There has been a great deal of interest lately in the use of flowers in cooking and many of the more up-market restaurants are adding them to dishes to give a fresh colourful and contemporary style and taste. Flowers have traditionally been used in many types of cooking for centuries: European, Asian, East Indian, and Middle Eastern. If you step out into your garden you will be astounded at the range of edible flowers within your reach. The sheer number of edible plants makes the argument for a chemical free garden even stronger, and nearly all of them attract beneficial insects and butterflies into the environment.
Flowers can be used in salads, puddings and drinks as well as to decorate cakes and other confectionary. Larger flowers such as Courgette flowers are popular in Italian cooking where they are stuffed with a filling and shallow fried, or dipped in a batter and deep fried. The petals of Calendula can be soaked in warm milk where they will release a warm orange colour, and this can be used in cakes, breads and also puddings. Flowers can also be useful in flavouring and colouring oils, dressing and marinades.
Derek Lewis of First Leaf, www.firstleaf.co.uk, says that early in the season you can grow chives, red broad bean flowers and bi-coloured purple pea as well as rocket and violas for their flowers. These all work really well in the vegetable garden and you can use the flowers as they bloom, or leave some for later veg! Many edible flowers are used as companion plants. Dill, marigolds, coriander and chives are all very useful plants for deterring aphids while nasturtiums will attract caterpillars and keep them off cabbages and other brassicas.
When the summer is at its peak and your herbs start to flower, pick off the flowers and use them in salads, Coriander has delicious flowers which look like cow parsley, while rocket has pretty flowers which work well in savoury dishes and these are worth eating once the plant has reached its inedible phase and the leaves are fiery hot.
Grow lavender and rosemary in the garden and these will also attract beneficial insects as well as giving you delicious flowers to use in the kitchen. Lavender is delicious when used in ice-creams, cakes and puddings. Rosemary can be scattered on salads and used to garnish dishes. Violas are incredibly pretty with their little faces, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, and delicious when scattered over mixed salad leaves.
All hybrids of roses can also be used in a startling array of recipes. The petals can be made into jams and syrups or used in cakes cookies and eaten raw with either sweet or savoury dishes. The petals look particularly beautiful when crustallisedwith egg white and sugar and used as a garnish on cupcakes. The Ancient Romans used roses in cooking and in the Middle East roses have long been used in food and drink. Remember, however, that any petals used must not have been treated with pesticides.
If you pick the flowers in the morning after the dew has evaporated, their water content will be at the highest point. Avoid any flowers past their best or ones that are not fully open. Dunk them in salt water to remove any lurking insects and then immerse in iced water for about one minute. Gently dry petals off on some kitchen roll and use immediately, if possible, or otherwise store in a glass full of water in the fridge, or with damp kitchen roll in a plastic bag, which will create a humid environment.
Do not remove the petals of the flower until you are ready to eat them, as they wilt very quickly. The petals are the tastiest and most edible part of the flower, but for those allergic to pollen, the pistil and stamen should be removed as well as the white, tough part at the base, as this also tends to be inedible and bitter. Where you are using larger flowers for stuffing, then leave whole. Edible flowers can also be dried or frozen but this changes the texture so it is best to use them in teas, infusions and cooked recipes.
Flowers add an interesting and colourful dimension to salads and you can match or contrast your flowers to the salad leaves. Make a red-leaved salad using radicchio and oak leaf lettuce or there are old French varieties of salad which can be easily grown from seed. By adding a bright green flower such as fennel or dill you have a stunning dish for the table, or you can add red nasturtiums over an acid green leaf salad such as endive. Nasturtiums have an unusual peppery flavour and the flowers as well as the leaves can be used to garnish drinks, or added to fish cakes as a herb or even mashed potato.
Dill flowers, with their aniseed flavour, go very well with fish and cheese and meat and courgette flowers are fantastic as a tempura. Borage goes particularly well with summer Pimms cocktails, with ice and fruit.
Using flowers in your cooking adds a new and exciting dimension, so do not leave it all to the Michelin starred cooks!
Types of Edible Flowers
Alliums inc chives
Bean (Runner – White Lady)
Honeysuckle (although the berries are poisonous)
Lavender (flower only)
Avoid eating flowers picked from the roadside as they have been subjected to high levels of carbon-monoxide.
Don’t use flowers from a florist as often these will have been sprayed with fertilizers and other chemicals.
Don’t use non-edible flowers in cooking as a garnish incase they are accidentally eaten.
Do check on the type of flower you are using for possible poisonous reactions, particularly lilies and foxgloves. If in any doubt then avoid.
Use the flowers sparingly as they could give you an upset stomach if consumed in large quantities.