As the visual component of what we eat becomes more important, it doesn't hurt to jazz up our meals with something beautiful. Edible flowers are an easy way to add a pop of color — and a slight herbal, floral flavor — to everything from salads to cocktails to cupcakes.
Marvin Wilhite of Cahaba Clubs Herbal Outpost in Odessa said edible flowers tend to crop up more on restaurant menus these days, and it's because of the emphasis on plate presentation.
"It's definitely catching on," he said. "(Flowers are) becoming a culinary art form, a beautiful way to set the plate. As the food scene becomes more competitive, people are looking for ways to set themselves apart. And more and more, we eat with our eyes."
Wilhite grows edible flowers on his farm, which is a good place to look for flowers that are safe to eat if you want to work them into your cooking at home. Some grocery stores sell prepackaged food-safe blooms or petals; so do local markets. (Certain flowers, like oleander, are poisonous, so it's important to know what you're eating. See box below.)
Cahaba Clubs Herbal Outpost also grows microgreens, another plant currently popular on restaurant menus, including some with specific flavor profiles, like wasabi greens. Mostly, Wilhite's edible flowers come in the form of chef blends that mix petals with things like chervil, fennel, red cabbage, celery, arugula and pea tendrils.
"These kind of mixes sell better when they have flowers in them, because they are so attractive," he said.
So which varieties can you actually eat?
Wilhite is quick to point out that you can eat most flowers, but that doesn't mean you should. Some of them don't taste like much, while others are actively unpleasant. The ones worth seeking out offer a mild, pleasant, earthy flavor. You're probably already very familiar with many of those, which may even be growing in your front yard: marigolds, pansies, dandelions. The blossoms of common kitchen staples like garlic and chives are edible, as are the blooms of herbs like oregano, thyme, cilantro and basil.
Nasturtiums are one of the most popular edible flower varieties, along with pansies, which have a peppery radish flavor, and marigolds, which offer a bright pop and a taste similar to arugula. In the wildflower variety, dandelions lend themselves well to being turned into tea and being candied for use with desserts. The allium family (those chives and garlic, plus leeks) contains a number of flavorful blooms that taste faintly like the food you're used to chopping up.
"Marigolds and especially nasturtiums have a good flavor profile," Wilhite said. "It starts sweet and ends with pepper."
Here are five ways to work flowers into savory foods, spirits and sweets.
Cook with them
Most of us use fresh chives; their long, bright green stems snipped into anything savory add both color and flavor more mild than their allium relatives, onions and garlic. When you buy them in plastic sleeves at the store, you might sometimes notice little buds at the ends of them. They're the nascent flowers that will never open. But if you grow yours in a pot, they do! And they are lovely lavender blossoms that make a fine little nosegay.
Take them one step further and eat them. Spring and early summer are the seasons chives begin to bloom, along with some of our favorite vegetables. The most obvious use is as a garnish, either whole or separated into petals and strewn across a salad. Like the green stems, chive flowers have an onion taste though it's even milder. Because of that, they don't do much for heavy sauces but are great infused in lighter ones. Asparagus blanketed with a little melted butter, infused with fresh lemon juice and topped with chive petals makes an elegant presentation. Stir them into cream cheese or goat cheese for a dip and into sour cream or yogurt for a dollop on top of anything you dollop. A mix of blanched spring vegetables, pureed with stock, is well-served visually by one of those chive-petal dollops on top. — Lennie Bennett, Times staff writer
Chive Blossom Vinegar
- 1 ½ cups Champagne or white wine vinegar
- 2 ½ cups chive blossoms, snipped right beneath the head
- Heat the vinegar in a small saucepan over low heat until just warm. Make sure it doesn't boil; you want the warmth of the vinegar to seduce the subtle flavor out of the blossoms.
- Meanwhile, plunge the flowers in a bowl of cold water and gently swish them around to flush out any dirt and bugs that have taken up residence. Dump the flowers into a colander and thwack it against the side of the sink to shake off the excess water.
- Stuff a 1-pint canning jar with the blooms. It's okay if the blossoms get crushed a bit.
- Pour enough of the warm vinegar into the jar just to submerge the blossoms, using a metal spoon to push down any errant blooms that want to float up over the top. You might not need all of the vinegar.
- Let the vinegar cool, then place a square of parchment paper over the opening of the jar and screw on the top. You want to make sure the vinegar doesn't come in contact with the metal lid. Place the container in a dark, cool spot that's so hidden you'll forget about it. This infusion benefits from a long steep — 1 to 2 weeks minimum.
- When you're happy with the chive-y strength of the brew, strain it through a fine mesh sieve and toss the spent blossoms. Pour the vinegar into your favorite sterilized bottle with a rubber stopper and display prominently.
- Makes 1 ½ cups.
Nasturtium Blossom Salad
- For the salad:
- 3 cups ruby lettuce
- 1 cup arugula, loosely packed
- 1 ounce or 8 nasturtium blossoms
- For the vinaigrette:
- 1 garlic clove, pressed
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 2 grindings of black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- 4 tablespoons white wine vinegar (or a fruit vinegar if available)
- 1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
- 10 tablespoons olive oil
- In salad bowl, put ruby lettuce on bottom, then arugula and finally nasturtium blossoms, carefully arranged to set off the color of the flowers.
- With whisk, whip together all ingredients for vinaigrette. There should be about 6 ounces.
- Dress salad with vinaigrette.
- Serves 4.
Tomato and Marigold Salad
- 3 or 4 large lettuce leaves, washed and dried
- 1 inch of a cucumber, cut into thin slices
- 1 large hard-boiled egg, peeled and quartered
- 1 large tomato, washed and cut into wedges
- 4 fresh chives, snipped
- 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons creamy salad dressing of your choice
- 5 or 6 fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
- Petals of 1 marigold flower
- 1 chive flower
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Arrange the lettuce leaves in a bowl, shredding them if they are very large.
- Place the sliced cucumber in and among the lettuce leaves and then add the quartered hard-boiled eggs and tomato wedges.
- Scatter the chives over the salad, reserving a little for a garnish.
- Spoon the salad dressing over the salad in small dollops and then scatter the mint leaves over the top.
- Finally, scatter the marigold petals over the salad along with the small purple petals from the chive flower and finish with some more snipped chives to serve. Allow diners to add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serves 1.
Make a cocktail
They are said to be "back in style," though it isn't clear when, or even if, they went out of style as a garnish in cocktails and other drinks. Growing up in the 1960s, when it was common for magazines to feature ways to dress up drinks and dishes with edible flowers, I've always thought they added a bit of flavor and texture.
And mostly, they are pretty.
Take champagne. A hibiscus flower at the bottom of the flute brings a pop of color, not to mention a tart, sweet spring treat. The flower is also popular in margaritas and sangria.
Turn cocktails into art with the beauty of roses, orchids and other flowers. According to Maddocks Farm Organics in the United Kingdom, "More than 3,000 of our edible flowers were used to garnish the cocktails at the premiere of the James Bond movie Spectre. We like to think that if they are good enough for James Bond's martini then they are pretty spot on."
Thus, a delicate flower topping a martini also screams class.
If you prefer an afternoon cup of tea, spruce it up with the sweet, floral fragrance of a jasmine or lavender flower.
And who doesn't love sweet little violets, or delicate daisies? I've recently seen several sources recommending that violets and daisies, or rose petals, can be frozen inside ice balls and cubes to jazz up any number of drinks. Sounds just perfect in a Hendrick's and tonic.— Jeanne Grinstead, Times staff writer
- 1 ½ ounces vodka
- 1 ounce white creme de cacao
- ¼ ounce rose water
- 1 drop rose food color
- Rose petals
- Place the liquids in a cocktail shaker with ice, and shake to chill. Pour into a martini glass and float one or more rose petals.
- Makes 1 drink.
- Lime wheels, for salt rims and for garnish
- Kosher salt
- 3 ounces hibiscus-infused tequila, such as Gran Centenario Rosangel
- 2 ounces lime juice
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- 1 ounce orange juice
- 1 ounce orange liqueur, such as triple sec or Cointreau
- ½ ounce agave nectar
- 2 hibiscus flowers, for garnish
- Rub a lime wheel around the rims of two martini glasses to moisten. Spread a layer of salt in a saucer. Press the rims of the glasses into the salt to form salt rims.
- In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the tequila, lime juice, lemon juice, orange juice, orange liqueur, agave and ½ ounce water. Shake for 10 seconds, then strain into the martini glasses. Garnish each with a hibiscus flower and a lime wheel. Serve.
- Makes 2 drinks.
Dress up baked goods
As my fiance and I search for wedding cakes for our upcoming wedding, we've been bombarded with questions: Which flavors? Fillings? What design? How many tiers? Do you want this kind of icing pattern or this one? And: Fresh flowers or fondant? We eventually managed to come up with preferences for all of the above, but the one thing that appealed to us from the start was decorating the cake with some bright, fresh flowers.
Edible flowers are used often to decorate baked goods. Liz Brawley, the head cake decorator at Locale Market, says she has used a variety of mini pansies, lavender and rose petals to adorn special-occasion cakes.
"I just simply brush the petals with egg whites and coated them in sugar if they're going to be used as a garnish," she said. "I've also seen them just raw on pastries and such. They work either way. If they are used raw the natural flavor comes through a bit more."
Other common dessert options are bean blossoms, nasturtiums and violets.
She has also baked them directly into cookies before, a popular and beautiful way to work edible flowers into a sweet treat. On Mother's Day, celebrity chef Curtis Stone shared a recipe his mom Lozza is known for: pansy cookies, as he calls them. — Michelle Stark, Times food editor
Mum's Candied Flower Sugar Cookies
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar, plus more for dusting
- 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
- 36 small edible pansies or other edible flowers
- 1 large egg white
- The cookie dough can be made up to 2 days ahead, wrapped tightly and refrigerated, or frozen up to 1 week. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.
- Using an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar in the bowl on medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until light and creamy. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour and salt, and mix for about 1 minute, or just until the dough comes together. Divide the dough in half, form each half into a disc and wrap the discs separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for about 1 hour, or until the dough is firm.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
- Let the dough stand at room temperature for about 5 minutes, or until pliable. Working with one disc at a time, roll out the dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper to a ¼ inch thickness. If the flowers are small, use a 1 ¾-inch round cookie cutter. If the flowers are a little larger, use a 2 ¼-inch round cookie cutter. Keep in mind that the cookies will expand about ¼ inch throughout baking. Cut the rounds as closely together as possible. Repeat to roll and punch the other half of dough. Gather the dough scraps and reroll to form more cutouts. Arrange the cookies 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Refrigerate the cookies for about 10 minutes or until chilled.
- Bake, switching positions of the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking, for 12 to 14 minutes, or until a pale golden color. Lower the oven to 325 degrees. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.
- Meanwhile, gently wash the flowers in cool water and drain well. Place the flowers stem side up on clean paper towels for about 15 minutes. Using scissors, cut the stems off. Be careful not to cut too far down so the flower won't break apart. Turn the flowers over to finish drying.
- In a small bowl, whisk the egg white and 1 tablespoon of water until well blended. Lightly brush the tops of each cookie with the egg mixture. Place 1 flower on each cookie and lightly brush the flowers all over with the egg wash. Sprinkle the cookies with sugar and return to the baking sheets. Bake the cookies for an additional 5 minutes, or until the flowers have dried onto the cookies. Transfer the cookies to the cooling rack.
- Makes 36.
Edible Flower Simple Syrup
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cups violets or roses
- Combine equal parts sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pot. Wash the flowers. Drain the water off and pat dry.
- Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in whatever flowers you have on hand, keep stirring for another few seconds and remove from the heat. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. Pour the syrup through a fine mesh sieve to strain out the bits of flower. (These sugary flower leftovers are delicious in iced tea or lemonade.)
Edible Flower Simple Syrup
- ¼ cup fresh strawberries, pureed
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
- 2 tablespoons Edible Flower Simple Syrup (recipe above)
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup unsalted butter, cold
- ¾ cup confectioners' sugar
- Edible flowers to garnish cake or cupcake
- Stir together the strawberries, salt, vanilla and simple syrup in a small bowl.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 5 minutes. On medium speed, add the strawberry mixture and beat another 15 seconds or until just combined. The frosting should be a very pale uniform color but still light and fluffy.
- Frost your cake or cupcakes. Top with more edible flowers.
Turn them into tea
Certain flowers are ideal for creating a mug of steamy herbal tea. The best varieties to use are roses, chamomile, violets and lavender flowers — any of these will add a light, refreshing scent to hot water. Start with a handful of any of these options, and make sure they are washed thoroughly, then follow these instructions: Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Pat your blossoms dry, then remove the petals from each flower and discard everything except the petals. Place petals directly into the pot with the boiling water, or pour the water into your favorite teapot and place the petals inside. Allow to steep for 5 to 10 minutes, then strain. — Michelle Stark, Times food editor
Use fruit, vegetable blossoms
Pumpkin, banana, mango, squash. You're familiar with the fruits and vegetables these plants produce. But did you know the blossoms are also edible?
Asian cuisines in particular make use of various flower parts from lotus stems to saffron strands (a flower stamen), but blooms themselves are also popular, from large dangling banana flower pods to sprays of mango blossoms used in sweet chutneys and tangy pickles.
Squash blossoms, the dainty orange flowers that taste faintly like the vegetable itself, are perhaps the most recognizable to the American consumer, popping up at outdoor markets in the spring. Stuffing them with cheese and frying them is the most common preparation, though we have also featured recipes in the past for working them into quesadillas or a frittata. (Find all of those recipes at tbtim.es/squash.) Similar pumpkin blossoms are fried in several Asian countries, including chickpea flour-battered bhajia in India, shrimp-stuffed bong bi don thit in Vietnam and egg-dredged blooms in China.
Also popular across Asia: banana blossoms, which turn up in curries, fried cutlet patties and stir-fries. These are a more labor-intensive ingredient (you'd probably want to read or watch on YouTube some detailed instructions), requiring peeling away layers of the tough outer red or purple shell to get to delicate yellow florets and a softer white or yellow center. Both are often soaked or boiled a bit to remove bitterness before being processed into a main dish. — Caitlin E. O'Conner, Times staff writer
Mango Flower Chutney
- 3 tablespoons chopped mango flowers
- 2 teaspoons oil
- 2 dry red chiles
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 fresh green chiles
- 2 tablespoons grated coconut
- 1 piece of tamarind, about the size of a blueberry
- 1 teaspoon jaggery
- ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 curry leaf
- Pinch of asafoetida (optional)
- Wash and dry the mango flowers.
- Heat oil in a wok or pot, then fry the red chiles for 1 to 2 minutes and remove. Set aside.
- Saute the mango flower for 2 to 3 minutes in the same oil.
- Add the onion and saute for another 3 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.
- Add mixture and the rest of the ingredients to a blender or food processor and process until smooth, adding water as needed to make a sauce.
- Serve with idli, dosa or daal.
Pumpkin Bud Bhajia
- ½ cup chickpea flour (besan)
- 1 teaspoon rice flour
- ¼ teaspoon caraway powder
- Chili powder, to taste
- Pinch of asafoetida, an Indian spice (optional)
- Salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon oil, hot
- Oil for frying
- 5 to 8 pumpkin flowers
- In a mixing bowl, mix chickpea flour, rice flour, caraway, chili powder, asafoetida and salt. Add the teaspoon of hot oil. Add water slowly, while stirring, until a batter forms.
- In a pan or pot, heat frying oil. Dip a pumpkin flower in the batter, place it in the oil and fry about 10 minutes, turning over halfway through. Repeat with remaining flowers.
- Serves 1 to 2.
Mochar Torkari (Bengali Banana Flower Curry)
- 1 banana flower
- 6 tablespoons mustard oil or canola oil
- 2 onions, chopped
- 10 grams chickpeas or yellow lentils, soaked in water for 4 hours
- 2 tablespoons ginger and garlic combined, mushed to a paste
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon garam masala powder
- Open the banana flower and remove the small florets. Remove and discard from each floret the tough center strand and thin transparent husk, then chop the florets into small pieces. In a small pot, add enough water to cover the florets and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain the water and set it aside.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or pot and saute the boiled florets on medium-high heat until they turn light brown. Take them out and set aside.
- Add the rest of the oil and onions and fry the onions until brown. Add the chickpeas and saute for a minute more. Add ginger-garlic paste, turmeric and chili powder. Cook until the oil separates.
- Add the fried florets, salt, garam masala and ½ cup of water. Let mixture simmer on low heat until the florets and chickpeas are tender. Serve hot with rice.
- Serves 4.