic, licorice, pepper, flower, lemon, mint, citrus, cucumber, nut, apple, clove, nutmeg, honey, melon, wintergreen, carrot, grass, vanilla, perfume.
That most romantic yellow of the buttercup is sooo beautiful and, yes, sooo poisonous. If you're interested in doing this, even as an avocation, there are extensive, research based lists for poisonous plants and flowers, too. And, always, follow the motto, when in doubt, leave it out.
Dandelion wine is fine! Elderberry flowers make the most incredible fritters. Don't wash them; you'll lose most of their wonderful fragrance and flavor. Just check them for small insects and you'll soon be transported to heaven. The fruit, of course, makes wonderful wine, and jam and jelly, too. All other parts of the plant, stems, leaves, and roots are poisonous.
So, wine and dine with flair, tempered with attention to details, and you'll feast like royalty. Your fare can have all the visual appeal of a work of art, and the culinary appeal of the finest chefs. Bon appetit!
From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on
June 30, 2004
© 2004 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.