NEW MARKET, Va. -- Flowers can be more than a feast for the eyes. Many are pleasing to the palate, too. Savvy cooks forage their flowerbeds, not only their vegetable gardens, when prepping for meals.
An increasing number of restaurants and bakeries use petals for presentation along with leaves and stems from certain flowers to introduce exotic flavors.
Caterers and bed and breakfast operators offer blooms as artistic table fare -- perhaps in homemade rose petal ice cream, locked within ice cubes floating on lavender lemonade or as garlands encircling wedding cakes.
"Edible flowers are coming back into vogue (in the U.S.) largely under the influence of other countries and other cultures," says Cyndi Lauderdale, a county extension agent in Wilson, N.C. "Flowers also were used as part of the daily diet by early American settlers who'd acquired the taste."
Fresh flowers can be used as a garnish, as the makings for salads or as components of casseroles or pastas. Some bulbs, like tulips, grow into colorful catchalls that can be stuffed with a cheese spread or pate. Flowers can be candied, stir-fried, made into teas and wines, minced and added to butters, pancakes, waffles and crepes, converted into jams and jellies or pickled. Some petals are suspended in cooking vinegars or salad dressings.
"Creative chefs are coming up with new uses and new recipes all the time," Lauderdale says.
Do some homework
But not all flowers are edible and she expressed some cautions for people new to their use in cooking.
"I don't recommend using any kind of flower you have not grown yourself or any that have been sprayed with chemicals," Lauderdale says.
That includes flowers from commercial greenhouses, lawn and garden centers, nurseries, public gardens and roadsides.
"They may be inviting, but those you see along roadsides may have been sprayed by (transportation work) crews or poisoned by fumes from passing cars."
Do some homework. Choose only flowers grown organically or known to be edible.
Discard the pistils and stamens from the petals of edible flowers unless the blooms are small. Pollen can affect the flavor. It also can cause an allergic reaction in certain people.
Play it safe. Don't eat flowers if you suffer from asthma, hay fever or allergies. And don't assume all flowers are safe to eat when served up at restaurants. Some may be for decoration only. Ask first.
Edible flowers are fragile and don't do well if kept overlong in refrigerators. Collect them near mealtime. Place the stems in cold water to keep them fresh and then blot them dry just before cooking.
Savor each flower
Plant your edible blooms near the kitchen door or in a convenient window box, alongside some herbs. Nearly all herbs are edible, by the way, and many produce attractive flowers.
Lawrence Gottlieb is among the many artistic chefs who routinely add fresh blooms to their cuisine.
"We actively use flowering watercress," says Gottlieb, executive sous chef at The Inn at Little Washington (Va.). "We sauté it until it wilts. We also use a lot of pea tendrils. We give them a quick braise (but) you can still see the flower. They hold up well when sitting on noodles."
Savor each flower. Discover, for example, that arugula tastes nutty or spicy, that carnations can mimic cloves, that fennel has something of a licorice flavor, that gladiolus evoke the taste of lettuce and that hibiscus taste mildly like citrus.
Come to know why calendula and safflowers are nicknamed "the poor cook's saffron." Both add a golden cast to foods along with a spicy, tangy taste.
"Flowers have always been around (kitchens)," Gottlieb says. "People use them the year 'round to boost up their plates."