Cookstown Greens creates trays of edible flowers for a number of Toronto chefs. This tray features

Cooking with flowers

Krista Harrington can’t understand why more people don’t eat flowers. “It’s this really cool culinary niche that’s really flying under the radar,” says Harrington, who grows and forages edible flowers on the family farm near Flamborough, Ont., now part of Hamilton.

LONDON, Ont. — Krista Harrington can’t understand why more people don’t eat flowers.

“It’s this really cool culinary niche that’s really flying under the radar,” says Harrington, who grows and forages edible flowers on the family farm near Flamborough, Ont., now part of Hamilton.

She uses many of the flowers to create jams for her preserving business, combining flavours such as strawberry-lilac, black currant-wild violet, raspberry-rosemary or blueberry-lavender under her From These Roots label.

“When I started my jam company about 15 years ago, people thought it was just craziness that you would put flowers in jam. Now, it’s not as bad as it was, but it’s still really hard to introduce something new and try to convince people to buy into it.”

Harrington also adds flowers to green salads and candies petals to eat as snacks or decorate desserts. Even stinging nettles are “really good chopped up in soup.”

“Edible flowers have a lot of flavour and texture. And I think that’s what’s really kept edible flowers from hitting the mainstream,” she says. “The textures are so different with all of them. And as long as people keep thinking of them as a flower, rather than a herb, it’s hard for them to get their minds around eating them.”

Caroline Ffrench, co-owner of Cookstown Greens just south of Barrie, Ont., agrees the consumer demand for edible flowers is small. She and her husband grow a wide variety of edible flowers for the restaurant trade, where they’re used mainly as garnishes. They also sell prepared salads containing flower petals — usually marigolds but sometimes other kinds as well — to a number of Toronto grocers. But other than the occasional specialty order for a wedding, consumer demand is almost non-existent, she says.

Ffrench speculates cost may be part of the reason. On a commercial basis, edible flowers are labour-intensive to grow, harvest and prepare for sale.

However, Harrington and Ffrench agree the biggest factor may be lack of knowledge about edible flowers in North America. Even when served on a restaurant plate, many people are a little “intimidated” by flowers, Harrington says. They’re not sure if they’re supposed to eat the flowers or if they’re just for decoration.

As with mushrooms, it’s a complicated subject. Some websites list up to 100 common flowers that are edible — including petunias, gladioli, chrysanthemums, dandelion buds, wax and tuberous begonias and scented geraniums. But there are also long lists of flowers that are poisonous and cannot be eaten. These include azaleas, daffodils, hyacinths, irises, buttercups and lily-of-the-valley.

Even among edible flowers, there are many in which the stamens and bases should be removed before eating and warnings that people with allergies probably should not eat any kind of composite flowers.

The most important thing to do before deciding to sample edible flowers is to get educated on what is safe to eat and what is not. The second is to understand that you should never eat flowers from florists or even from many nurseries, which may treat their bedding plants with various chemicals or pesticides. A few grocery stores now sell packaged edible flowers, but probably the best idea is to grow them yourself from trusted seeds in chemical-free soil.

When sampling flowers, start small, and with just one kind, so you can make an accurate assessment of the taste and whether it causes any reaction.

“I think a little goes a long way with edible flowers,” Harrington says. “They’re like herbs, so they have to be used in a similar way.”

She suggests starting with the flowers of edible herbs such as chives, garlic, basil or rosemary. They are safe to eat and will have a familiar flavour.

Lynda Dowling of Happy Valley Lavender and Herb Farm, just outside Victoria on Vancouver Island, likes to experiment with flowers. She suggests sprinkling a few fresh petals on a salad or ice cream, or crushing dried petals and adding a teaspoonful or two to a cookie, brownie or cake recipe.

Dowling said her lavender will be in bloom by the end of the month and harvest will extend through July. She ships dried lavender all over Canada and to other parts of the world.

Like herbs, the taste of flowers varies widely, so it’s important to know how they taste before pairing them with other foods. Lilacs, for example, are described as having a lemony, vaguely vanilla taste; borage (star flowers) as light cucumber; carnations as spicy, like cloves; day lilies as sweet and crunchy, reminiscent of chestnuts or beans; gardenias as sweet; violets like sweet nectar and nasturtiums as peppery. Others are described as acidic or bitter.

Harrington also says it’s not necessary to eat flowers to use them to effect. With the stamens pinched out, tulips or hibiscus are both edible but also make impressive individual serving dishes when filled with something light like mousse or set in Champagne glasses with the wine or Champagne poured over them.

Add lavender to brownies and stuff squash blossoms for impressive appetizer

Here are some recipes to try that feature flowers as ingredients.

Lavender-Cheesecake Brownies

One way to cook with flowers is to add them to your favourite baking recipes. Lavender is more than a decoration on these delicious brownies.

90 ml (6 tbsp) unsalted butter

125 g (4 oz) bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped

30 ml (2 tbsp) dried lavender flowers

150 ml (2/3 cup) sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature

125 ml (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour

15 ml (1 tbsp) cocoa powder

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

125 ml (1/2 cup) chocolate chips

Top layer

250 g (8 oz) cream cheese

1 large egg yolk

15 ml (1 tbsp) flour

75 ml (5 tbsp) sugar

Few drops of vanilla extract

15 ml (1 tbsp) dried lavender

Heat oven to 180 C (350 F).

Line a 20-cm (8-inch) square pan with 2 strips of foil or parchment, crossing them at right angles to create overhanging tabs on all four sides. Butter and flour the paper.

In a medium pot over low heat, melt butter, then add roughly chopped chocolate and lavender, barely melting together.

Remove from heat; stir in sugar, then eggs, then flour, then cocoa powder. Mix smoothly for one full minute. Then stir in vanilla and chocolate chips.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread evenly.

Top layer: In a medium bowl or food processor, beat together cream cheese, egg yolk, flour, sugar and vanilla. Add most of the dried lavender, saving a few pinches. Gently pour cream cheese mixture smoothly over uncooked chocolate batter. Sprinkle with remaining lavender flowers. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes maximum. The middle will just be set and the top should still look glossy. Let cool completely or chill in fridge before lifting out of pan using the tabs. Cut into squares. These can be served immediately or wrapped individually and frozen for 1 month.

Makes 16 squares.

Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Squash blossoms have a sweet nectar flavour and the larger ones make great receptacles for this cheese and mushroom stuffing. Impress guests by serving them as an appetizer or side dish.

Batter

250 ml (1 cup) flour

125 ml (1/2 cup) cornstarch

2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

250 ml (1 cup) fat-free chilled milk, beer or water (approx)

Stuffing

50 ml (1/4 cup) ricotta cheese

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

1 ml (1/4 tsp) each salt and pepper

30 ml (2 tbsp) finely chopped mushrooms (optional)

15 ml (1 tbsp) finely chopped fresh basil or parsley

16 large squash blossoms, washed (stamens removed if male blossoms)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Oil of choice, for frying

Batter: Sift together dry ingredients, then whisk in cold milk until smooth. Cover and set in refrigerator for 30 minutes. More liquid can be added if the mixture is too thick. Meanwhile, prepare stuffing. In a bowl, combine ricotta cheese, garlic, salt, pepper, mushrooms (if using) and herbs. Open blossoms and spoon about 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the mixture into the centre of each. Avoid overfilling blossoms. Twist top of each blossom together to close. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Pour oil into a skillet to a depth of 1 cm (1/2 inch). Heat over high until a small cube of bread dropped into oil turns golden brown within seconds.

Briefly dip each stuffed blossom into batter, then carefully place in hot oil. Cook until golden on all sides, about 3 minutes total. Transfer with a slotted utensil to paper towels to drain briefly and serve immediately.

Makes 16 pieces.

Crystallized Flowers

Imagine eating sugared flowers as a snack. They also make beautiful decorations on baked goods.

Use any small edible flowers — violets, Johnny-jump-ups, lilac florets, borage (star flowers) or rose and pansy petals, for example.

Small edible flowers

1 egg white

Superfine (caster) sugar

Combine egg white with a few drops of water and beat until it shows a few bubbles.

In a shallow dish, place some superfine sugar. Using a small paint brush, gently paint flower all over with egg white. Then, holding flower or petal over sugar dish, gently sprinkle sugar evenly on both sides.

Place flowers on wax paper to dry completely. This could take 24 hours or more depending on the humidity. They can then be stored in airtight containers until ready to use. (The colour of the petals may fade the longer they are stored.)

Source: Caroline Ffrench, Cookstown Greens, Cookstown, Ont. (www.cookstowngreens.com).

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