Not just for looks

SALEM, Ohio – Picture it. A crystal bowl. Mounds of vibrant green, leafy lettuce. Red cherry tomatoes nestled inside. Maybe some orange baby carrots, too. And, across the top, a smattering of delicate, deep violet pansy petals.
Wouldn’t that make for some interesting table talk?
As more chefs are using flowers to liven up their menus, more people are taking the idea home to their own kitchens.
Add yellow Johnny-jump-ups to your ice cube trays and serve them in pink punch, spread cream cheese over hibiscus petals, sprinkle tiny white basil flowers anywhere you’d like some extra pepper. Or add others to soups, cookies, breads and cheesecakes. Use them as garnishes on a simple salad or on top of an eight-tiered wedding cake.
A little help. Don’t worry about not knowing the first thing about edible flowers. Plenty of cookbooks are filled with help, said Penn State horticulturist Kathy Kelley.
But almost as many resources are devoted to cautioning cooks.
Although the list of edible flowers is long, with plenty of varieties in taste and color, not all flowers in the garden should be added to the dinner menu.
First, find a good cookbook, Kelley says. (See related article.)
It should have information about cooking with flowers but, more importantly, it should include the genus and species of flowers that are safe to eat. Some flowers share common names and cooks need to distinguish between them by looking at the technical names.
On watch. Poisonous flowers are a primary concern, but so are pesticides.
You can’t just go buy a flat of marigolds from the local greenhouse and add them to a recipe. Nursery flowers are usually grown for aesthetics, not to eat, Kelley said. They could be sprayed with pesticides or fertilizers, neither of which should be ingested. In fact, there are no pesticides that are approved for use on edible flowers, she said.
This same reasoning goes for wildflowers along the road, Kelley said. You just never know what people have thrown out their car windows and what may have landed on the flowers.
Some grocery stores sell edible flowers in the fresh herb section, but if your area doesn’t sell them and you don’t have a local grower, Kelley recommends growing them at home.
Just don’t use any practices on your edible flowers that you wouldn’t use to grow your vegetables, she said.
Getting out the bugs. Where there are flowers, there may also be bugs.
Kelley uses a small makeup brush or paint brush to dislodge bugs from deep inside the center of a flower. If that doesn’t work, dip the flower in cold water and then put it face-down so it retains its shape and the petals don’t close.
Unless there’s a stubborn bug, Kelley doesn’t recommend washing the flowers because water may discolor the petals.
Recommendations. Kelley recommends starting with three edible flowers.
The first is nasturtium, which has a pepper taste. This flower blooms profusely and comes in many colors, plus it has a longer shelf life than others.
Kelley suggests removing the pistils and stamens and stuffing the flower with cream cheese, or picking the petals and adding them to a salad.
The pistils and stamens, the center of the flower, taste bitter and should always be removed unless the flower is tiny, such as lilac, thyme or basil.
The second flower is the Johnny-jump-up. Like nasturtium, it can be harvested and stored for days. It’s also easy to grow and produces many flowers. The wintergreen-tasting petal can be sprinkled over a salad or put frozen inside ice cubes for a more exciting drink.
Borage is the third edible flower Kelley recommends. It is best known as an herb, however it also produces a blue flower that tastes like cucumber and goes well in salads.
Other types of edible flowers include coriander, scented geranium, violets and plum blossoms … which would all go nicely in a crystal bowl sprinkled across leafy lettuce, cherry tomatoes and baby carrots.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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Herbal butter cookies
(This recipe is excerpted from Susan Belsinger’s new book Not Just Desserts – Sweet Herbal Recipes.)

Delightful with tea, or a glass of red wine, these cookies are simple to make and any herb can be used.
Probably my favorite is a close race between rosemary, cinnamon basil, and anise hyssop flowers.
The red flower petals of Monarda make a lovely cookie and the flowers and leaves of orange mint are quite tasty. Any of the mints or lemon herbs, as well as lavender or rose geranium flowers, are quite good too.
Both lavender and rose geranium are very perfumey, so use about 1 tablespoon of the chopped flowers. They keep well in a tin, or up to two months in the freezer.
Makes about three to four dozen cookies:

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached white flour, sifted
2-3 tablespoons minced fresh herb leaves and/or flowers
Pinch of salt

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and the extract. Gradually mix in the flour, and stir in the minced herb and a pinch of salt.
The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/4 -inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap and slice the dough into 1/4 -inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets and bake for about 10 minutes, until the cookies are a light golden brown.
Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.

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Kelley’s recommendations

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